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It appears that the radical structure of the new regime has left the top of the profession preferring to see how the SQE beds down before making the switch

Countdown to the SQE

Countdown to the SQE


Firms and graduates will be giving the initial sitting of SQE1 a wide berth, says Jonny Hurst 

At the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) conference on 15 December 2020, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) announced that the first sit of part 1 (SQE1) will take place on 8 and 11 November this year. 

SQE1 will not be for the faint-hearted: 360 ‘single best answer’ multiple choice questions (MCQs) spread across two papers, three days apart; giving candidates an average of 1.7 minutes to answer each question. Each paper will require candidates to answer 90 questions in two hours – 33 minutes in the morning, followed by the same again in the afternoon.

The MCQs not only examine topics similar to those covered in the Legal Practice Course’s (LPC) core practice areas (business law and practice, property law and practice, dispute resolution and criminal practice), they will also revisit all the traditional building blocks which make up a qualifying law degree, including tort, contract, administrative law and trusts.

So, who will be sitting this new assessment? More importantly, why will they choose to do so when the SQE transitional provisions permit the vast majority of candidates eligible to sit in November to opt for the LPC instead? 

Most self-funding LLB, Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and law conversion course (PGDL) graduates will be giving the first sitting of the SQE a wide berth, partly because that is what leading law firms will be doing: almost all of their trainees who are starting training contracts in 2022 will be doing the LPC in 2021. And little movement is expected the following year. 

It appears that the radical structure of the new regime has left the top of the profession preferring to see how the SQE beds down before making the switch. But expect to see significant movement in 2023 and 2024.

The LPC is not due to expire until 2032 and although I expect most LPC programmes to have been withdrawn by 2030, the LPC will remain ‘alive and well’ for at least a few more years.

Why? Top firms have always valued the specialist knowledge taught in the LPC electives which will not be replicated as part of the SQE, so it comes as no surprise that they will stick with the LPC while they can.

Who will first sit the SQE?

Paralegals – There is large number of paralegals wishing to qualify as solicitors, who are undertaking work that is no less ‘worthy’ than those in training contracts.

However, many have been unable to progress because the cost of the LPC was prohibitive and or they have been unable to secure a training contract.

The SQE is an attractive route for this group because paralegals will find it easier for their work to count as qualifying work experience (QWE) - the SQE equivalent of a training contract - particularly because it can be accrued with up to four employers.

Solicitor apprentices – This apprenticeship is aimed at school leavers, usually with A’ levels, who over a six-year period work for a firm four days per week and study on the fifth day, with the SQE being their end point assessment. The first cohort of solicitor apprentices is small, so expect less than 25 to sit SQE1 in November. 

CILEx qualified lawyers – Only a small number of CILEx qualified lawyers are likely to sit SQE1 in November, but the good news for those who do is that most will have accrued their QWE by the time they complete their assessments.

Overseas lawyers – The SQE will replace the Qualifying Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) on 1 September. Again, don’t expect a queue of foreign-qualified lawyers rushing to sit SQE1 in November. Those who have been on the ball will ensure they start the QLTS before its abolition, because of the perception that the SQE will be more difficult to pass. 

Self-funding LLB, GDL and PGDL graduates – While the vast majority of students in this group will stick with the LPC this year, some will sit SQE1. I expect recruiters, at least in the early stages of those students’ careers, to explore with them both the reasons for their choice of pathway as well as how they arrived at their choice of SQE course. Why? Many of the explanations I have heard are unconvincing:

-    ‘The SQE will be easier to pass than the LPC’ – This is naïve and ill-judged because the LPC is assessed at the level of a ‘Day 1’ trainee, whereas the SQE will be examined to the standard expected of a newly qualified solicitor. 
-    ‘The SQE will be cheaper than the LPC’ – Unfortunately, many students who struggle to finance their studies will be tempted this Autumn by cheap and quick test-prep courses/materials, some of which may be the equivalent of preparing for your driving test by just reading the Highway Code. It’s a high-risk strategy considering the SQE assessment fees total £3,980, with no discount for resits. 
-    ‘I have a better chance of securing QWE than a training contract’ – This may be true, but in the same way that there will be a wide range of SQE courses, there will also be a huge gulf in the quality of QWE. So, will leading firms be as interested in a newly qualified (NQ) who has built a patchwork of QWE across four different employers, as opposed to one who has received two years of structured QWE at a single firm? Or a training contract? In such a competitive market, will firms be willing to take on comparatively half-baked applicants when there will be so many talented ‘oven-ready’ ones to choose from? 

The recruiters’ approach

Most leading firms will prefer applicants for QWE and NQ roles to have completed a much more comprehensive programme than a pure SQE test-prep course.

However, given that the established LPC providers have not been in any hurry to launch their SQE programmes, SQE candidates in November 2021 look set to have a much smaller choice of courses than those who wish to sit the SQE in 2022.  

Career-paralegals and CILEx lawyers can expect to move through the ranks in the same type of firm where they qualified, but may find it harder to move to larger firms, particularly those who, historically, have not recruited trainees from their paralegal pool for fear of ‘diluting’ the currency of their training contracts.

But I’m most concerned about the number of able students from non-traditional backgrounds who will be tempted to attempt the SQE ‘on the cheap’ in November.

The challenge for every firm is to ensure their expectations are clearly communicated to potential applicants before they commit to their preferred pathway, while not reversing the great strides made by the profession in recent years to increase the diversity of trainee intakes. These two objectives may be hard to reconcile.

For the early SQE sitters, there is a strong possibility that the gains in social mobility (by making QWE easier to acquire than a training contract) will be outweighed by the number of candidates who encounter a glass ceiling early in their careers, simply because their choice of pathway/SQE prep-course was not sufficiently aligned to the firms they aspire to work for. 

Jonny Hurst is a senior lecturer and head of outreach and student recruitment at BPP University Law School He is a former law firm partner