In just a few days’ time the first candidates will sit the new Solicitor’s Qualifying Exam (SQE). For the first time, aspiring solicitors will need to choose between sitting the SQE and the LPC (if they are not qualifying via CILEx). We spoke to some prospective candidates to find out their views…
“There’s not enough information out there – it’s too vague,” says Sarah*, a paralegal we spoke to at a large Legal Aid firm based in London. “I am leaning towards the LPC, as it seems like a more thorough course.” Dom, a paralegal working in crime, agrees: “I briefly looked into it. I didn’t give it that much thought because my supervisor at university thought it wouldn’t be as challenging compared to the LPC.”
For Claire*, an Irish Law graduate, the SQE is a helpful innovation: it will allow her to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales without having to undertake an additional law degree recognised in this jurisdiction, followed by the LPC.
Unsurprisingly, money is a key factor for many candidates. Sarah explains, “I am concerned about the hidden costs of the SQE – initially it seemed attractive because the costs are so low upfront compared to the LPC, but this is the pilot year so it’s all still very hazy, and that’s what’s worrying me.” Claire is also apprehensive about paying for the SQE. Without undertaking any of the expensive preparation courses, she intends to pay for SQE1 through savings acquired from working during her LLB in Ireland. Due to the difficulty of funding SQE2 immediately after this, she intends to “take a break to save money or possibly consider loan options.” Dom adds that it is unclear to him what assistance is available to pay for the SQE: “With the LPC, you can get at least a few thousand pounds as a loan or grant, but with the SQE it’s much less clear what you could actually get covered.”
In May 2021, YLAL sent a survey to members considering doing the SQE, asking them to answer questions about their current employment. Of 197 respondents, the overall mean annual salary was £20,224.50. Once we removed those working in places other than legal aid firms from the analysis, the mean annual salary was just £19,932.03. For reference, the minimum wage for those aged 23 and above is £17,000. It’s difficult to image how applicants working in the Legal Aid sector can be expected to pay for either course – but the lack of graduate loan funding for the SQE may make this the harder route.
For Georgina MacFarlane, a Chartered Legal Executive at Bolt Burdon Kemp who will soon qualify as a solicitor via CILEx, “Although the LPC is expensive, at least you come out of it with a degree. The preparation courses are almost as expensive, and they aren’t degrees, they are just preparation for the exams.”
Impact on Legal Work
Will the SQE create a two-tier system, with some firms preferring the LPC over the SQE route? Claire certainly worries that there is “stigma” towards the SQE, which may be perceived as an “easier” exam. She explains, “Some firms are still advertising only LPC orientated roles. People who are on my course have had pushback from employers in allowing them to use their paralegal experience as qualifying work experience.” In her view, however, firms carrying out public law and civil liberties work have been more open to SQE candidates.
Some candidates also have concerns about the areas of law they will be able to study on the SQE. Claire is clear that she wants to qualify into immigration or public law. “I think there are a few providers who [allow you to study these areas],” she explains. “However, the cost of these courses goes up to £16,000 which is the same as taking the LPC. In my case, this type of course would not be feasible.” Claire is comforted by the fact that she was able to study these areas during her electives at university, and gain exposure to immigration and public law via volunteering and work experience – but, as she points out, for non-law graduates, the unavailability of these areas of law on the SQE could be a real disadvantage.
What remains, however, is uncertainty. Sarah comments, “there just isn’t enough information about it online. I only saw it pop up once on careers website.” Katie*, who is due to start the LPC in Autumn 2021, is in a similar position. She explains, “When I was leaving uni, the SQE was so up in the air, [my tutors] couldn’t even really advise us about it. The LPC was clearly laid out for us, but it wasn’t the same for the SQE.”
For Georgina, if she were starting training now, would she consider choosing the SQE? “It’s hard…I think until it’s established and all the kinks are worked out, and it’s clear what is likely afterwards job-wise, I still wouldn’t do the SQE.”
*Some names have been changed.