The new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is on the horizon. The highly anticipated SQE is rolling out from September 2021 by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Its aim is clear – to simplify the route to legal qualification. It also aims to make sure that all would-be solicitors meet the same high and consistent standards.
Like any change, its impending arrival is creating a level of uncertainty and caution within the profession. After all, rethinking the pathway to qualification is a big adjustment to make.
So, what does the SQE mean? How will it impact law firms this year? And how can organisations begin to prepare, right now, to make the most of this new opportunity? Let’s take a closer look.
What does the SQE mean for law firms?
This September will see the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) being phased out. These long-standing legal qualifications that firms and prospective lawyers have come to recognise will be replaced by the new SQE. This is a brand-new way of testing legal knowledge and skills that comes in two parts. SQE1 will test functioning legal knowledge. SQE2 will review practitioner expertise in practical transactions and legal skills.
For the UK’s legal industry, this is a huge change. The SQE will comprise a series of exams that will include mixed subject questions with multiple-choice formats. Specialist SQE preparation courses will give students in England and Wales the robust pre-exam support that’s necessary to be successful in the SQE. For law firms, this means adapting to the new qualification route. They will start working alongside candidates to offer support and Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). This would enable them to access a wider pool of talent that the current route offers. For example, the SQE allows a pathway into the profession for paralegals.
Yet while it’s new on this side of the Atlantic, this process has been the norm in the United States for a long time now. Legal training providers like BARBRI have been delivering exam preparation courses for the U.S. bar exam for over fifty years.
How can firms prepare for Qualifying Work Experience?
Work experience will become a key part of qualifying as a solicitor under the new path. However, it will follow a different structure than that of the current trainee solicitor route as part of the Professional Skills Course (PSC). Instead, from 1 September 2021, all candidates will need to have completed a minimum of two years full-time (or equivalent) Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) before they can qualify under the SQE.
The scope is quite wide. QWE is anything that provides the opportunity for candidates to develop some or all of the solicitor competence requirements. This paid or unpaid work experience component of the SQE can include but is not limited to:
- working in a law clinic;
- working as a paralegal;
- placement experience during a law degree;
- or providing legal support to a voluntary or charitable organisation.
QWE is intentionally broad. It’s designed to be flexible, providing the chance for candidates to learn and grow their legal skills. This can be across up to four separate organisations. Experience can be gained in either one block of time or in stages, so the ball is well and truly in the candidate’s court.
For firms, this means recruitment opportunities and a pre-existing talent pool at the ready. However, there’s a big opportunity here to help shape the future of the industry and the individuals that operate within it. But this also comes with responsibility. All QWE must be confirmed by a solicitor or COLP, covering:
It’s crucial to keep these considerations in mind, especially when bringing SQE candidates on board. Yet, most importantly, it is not a firms’ responsibility to confirm whether a candidate is competent to practise. That is what the SQE is designed to assess. But firms must raise any character or suitability concerns, should these arise.
Can paralegals undertake SQE?
The introduction of the SQE is good news for paralegals and the future diversity of the UK’s legal profession as a whole. Previously, one had to secure a coveted training contract to become a practising solicitor. Now, it will be QWE — including paralegal work — that can lead directly towards the SQE and full entry into the profession.
The SRA’s ‘four building blocks of qualification’ are
- a degree;
- passing the SQE;
- completing two years’ of QWE; and
- satisfying the SRA’s character and suitability criteria.
Any individuals that meet these four requirements will be able to qualify as a solicitor. Once the new national examination pathway is officially introduced, those working as paralegals will have the same opportunity to enter the profession as those who completed a traditional training contract. As such, paralegal duties will help prove readiness to undertake the SQE. This will likely mean that employment opportunities in this area will become more widely sought after by prospective solicitors.
It’s also anticipated that the move will allow for a far wider and more diverse talent pool to become qualified solicitors than ever before. That’s because the SQE will make it more affordable, flexible and accessible to become a solicitor. This will likely mean more diversity of thought with firms and the industry as a whole.
Take the right steps with BARBRI SQE Prep
For over half a century, BARBRI has been a leader in legal preparatory courses. Our established reputation, blending technology and innovative teaching strategies, ensure those studying for the SQE will be able to prepare with confidence. When it comes to legal exam preparation and innovation, nobody compares to BARBRI. To find out more about our upcoming SQE Prep courses, click here.