Your Next Career Path: SQE or LLM?

Introduction

In this article, we will examine the options available to foreign qualified lawyers looking to advance their legal careers, enhance marketable skills for international practice, and unlock new opportunities.

They can either qualify as English solicitors through the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) or pursue an internationally-recognised Masters of Law (LLM) degree in a chosen subject.

Both the LLM and dual-qualification as an English solicitor via the SQE require significant commitments of time and money – each a valuable resource for busy lawyers.

Deciding whether to pursue an LLM or dual-qualification depends on your career goals and what you seek to gain from the chosen qualification.

We’ll explore both the LLM and dual-qualification pathways, including their aims and outcomes, to help you decide which is best aligned with your goals.

Do you even need the LLM or SQE?

As a foreign qualified lawyer, you may be fortunate to have the opportunity to work in the UK without the LLM or dual-qualifying via the SQE. Many international firms with a presence in the UK directly employ foreign qualified lawyers to advise and work on foreign-law matters, usually relating to cross-border transactions and dispute resolution, finance and securities, and maritime law,

However, opportunities are usually limited to qualified lawyers with specific expertise, and you will be reliant exclusively on the firm that offers you this opportunity and covers your visa arrangements. Further, as you are not dual-qualified, you would not be able to act or advise on English law matters in their own right or as part of the transaction you are working on.

While this option may suit some foreign lawyers, others prefer the independence and broader set of knowledge and skills that come from taking an LLM or dual-qualifying via the SQE.

The LLM

The LLM (Master of Laws) is a postgraduate qualification recognised worldwide. The qualification is administered by accredited institutions and can be offered and delivered in different ways, from a one year full-time on-campus course to a multi-year part-time or distance learning basis.

Unlike the academic study undertaken by lawyers as part of the qualification process, the LLM is not always a pre-requisite to admission and practice in a jurisdiction. Indeed, some LLMs don’t require prior undergraduate study in law at all. That said, in some countries the LLM can cover the basic principles of that country’s legal system as an aid for international lawyers seeking to broaden their knowledge of different legal systems.

Other LLM programmes may have a focus on a specialised area or topic of law; such programmes are ideal for lawyers seeking to enhance their interest or knowledge of a particular area of legal theory or practice. For law graduates who wish to focus on jurisprudence or forge a career in research or teaching, an LLM is often the precursor to a doctoral degree in law or a segue from practice into academia.

An LLM may be assessed by way of taught and examined classes, coursework or a combination of both. In this way, an LLM offers candidates the opportunity to sharpen their research and writing skills and delve deeper into an area of law they are especially interested in.

The motivations for studying for the LLM, and the benefits of holding the qualification, differ among candidates. These can include ‘upgrading’ one’s alma mater; networking opportunities; academic recognition of study in an area of law of special interest to the candidate; research into an area of law that isn’t commonly practised; standing out in a crowded job market; or to add to a CV as part of an application for a non-solicitor role where specialist study in a relevant area of law will help their chances.

The view of LLMs by employers differs. Some law firms may not attach any weight to it, and to these firms, an LLM graduate is no better off than a candidate without an LLM and less desirable than a candidate with industry experience.

While the quote in the linked article – “We’d be neutral about a masters, which we don’t view as intrinsically better than a year spent working in industry” – was made in the context of domestic applicants, internationally-qualified applicants may also need to consider whether building up experience in their home jurisdiction before doing either the LLM or the SQE would be a wise move based on their circumstances and aspirations.

On average, 19% of lawyers at 11 of the 20 largest law firms in the world hold an LLM. That said, candidates wishing to apply for specialist legal roles or for work involving international law may find an LLM in that area good evidence of commitment to and interest in that field of law.

The SQE

In 2021, the SQE replaced the QLTS (Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme) which was the fast-track route for qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales for international lawyers.

The SQE exam is now the single centralised assessment that all aspiring solicitors must take to qualify, regardless of their professional background and qualifications.

It is administered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the regulatory body of the Law Society of England and Wales.

The SQE assessments comprise two tests with 180 multiple choice questions each, SQE1, and a practical assessment, SQE2. The purpose of the assessments is to ensure that all candidates who qualify as solicitors have the knowledge, skills and ability necessary to perform their roles competently and ethically.

Foreign qualified lawyers with at least two years of legal experience in their home jurisdictions or in the law of England and Wales may apply for an exemption from SQE2. This simplifies the qualification process, making it quicker and much more affordable, as many candidates need only take SQE1 which is offered both in the UK and in various locations around the world.

Foreign qualified lawyers studying for the SQE will cover the same areas of law and legal skills that English solicitors who qualify domestically have to study and develop, meaning that they will become familiar with such wide-ranging concepts as the law of tort, equity and trusts, criminal law and English contract law.

Both the preparation and the SQE assessments are detailed and intense. The emphasis is on volume and breadth, rather than the narrow and specialist focus of the LLM. Foreign qualified lawyers who come from a common law jurisdiction, have a slight advantage over civil law candidates due to familiarity with the concept and mechanics of a system of judge-made law, but still have to cover a lot of law in a short amount of time, then recall this knowledge and demonstrate their skills to a high level in a timed and pressured assessment environment.

Logistics of the SQE

The SQE assessments, administered solely by Kaplan on behalf of the SRA, require candidates to register with the SRA and book their assessments. Every candidate must hold an academic degree or equivalent qualification. While local candidates must complete a minimum of two years of qualifying work experience (QWE), foreign qualified lawyers are exempt from this requirement.

Additionally, all candidates must fulfil the SRA’s character and suitability requirements before applying for admission to the roll of solicitors of England and Wales. For foreign lawyers, this qualification process can be completed in just a few months.

Price

The LLM can cost up to £20,000 or more, and that doesn’t include the price of textbooks and other supplies. For students looking to study full-time, you should also factor in the cost of living if you move somewhere to take the LLM, along with the lost wages during your period of study.

The cost of the SQE, including course materials and assessment fees, can be less than £5,000, if you are granted an exemption from SQE2. You may study at any time and place that suits you.

Which to choose?

A considered analysis of your career objectives, what you want to gain from the qualification and how you intend to use it should be the foundations of your research. You may also find it beneficial to understand the academic or professional requirements of the organisations relevant to your field, whether they’re private companies, law firms, NGOs or supranational institutions, to put you in good stead.

For foreign qualified lawyers looking for the freedom to live and work in the UK while employed by and able to move between both their home jurisdiction, international and local firms, advise on English law matters and practise an international lawyer outside of the UK, English law is the jurisdiction of choice for many businesses, transactions and dispute resolution mechanisms, the SQE is the most practical choice over the LLM.

Further, foreign lawyers seeking to go in-house, eventually establish their own practice in their home jurisdiction or carry out locum work (including remote legal work via ‘virtual law firms’) will find that dual-qualification via the SQE enhances their personal offering and expands the types of work they may undertake, directly impacting on the opportunities available.

However, foreign lawyers looking to undertake work in specific jurisdictions or in matters of international law and for particular organisations may not find the SQE to be as beneficial as an appropriate LLM course, due to the very specific and professional nature of the qualification and lack of specialisation in a particular area of law.

Finally, you may also wish to consider your ‘exit strategy’ – alternative uses for your qualifications and experience should your efforts to forge your chosen career path not succeed. In all of these areas, the LLM and SQE will each have their advantages and disadvantages, and a judgement call based on your own circumstances will be the final arbiter of your decision.

About QLTS School

For the SQE, we interviewed several of our foreign qualified candidates who passed the SQE assessments as to their background, motivations for taking the SQE, preparation and assessment experience and how the qualification has helped them. You can watch their SQE stories and these may assist in offering a few examples for your consideration.

QLTS has been providing SQE preparation courses for the SQE and QLTS exam to thousands of candidates since 2011 and will help you prepare and pass the SQE exam on your first attempt, should you decide to pursue this route.

If you have any questions about the SQE that will help you reach a decision based on your own circumstances and aspirations, we’d be happy to answer and offer any perspectives that may assist – you can get in touch with us for a free consultation.

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