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A guide for overseas lawyers dual qualifying in England & Wales

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As we now live in a more interconnected way than ever before, with national borders no longer being a barrier to doing business across multiple countries and London unquestionably remaining a major hub for international commerce, lawyers who are admitted to practice overseas are likely to reap huge benefits by gaining a dual qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales.

For instance, as an overseas qualified lawyer employed in a foreign firm, admission to the roll of solicitors in England and Wales, will undoubtedly make you more attractive to UK-based clients who want advice on work that straddles both jurisdictions. What’s more, even in the post-Brexit era this will still continue to be one of the most important legal systems in the world, so as a dual-qualified lawyer you’ll be able to differentiate yourself from your contemporaries and gain a competitive edge either in your current role or as a lateral hire.

Meanwhile, if you’re a foreign-qualified lawyer and now living in England or planning to do so, gaining a dual qualification will make you more attractive to employers and, indeed, for some hiring teams this may even be a pre-requisite. 

Current route for dual qualification of overseas lawyers

Traditionally, for individuals who are already qualified overseas in jurisdictions recognised by England’s Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) the process of becoming dual-qualified involved the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS), which was introduced by the regulator on 1 September 2010, with the first batch of exams sat in 2011. Fast forward by almost ten years and radical changes are once again afoot.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave in recent months, you should already be familiar with what has been dubbed by many as the ‘solicitors’ super-exam’.

Officially known as as the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), this two-part assessment is being introduced in November 2021 and will become compulsory for all prospective solicitors – whether you’re a UK graduate, overseas student or a foreign-qualified lawyer. This will eventually result in an abolition of the QLTS along with the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) (section below headed “Overseas Students” contains further information on the GDL).

Even if you’ve been closely following SRA announcements and recent new stories about the SQE (and trust me there have been plenty, especially in recent months as preparations for this new route to qualification for solicitors gathers pace) it can all be a little bit confusing. Indeed, there are also a number of grey areas, which the SRA and other relevant stakeholders still needs to iron out.

QLTS vs SQE?

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So, if you’re an overseas qualified lawyer and currently mulling over the possibility of dual qualification and not sure whether you should take the plunge and push forward with the QLTS or opt for the SQE, I recommend paying particular attention to this blog.

I’ve summarised below all you need to know about the SQE and what it may mean for you. I’ve also highlighted the main factors for you to consider before making a final decision between the two regimes, including some of the key differences and similarities between them. It’s also worth highlighting the pathway that’s currently more suitable for you may, to some extent, depend on whether, after becoming dual qualified, you want to continue working in your home jurisdiction or are looking to practice on the ground in England or Wales.

Key similarities and differences

The overall structure of the SQE assessments will remain remarkably similar to the QLTS; both are divided into two sections.

What is more, course providers, including BARBRI, believe the SQE will stretch candidates further than the QLTS because, not only is the multiple-choice assessment longer, it also includes more subjects, which are covered in greater detail than in the QLTS and will potentially overlap within individual questions.

  • Both the QLTS and SQE1 will be available at various centres internationally, but SQE2 is predicted to only be available to be sat in England and Wales, as is the case currently with the OSCE.
  • Unlike for the QLTS, the current SRA proposal for the SQE includes an English language requirement.
  • You can have three attempts at passing SQE1. In contrast the QLTS allows you to have unlimited re-sits, provided you are in time to pass both stages before the introduction of the new system.

Qualifying Work Experience

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One of the most significant differences between the two routes to dual qualification is that, as things currently stand, passing the QLTS exam is currently the only requirement for qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales. There is no need to undertake any period of training or work experience, which obviously makes this a more attractive option for those lawyers who are based and already employed overseas, wanting to become dual-qualified simply to add another string to their bows.

But, post-2021, it may be necessary to prove a minimum of two years’ professional experience in order to satisfy the SRA that you’re competent to practice (note: this is one of remaining grey areas I flagged towards the start of this blog, particularly in connection with lawyers who are based abroad and have no immediate plans to work in England). More about Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) can be found on one of our recent blogs here.

Though on the face of it, this requirement appears to be quite a major obstacle, on the plus side, the SRA is considering whether such experience might mean exemptions from some or all of the SQE exams itself.

What’s more, for lawyers who want to practice on the ground in England, gaining work experience here will make them infinitely more attractive to employers. Indeed, I’ve spoken to quite a few overseas qualified lawyers from civil law jurisdictions who are now based in the UK and though they have successfully passed the QLTS, a lack of work experience in an English firm has proved a challenge for such individuals, irrespective of how many years’ experience they’ve gained in the country in which they trained and qualified. 

Timing & costs

Another key consideration when choosing between the SQE and QLTS is timing and whether you’re able to commit to qualifying now or have to wait until 2021. The last sitting of the MCT will be in July 2021 and for those who have passed the MCT prior to the introduction of the SQE, there will be a transition period of one year to complete the OSCE, by May 2022. Check out the SRA transitional arrangements here.

However, the SRA has confirmed that for those candidates who pass the MCT prior to the launch of the SQE, there will be a transition period during which OSCE must be passed.

Incidentally, if you need more help with timelines then I’d recommend checking out the BARBRI SQE Calculator.

As they say, time is money. So, given the SQE assessment is longer and more complex, I expect this route to be more costly than the QLTS. Therefore, this alone may be a good reason to throw caution to the wind and not delay your journey to dual qualification.

Overseas students

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The process of qualification described above is principally designed for fully qualified overseas lawyers who have already gained some experience in practice. If you’re an overseas student or a newly qualified lawyer considering living and working in the UK as a solicitor, then the changes being introduced by the SQE will still be applicable to you.

As you know, overseas law degrees are not currently recognised by the SRA so if you want to train as a solicitor in England or Wales under the current regime you will need to complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before progressing onto the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and then onto a training contract. The GDL is a year-long law conversion and a must for any students who are not in possession of a ‘qualifying law degree’ that is recognised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority – that pretty much includes any student with an overseas degree.

What if I already have a GDL?

The GDL will soon become defunct and replaced by the SQE. However, no worries, if you’ve already completed the GDL or about to start it – the current system is going to be phased out over a period of many years. That said, as I wrote in my previous blog here, which contains all you students need to know about the SQE, I expect the roll-out of this new route to qualification to rapidly gain momentum once the first cohort of students are enrolled on it, meaning the transitional period is likely to be much shorter than that set by the SRA. 

How can BARBRI help?

The choice between the QLTS and SQE is personal to you and any decision shouldn’t be made on a whim. I recommend doing your homework first. But whatever route you opt for, BARBRI is uniquely placed to lend a hand with both. Not only do they have an excellent track record with QLTS pass rates and indeed supporting overseas lawyers, their innovative and flexible SQE preparation courses will put you at the heart.     

Husnara Begum is a former lawyer-turned-legal journalist-turned career coach. She is the associate editor of careers & lifestyle website “CheekyLittleCareers.com” and also runs regular careers clinics for the Law Society. Through her work Husnara has gained extensive knowledge and insights into the challenges faced by aspiring solicitors when trying to secure training contracts.

You can find more information on BARBRI’s QLTS Prep courses here.

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