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Don’t have a law degree? Do you need to complete a GDL before the SQE?

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With the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) from September 2021, a frequently asked question is – will I need to complete a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before undertaking the SQE? Those law schools already offering a GDL will argue that their GDL will help a non-law graduate to prepare for legal practice. Others will point out that the SQE includes all the content of a GDL (and much more) and so the GDL will be repetitious of SQE preparation. Professor Claire McGourlay, Professor of Legal Education at the University of Manchester explains how the SQE will change the route to legal qualification and how non-law graduates can further their career progression from September 2021.  

What is the GDL?

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Until September 2021, the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) is a one-year, full-time mandatory conversion course for non-law graduates seeking qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales. It covers the seven-core compulsory LLB law modules – Criminal Law, Law of Torts, The Law of Contract, Land Law (or Property Law as it’s informally known), Equity and Trusts, Constitutional and Administrative Law, and EU Law. Under the old qualification route, students needed to complete this course before progressing onto the obligatory Legal Practice Course (LPC) which focuses on practical skills building to support prospective solicitors as they prepare to practice in a law firm.

How is the SQE changing the qualification route?

The GDL and LPC have been around for quite some time, and you may already be well-versed in this route to qualification. However, in 2017, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) announced that it was reshaping how legal professionals qualify with the introduction of the SQE, or super-exam and it’s become known. The SQE is made up of two parts (and two exams) – SQE1 and SQE2 – with a combination of multiple-choice questions to test functioning legal knowledge and practical skills assessments. It will be officially introduced from September 2021 and will replace the GDL/LPC route to qualification. 

I am graduating in Summer 2021 – does this affect me?

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There is a transition period meaning that those who have already commenced their legal studies on or before September 2021 can continue on the old route to qualification.  From September 2021 onwards, all new non-law graduates must take the SQE to qualify as a solicitor – unless you have already commenced a GDL or you have a confirmed training contract.

Will I need to complete the GDL before starting the SQE?

Unlike the LPC, non-law graduates preparing to take the SQE will not need to take the GDL before switching to a legal route. Instead, the Functioning Legal Knowledge (FLK) portion of SQE1 Prep offered by BARBRI will fill this ‘knowledge gap’. Your SQE Preparation course will cover all the core modules in the GDL, and BARBRI is offering extended programmes (up to 40 weeks of study) specifically aimed at those graduating in a discipline other than law.

Prior to qualification, the SRA requires an individual to have the requisite functional legal knowledge and this is what is tested by the SQE. There have been some questions around whether law students will be at an advantage as they’ll have already covered the core modules in their LLB, meaning that they will have baseline knowledge of course content. While this is true, the 40-week Prep course, in particular, will offer more repetition and practice opportunities for non-law graduates to ensure that they feel confident and prepared ahead of the inaugural SQE1 exam.

Although some may find comfort in the familiar, the GDL adds another costly layer to the qualification journey and recent research from Hook Tangaza found that 85% of non-law graduates are funding the conversion courses themselves. The average cost of solicitor qualification is around £24,000 and annually, £21 million of qualification costs are spent by students who never qualify. Instead, Hook Tangaza’s study highlighted that SQE self-funded students will stand to save between 25% – 50% in training costs, helping to ensure the profession remains accessible to those that perhaps it previously would not have been. Although the LPC will still be available until 2032 as the SQE is phased in, we anticipate that many students will “vote with their feet” and opt for a more affordable route to qualification.

What criteria will I need to meet for the SQE?

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There are four main criteria required for passing the SQE. This includes: a university degree or equivalent in any subject (law or any other degree subject), passing the SRA’s character and suitability assessment, passing SQE1 and SQE2, and completing two years’ Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) – whether that’s in one consistent placement or multiple roles. Once all four criteria have been completed, individuals can then be added to the Roll of Solicitors.

How can I enhance my experience before and during the SQE?

One way to enhance the overall learning process is through practical experience. We see a lot of representation of the legal sector on TV today – think Suits, Law and Order and more – which are incredibly inaccurate and don’t effectively represent the reality. However, by gaining work experience, you can expose yourself to the reality of the industry and for recent graduates, this can help to fill the September to December gap that tends to cause a great deal of angst. After all, we typically see a trend in those struggling to secure a job signing up to master’s courses in order to find a new direction. However, ahead of the 40-week SQE1 Prep course in January, candidates could use this time to complete pro bono activity or get a head start on QWE which can be completed before, during or after SQE exams. Learners may not be aware that they do not have to complete the equivalent workloads typically expected from trainee solicitor but instead, can look at wider legal experience opportunities such as a position as a secretary in law firm. Plus, in a highly competitive sector, we know that anything that differentiates a candidate will help them to stand out to law firms.

There you have it. While some may be cautious of progressing with the SQE route without the added reassurance of the GDL, removing this step will still equal qualification success – but without the same price tag.

Professor Claire McGourlay is the Professor of Legal Education at the University of Manchester. BARBRI has partnered with the University of Manchester to offer the University’s students and alumni a comprehensive preparation programme for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). You can find out more information about the partnership here.

For any questions, speak to the BARBRI team today.

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