The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is the regulating body of solicitors and law firms in England and Wales. It protects consumers and supports the rule of law and the administration of justice.
The purpose of the SRA is to protect the public by ensuring that solicitors and law firms meet high standards, and by acting when risks are identified.
The SRA also has statutory responsibility for the education and training of solicitors, as set out in the Solicitors Act 1974 and the Legal Services Act 2007. Education and training requirements are key regulatory tools to protect consumers of legal services.
In December 2015, the SRA published a consultation on implementing an innovative new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), a centralised assessment for all aspiring English solicitors to pass in order to qualify. The SQE ensures that everyone seeking to become a solicitor will be consistently held to the same high standards.
The proposals set out in the consultation represented a dramatic shake-up in the way in which the prestigious English legal profession trains and qualifies, making the traditional training contract LPC route no longer available to domestic candidates once implemented, subject to a transition period available to those who have begun their qualification prior to the commencement of the SQE.
The SRA’s creation of the SQE assessments stems from the Training for Tomorrow initiative. Released in October 2013, it was the SRA’s response to a report from the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR).
The basis of the LETR report was to examine and ensure that the lawyers of today have the skills they need for tomorrow, through a review of the education and training requirements for solicitors. The report stated that the current education and training system had served well, but that the changing consumer demands and the regulatory system were now shaping the ways in which legal services are delivered. It also noted that legal education and training needed to adapt soon in order to reflect these notable changes as a whole.
The LETR report further stated that it was advisable to move to an outcomes-based, focused approach to legal education, requiring less input from the regulators on achieving competence and ongoing training. The report was generally the beginning of the end for the current Legal Practice Course (LPC) qualification route to becoming a solicitor in England and Wales.
In order to keep up with the times, the report suggested that solicitors could qualify without a degree, LPC, or training contract with law firms. It suggested that the LPC should be modified with a view to increasing flexibility of delivery and the development of specialist pathways.
The report outlined the fundamental changes needed to the requirements which the SRA places on law firms, including legal service providers, focusing less on the learning processes and more on outcomes.
Following the release of the LETR report, the SRA acknowledged that it was important to remove unnecessary barriers to qualification and to ensure that those who deliver legal services meet a set of specific standards.
The SRA went on to note that their policy objectives were to focus on the education and training system, increase flexibility, ensure adaptability, and target activities as a regulator protecting the public interest.
The report called for an overhaul of the solicitor qualification standards, both pre and post qualification. The latter is the reflection of the new approach to SRA Continuing Competence.
On the approach to qualification itself, the SRA proposed three possible options:
The SRA indicated that it preferred option 3, the development of the SQE, as a centralised assessment would provide a mechanism to assure solicitors’ competence consistently and fairly, regardless of the route taken.
It was believed by the SRA that the new SQE assessment would renew public confidence and trust in the abilities of solicitors.
The SRA found that the large number of institutions evaluating solicitors made it challenging to ensure that every solicitor was assessed and held to equal standards. As noted above, the idea of the SQE reflects that all solicitors, regardless of background, should qualify under the same assessment, ensuring high standards and consistency.
According to the SRA, the SQE would make it easier for law firms to decide whether or not their trainees could meet their standards more transparently. The SRA also believed that the new approach to qualification would increase competition and drive up standards overall in the legal services industry.
Cost was another important factor considered by the SRA in creating the SQE. Under the current LPC route, students are required to pay £15,000 or more to take the LPC, and around £10,000 for the GDL if they do not have a law degree. As a consequence of the SQE, students will no longer have to pay a large sum of money upfront to complete the LPC without any guarantee of qualification at the end.
The SQE also gives candidates the flexibility to decide which path is best for them – a degree and a training contract with a law firm, an apprenticeship, or an equivalent means route, thus eliminating favoured routes to law firms, and ensuring everyone meet the same standard.
It was important to the SRA that the creation and implementation of the SQE would play a role in the equality, diversity, and inclusion of everyone in the legal profession. The SQE Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) risk assessment led to a commissioned Report from the Bridge Group on how the SQE might be used to enhance the diversity of the profession.
As a result, the SRA took into account the risks and opportunities noted in the report following the creation of the SQE and published a final report on EDI risk assessment. This report concluded that the potential EDI benefits of the SQE outweigh the risks, including in areas of cost, fairness, and access. It was also noted that the flexibility in training for the SQE provides for a more diverse pool of candidates.
Overall, the SRA’s implementation of the SQE in Autumn 2021 aims to set a new, highly professional standard for law professionals, while protecting the legal profession and its clients.
In April 2017, the SRA Board decided, in principle, to introduce the SQE. In March 2018, the Legal Services Board (LSB) approved the framework for the new admission requirements, as well as the SRA Regulations. However, the LSB noted that further approval was required prior to the implementation of the SQE.
In October 2020, the LSB granted the final approval to the SRA to introduce the SQE.
To be eligible to qualify under the SQE, candidates need to:
After fulfilling these requirements, candidates will be eligible to apply to the SRA for admission to the roll of solicitors, as can be illustrated in the SQE infographic.
The new solicitor training route of the SQE provides an opportunity for people from different backgrounds to qualify as solicitors, including law graduates and non-law graduates, apprentices, chartered legal executives, paralegals, and overseas lawyers.
Candidates who have already begun the traditional route to qualification can decide whether to complete the LPC or take the SQE assessments.
In July 2018, after a competitive, year-long process, the SRA appointed Kaplan as the sole provider to develop and deliver the SQE assessments. Kaplan also has direct experience of assessment within the legal sector in England and Wales as the provider of the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS), on which the SQE is based. However, Kaplan will not be permitted to provide training for the SQE.
To date, the SRA has collaborated with numerous stakeholders on the development of the SQE, including the content and format of the SQE assessment design. It has:
The design of the SQE, which was consulted on and which received broad support, addresses the competences set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence, the knowledge of the Statement of Legal Knowledge, and the standard set forth by the Threshold Standard.
The Statement of Solicitor Competence was developed by the SRA to reflect up-to-date best practices in terms of the performance of solicitors’ duties within the current regulatory framework for the legal profession.
The Competence Statement forms a coherent model of what competence in the profession comprises but, more specifically, responds to the recommendation of the Legal Education and Training Review that regulators should use competence standards as a key regulatory tool for the education and training of solicitors.
The SRA recognises that any Competence Statement, in line with the requirements of the Legal Services Act 2007, must also take into account the consumer perspective on what ‘solicitor competence’ comprises and that this cannot be left solely as a matter for the legal profession itself to define.
The SRA’s Statement of Legal Knowledge arises from a report commissioned by AlphaPlus to conduct a technical evaluation of the SRA’s proposed approach to assessing solicitor competence. It sets out the guidelines for the knowledge that solicitors are required to demonstrate at the point of qualification.
The Threshold Standard set out by the SRA uses a mastery of the area of practice and a broad background awareness of legal principles to develop and critically evaluate a range of options to overcome dilemmas and problematic situations.
All standards were taken into account when the SRA created the SQE.
An SQE1 pilot was conducted to assess whether or not the exam had a design that was fair, reliable, and appropriately robust. The SQE1 pilot was conducted in March 2019 and consisted of over 300 candidates from various backgrounds and walks of life at 46 different centres in England and Wales, as well as abroad.
The pilot model for SQE1 consisted of 120 FLK question papers and basic legal research and writing skills. Notably, the inclusion of a skills assessment in SQE1 addressed some employers’ requests for a basic level of legal skills to have been taught and assessed before the qualifying work experience. However, the SRA eventually decided not to assess skills in SQE1 but instead to rely on the skills assessments in SQE2.
The SQE1 pilot was concluded by Kaplan, following which an independent reviewer determined that it was a useful and valid exercise, showing it was possible to design a robust, manageable assessment of the FLK. The majority of the pilot’s candidates provided positive feedback and the operational aspect of the pilot went well.
Since the pilot’s completion, the final assessment specification for SQE1 and sample questions were published by the SRA, and results from the findings of the SQE1 pilot were checked against the assessments in the SQE2 pilot.
The SQE2 pilot took place in December 2019, with 167 candidates, testing operational processes as well as the type of experiences to be used in the live assessments. For the SQE2 pilot, candidates took 14 skills assessments – seven across the core practice contexts and seven in either criminal litigation or business organisation rules and procedures. Candidates chose which of the two areas they wished to be assessed in.
This pilot, however, was not intended to be a replica for the final model for SQE2, but had the intention of reaching the appropriate decisions on what the final form of the assessment should look like, namely whether or not the candidates should take all the same assessments or be given the choice to choose the legal context in which to be assessed, for example their experience gained from QWE or their future career aspirations.
After much discussion about the pros and cons of either offering candidate choice or having a uniform examination, the SRA Board decided to proceed with the uniform examination.
This was determined to be the best route because of the skills and knowledge needed, fairness to all candidates, consistency of the high professional standards needed for practice as a solicitor, and in order to support the SRA’s criteria of the SQE being valid, reliable, value for money, and manageable.
In June 2020, the SRA Board approved the final design of the SQE.
The skills and knowledge of these competences will be assessed in two different stages with the SQE: The Functioning Legal Knowledge (FLK) and practical legal skills assessments.
SQE1 will focus on FLK in two parts. FLK1 will examine:
FLK2 will focus on:
Ethical questions will be scattered throughout both FLK1 and FLK2.
Each of the two FLKs includes 180 multiple choice questions, bringing the total number of questions in SQE1 to 360. All the current foundations of legal knowledge taught on the QLD/GDL and the core subjects of the LPC are assessed with SQE1, with the addition of ethics and professional conduct.
SQE1 tests substantive and procedural law, focusing on the candidates’ abilities to characterise the nature of a legal problem, identify relevant legal principles, and apply them to factual scenarios, similar to the types of cases which a newly qualified solicitor might encounter in practice, and to reach a decision, for example, on a point of advice, or next steps in a transaction.
SQE2 will assess the practical legal skills of the candidates in six skills. They are:
In SQE2, the skills will be examined across five different practice contexts:
Unflagged points of ethics and professional conduct will also be scattered throughout the SQE2 assessment.
Skills in SQE2 will be assessed through a series of 16 tasks (also known as ‘stations’), reflecting the type of work which a newly qualified solicitor would need to carry out in practice. Twelve of those stations will be written exercises, while the other four will be assessed through oral, role-play assessments.
The SQE will be delivered through a suite of secure assessment centres. All written tests (SQE1 and the written skills of SQE2) will be available in England and Wales and internationally through the Pearson VUE.
The oral skills assessments of SQE2 will initially be available only in England and Wales, so that the assessments can be properly controlled and standardised. Over time, the SRA’s plan is to also offer the oral assessments internationally.
The SRA decided that the cost of the SQE should be good value for money. Under the current qualifying system via the LPC, the cost is known to be expensive and has at times been a deterrent to some potentially talented candidates from seeking admission as solicitors. In November 2018, the SRA said that the total cost of taking SQE1 and SQE2 would be between £3,000 and £4,500.
Since that time, the SRA has confirmed that the fee for both assessments will be £3,980: £1,558 for sitting SQE1, and £2,422 for SQE2. These fees do not include training costs or re-sits.
The fee to sit the SQE assessments is comparable with other professional assessments on a time-per-test basis, and the SQE cost addresses the gamble taken with the current qualification route. This is helpful to people from all walks of life seeking to be qualified as a solicitor, including those from less affluent backgrounds.
It has been noted though that student funding is not currently available for the cost of the SQE assessments, but at the low cost, the SQE is more manageable than the current qualification costs.
As noted, training costs are additional; however, paying for a quality SQE preparation course will save in cost for multiple re-sits of the assessments later on.
Since the SQE was first announced by the SRA, objections from academic, legal professionals and industry bodies have been voiced.
One of the major concerns relating to the SQE has been that it does not address the real problems in the legal profession.
The LETR report foreshadowed the inevitable controversy that would surround any fundamental overhaul of the training system for English solicitors. Critics pointed out that, while the SQE can demonstrate that outcomes have been met and indicates quality and consistency, it does raise concerns as to the consistency of standards in assessment and quality assurance of the outcomes to be achieved.
Yet, the SRA strongly believes that robust systems for standardising the assessment of outcomes could be developed to meet the challenges. The SRA also trusts that its proposals will increase the level of legal services and public confidence in the legal profession.
Citing the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS), the current method by which international lawyers dual-qualify as English solicitors, the SRA argues that required outcomes indicative of professional competence can be satisfied by a rigorous assessment-based process, such as the proposed SQE.
This means that candidates who have been assessed as being competent by their performance in the SQE assessment will be eligible to apply to the SRA for admission as a solicitor, subject to character and suitability tests, without any prior education or training.
Some suggest that the SRA is being misled in their conclusions, while others have voiced concerns about the rate at which the SQE is being implemented, the lack of social mobility, and the quality of work a candidate will experience to qualify.
Not all comments relating to the SQE have been negative though. Some have shed light on the fact that the new standard for qualification might open new doors of possibility to solicitor apprenticeships and changes to solicitor training, shifting the power from law firms to students, and the benefits for smaller firms and their recruiting of graduates.
Whether or not the SQE assessment will be for the best remains to be seen. It is certain though that the landscape of the legal profession is rapidly changing.
Challenges and concerns aside, candidates and law firms are working closely together to meet the needs of all concerned. While students work to navigate the new SQE system and figure out the time they’ll need to set aside to plan and prepare for the SQE assessments and meet the SRA standards, law firms are busy working to overcome the challenges associated with the new assessments, like studying up on requirements and figuring out the necessary time commitments from them in and out of the office.
If you are a candidate who is planning to prepare for, and take, the SQE assessments, you should carefully research your training options.
Given the similarity between the SQE and the QLTS, a training provider that has the relevant experience in this field, as well as having a proven track record of successful candidates, may be the right choice.
Taking the SQE also requires careful preparation time and planning, as the syllabus is comprehensive, and lack of preparation may result in failure in the SQE assessments.
This is where QLTS School can help. QLTS School’s preparation courses for the SQE assessments have been designed and developed in accordance with the SRA’s SQE Specifications and are completely flexible with regard to study and time requirements. This means that you can study at times that are convenient for you, from a variety of locations – whether at home or in your office, in the UK or elsewhere.
QLTS School offers a range of course packages for SQE1 and SQE2, which include textbooks, practice questions, revision notes, digital flashcards, mock exams, video tutorials, legal skills workshops, online resources, and extensive tutor support.
The course materials are accessible through an online training system, which will track your activity and performance and provide you with personal feedback, so you can identify your strengths, improve your weaknesses, and achieve success in the SQE assessments.