The way that people qualify as solicitors is changing. Below we’ll give some information on the new route to qualify as a solicitor of England & Wales and the potential economic impact on law firms.
What is Happening?
The old LPC route has been replaced by the SQE (Solicitors Qualification Exam). The LPC was a linear route – you had to pass each stage before you could progress. The LPC pass rate was set by each training organisation. There was a separate route for foreign qualified lawyers (QLTS). If one could not find a training contract all previous investment in money, time and talent was wasted as one could not qualify.
The SQE is a unified exam that ALL sit (QLTS disappears, GDL is no longer required by the SRA). That means that all solicitors are examined to the same standard. As before everyone must have a degree or degree equivalent and everyone will need to declare that they are a fit person before being admitted. Instead of the LPC, Aspiring Solicitors will sit and pass 2 exams: The SQE1 and the SQE2. Instead of the Training Contract they need to acquire 2 years full time equivalent Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). These elements are quite different – more is explained below.
SQE1 is made up of 2 parts: FLK1 & 2 (FLK is ‘Functional Legal Knowledge’). Each exam consists of 180 multiple choice questions, 10 hours of exam time in total. The idea is to test candidates’ ability to identify legal principles and apply them to client problems and transactions. It will test core legal knowledge. The cost of the exam is £1,558. SQE1 will take place at Pearson VUE test centres in the UK and internationally. The pass mark for SQE1 will be determined by a board of experts, drawing on the level competency expected of a solicitor on their first day at work. Feedback from the candidates who sat the first exam in November 2021 is that they found it tough and very detailed. The pass rate was 53% (lower than the LPC which was 56%).
SQE2 – you cannot sit this until you have passed the SQE1 exams. There are 16 written and oral tests totalling 14 hours of exam time. They will be simulating tasks as carried out by a solicitor in practice. The exam is designed to assesses practical legal skills for working with the law in practice. The SQE2 can be taken before the completion of the Qualifying Work Experience (QWE), but the SRA expects most candidates will take it after completed their 2 years QWE. It will assess both skills & law (50:50 weighting). Again, ethical issues will be embedded and it will be up to candidates to spot and deal with them. The cost of the exam is £2,422. The written parts of the SQE2 can be taken at Pearson View venues around the world (check with the SRA). Oral parts are to be examined in London, Cardiff & Manchester.
Put aside your understanding of a Training Contract. This is no longer relevant. QWE is different. Under the SQE route an Aspiring Solicitor must have 2 years full time equivalent (FTE) QWE. This needs to be confirmed by a solicitor regulated by the SRA or a COLP authorised by the SRA (similar to confirming the work in a training contract). It is designed to enable to Aspiring Solicitor to acquire the competencies and skills required to practice successfully as a solicitor. These are the business and operational skills (the legal knowledge and its application is tested in the SQE exams). The QWE helps the candidate prepare for the SQE2. QWE does not need to be registered before you start with the SRA. It can be acquired in voluntary work. It does not need to be done in a law firm or indeed in English & Welsh law. It needs to be the ‘provision of legal services’, but the SRA are deliberately not restrictively defining that. Nor do they define ‘Full Time’. These elements are left to the confirming solicitor to police. One is able to reach back in time for work already done to be included as QWE. One may acquire the 2 years FTE from up to 4 placements. The SRA has also allowed Aspiring Solicitors to go outside their organisation for a solicitor to confirm their QWE to the SRA, for example if there is no solicitor in the organisation (in-house legal, businesses outside the UK, will-writing company, Citizens Advice). In those circumstances the confirming solicitor will have to view the work and obtain feedback from the supervisor.
Anyone starting a degree from September 2021 onwards will have to take the SQE route. Those already on the path have a choice. However, if they do not have a training contract lined up, the SQE route allows them to progress.
Impact on Law Firms
This is a ‘once-in-a-generation’ change. It will have an impact. QWE in particular changes the economic balance between Aspiring Solicitors and Law Firms. If you hire paralegals, their work will count as QWE. So, they will progress towards qualification whatever. Can you refuse to confirm their QWE? Not without good reason. The SRA have even published guidance for dealing with this scenario, which ultimately concludes with a complaint to SRA Ethics about the firm or solicitor refusing. However, you will have the ability to entice the Aspiring Solicitors to stay with you for at least 2.5 years. The SQE has specifically been designed to work with the Apprenticeship Scheme. Under this, the government will pay 95% (or 100% if you pay the apprenticeship levy or can get a credit from someone who does) of the exam and training costs (the hiring firm would have to pay the rest). This works for graduate apprentices - so your traditional post-graduate intake. They would have to be released for study 1 day a week, so it would take them 2.5 years to acquire their 2 years FTE QWE. The scheme is administered by the training provider.
The SQE route can speed up the qualification process from the Aspiring solicitor’s perspective (from degree to qualification), but from the law firm’s perspective, it could take a little longer from hiring (if directly after graduation) as opposed to hiring after they had completed their LPC. Will it make much difference to the quality of the candidates? Time will tell. Certainly, the author, Ingemar Hunnings, has found that the quality has been high in candidates he has helped so far with External QWE Qualification. They have been working in a mixture of non-law firms, typically been doing work at a high level (several year’s PQE standard) and are delighted to be able now to qualify without the need to give up their position to have to spend 2 years doing a training contract. The calibre of their work and approach would be a huge asset to any law firm and they would bring experience and broader expertise than would normally be the case following the old route of degree, LPC then training contact.
So, the world of solicitor qualification is changing. This will affect law firm recruitment. There are opportunities, but it will be different.
This article is written by Ingemar Hunnings. He has been at the forefront of developing (in close consultation with the SRA) and providing a service for Aspiring Solicitors to confirm their Qualifying Work Experience as an External Solicitor. He has done this now successfully for close to a dozen Aspiring Solicitors. He has also given or guested on numerous webinars providing information about the SQE & QWE. Please feel free to contact him should you want more information or to talk through any of the issues above: [email protected]. (Or fill in the form below)
This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of PLC Magazine. Below is a link to the article on the PLC Magazine homepage