Qualified Talk Charlotte SQE2

Qualified Talk by Charlotte from Hong Kong

Interviewer: Dear friends, today we continue our series of Qualified Talk, and joining me is a fascinating individual, Charlotte. Charlotte’s unique perspective stems from her experience bridging the legal systems of both England and Wales and Hong Kong. Welcome, Charlotte.

Charlotte: That’s right. I grew up in Hong Kong, went through the schooling system here, and then went to the UK for university to study my LLB. Upon finishing my law degree and completing law firm placements in my penultimate year, I was offered a position at a major law firm in Hong Kong. This meant I had to convert my UK law degree to a Hong Kong equivalent. The process involves taking your UK LLB, returning to Hong Kong, sitting a series of conversion exams, and then completing the PCLL, which is equivalent to the LPC in the UK. After qualifying, I completed a two-year training contract. After several years of practising, I decided to get dual-qualified due to working for a UK firm with my UK law degree. I took the MCT (SQE1 precursor), passed it, and then took the SQE2 exam.

Interviewer: So, just to clarify, individuals with an LLB from the UK can go to Hong Kong and pursue an additional qualification, such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL). After completing the PCLL, they still need to undertake a two-year training contract. From a legal studies perspective, how different is the application of law to the facts compared to what you studied in Hong Kong?

Charlotte: Yes. That’s actually very similar legal systems. So, Hong Kong was a UK colony until 1997. The whole basis of the legal system here is pretty much exactly the same. When I took my conversion exams after doing my LLB, you have to take seven in total. So, there are things like evidence, constitutional law, property, those main topics. The only areas with significant differences are constitutional law and property law. That’s because of the way land works in Hong Kong. There’s no freehold land; it’s all leasehold, mostly apartment buildings. So, the law had to adjust for that difference between the UK and Hong Kong. Despite the legal systems being very similar, in terms of legal improvements or changes to the legal system, it’s very slow in Hong Kong. It takes a lot longer to change legislation compared to the UK. Cases that happen in the UK, the courts say they hold weight in Hong Kong, but they’re not legally enforceable. So, if there’s an outcome or obiter dicta that a judge says in the UK, it holds weight here, but they can’t rely on that for legal arguments per se. In terms of the job I did, I was in private M&A; the law is exactly the same. The documents that I would draft, whether it was Hong Kong or English law, everything would be pretty much the same. It would just be the governing law clause that was different. There would be specific drafting points in the boilerplates that would refer to certain case laws, etc., and that would be the same in both Hong Kong and England.

Interviewer: For the most part, the contracts you worked with, are they governed by English law or Hong Kong law?

Charlotte: So, I did both, and I actually did both before I was dual qualified. With many of the deals I did in Hong Kong, there would be many jurisdictions involved, usually at least five or more. They would pick a governing law for all their documentation. More recently, they’ve turned more to English law or Singapore law. But yes, they would be mostly the same. I would review and draft both, because the partner I worked under is also dual qualified. So, as long as he signed off on the English law, before I was dual qualified, we would be safe from the SRA or the Hong Kong Law Society. But basically, it didn’t really matter. We could change halfway through the deal what the governing law was, because it didn’t impact the documents very much.

Interviewer: It’s quite valuable for Hong Kong qualified lawyers to consider enhancing their qualifications by pursuing additional certifications, such as becoming a solicitor of England and Wales.

Charlotte: Yes, I would say so. I would say it’s a very helpful skill, especially when you’re working for bigger firms that are more international. A lot of the time, you will use English law as your governing law.

Interviewer: How beneficial was your training and subsequent work experience in preparing you for the SQE qualification?

Charlotte: Oh, it was very useful. I didn’t really have to think that much about the soft practical skills. It was more about ticking the boxes for what they wanted to see in the SQE exam. So, it was more about leveraging learning the exam technique rather than needing to learn all of these soft skills that you need as a lawyer. For example, going into a client interview, having the correct tone of voice, the correct soft skills like that, that all came pretty naturally to me because I’ve been doing that for quite a number of years now. It was more about saying the right things in the right order to get the marks I needed. You kind of skip all of that revision and just focus on the specific legal issues and exam techniques.

Interviewer: Could you share your preparation strategies for the SQE2 exam and offer some general tips, particularly for candidates coming from the Hong Kong jurisdiction?

Charlotte: So actually, a lot of people who come from the Hong Kong jurisdiction wouldn’t need to take SQE2. Now they can just take the SQE1. But if, like me, you do better in practical exams, then maybe this is the better route for you. But that was just for my case. I prepared using OSCEsmart, obviously. I leveraged a lot on the past papers and the mock exams. For each of the oral aspects of the exam, I actually ended up writing my own template and then basically memorising that template. In the exam, I would identify the legal issues, recall them, and then fit them into my template. So, in the prep time before the client interview or before presenting submissions to the judge, I would quickly write down my template and then fill in the gaps as I read through the past paper or the actual exam questions. SQE2 mock exams were really helpful for me because, as I said earlier, it was more about learning the exam technique and less about memorising the actual legal application and facts. Luckily, because I had done an LLB, conversion exams, and my PCLL, it was still ingrained in my brain, so I didn’t really find that I needed to focus that much on memorising the law. I got lucky, I guess. But doing the face-to-face mocks with the OSCEsmart team is really helpful in tweaking the exam technique and getting good marks.

Interviewer: Are you referring to SQE2 mock exams with individual feedback? How closely does the exam reflect the actual practice? It’s inherently artificial as an exam, so 100% similarity isn’t expected. 

Charlotte: So, I would say that the mock exams, the one-to-one mock exams, are actually harder than what I actually experienced in the real exam. When I was taking the SQE2 exam, the only thing that was slightly different was the preparation time, because when you prep for the mocks, you’re prepping on your own, at your desk, and then you’re doing the one-to-one mocks through your computer. So, the prep was actually quite different.  For example, with the SQE client interview, you have to write an attendance note at the end, and you can attach the notes that you make during your prep to your attendance note. If you write your prep and your questions in a way where you have space to write down the answers from the interviewee, that makes it so much easier to follow. So, when you attach it to your attendance note, you can refer to it.

Interviewer: So, you recommend replicating exam conditions for at least one mock exam, allowing you to experience the differences. The mocks are valuable not only for assessing your knowledge, as they tend to be slightly more challenging and cover a broader range of topics than the actual exam, but also for personalising your preparation. Every aspect of your SQE preparation, especially when it involves handwriting, carries with it a wealth of memories. Generally speaking, did you find the written part more challenging than the oral part?

Charlotte: Yes, for me, the written part was harder because it was all written. The exam conditions were quite stressful. The whole process of getting prepped to go into that computer lab to take your exams was stressful. I perform better in practical exams, whereas this was very much essay-based. The SQE legal drafting was fine; it was more like essay questions, requiring a lot of recalling legal knowledge and application. The past papers I did were very useful, and obviously a lot longer than the actual exam. So, that prepped me to make sure that I never left a single question unfinished during my actual exam, which I was scared of when I was doing the past paper mocks because there were so many legal issues, I wanted to make sure I covered them all. The SQE2 1-to-1 mocks are actually harder and much more extensive. So, if you’re timing yourself when you’re attempting those mocks and you’re addressing all of the legal issues, you should feel relatively confident that you’ll cover all the legal issues during the actual exam because there are fewer than in the mocks. At least, that was my experience.

Interviewer: Yeah, that’s for training purposes, though. You mentioned past papers. Do you mean CILEx past papers or what kind of past papers are you referring to?

Charlotte: Yes. I refer to the CILEx past papers that were in the attached materials. Basically, after I did a few of those, that’s when I attempted the actual mocks. Going through the problem questions gets your mind into that mode of identifying what the legal issues are. Then you can start practising structuring your essay answer from that. So, I would suggest doing problem questions first and then the practical mocks. 

Interviewer: So, those are past exam papers from CILEx. CILEx is a route to qualification in England and Wales, similar to UK solicitors but with some differences. You can find past papers by searching for “CILEx papers level six”. Thank you for those tips. Now, I’d like to switch to a different topic related to your legal career. When you reached this qualification and were working for one of the best law firms, you decided to take a break in your legal career. Could you tell us about that decision and why you made it?

Charlotte: So, originally, I qualified in Hong Kong in 2018. I started my training contract in 2016, and during that time, I was actually playing full-time for the Hong Kong national lacrosse team. I was training at night, working during the day, logging back in after training at night, and the team was really supportive of it. Throughout my whole career, that was always an important part of my life. To maintain that ability to play at that level in a sport was quite important to me, and I knew that, and my partners knew that when I started work. Obviously, as a lawyer, you make sacrifices. You’re sacrificing a lot of your personal life and your personal time for the job. Having something outside of your job is so important for longevity. I took a 12-month sabbatical a couple of years ago to play at the World Championships in 2022. It was a really good experience. I came straight back to work refreshed, ready to work really hard again. I did another almost two years, and then I had a bit of an itch more recently to go back to school and study something else. So, my plan now is to do a master’s in psychology conversion, followed by a secondary master’s in Industrial and Organisational Psychology, with an aim to eventually go into consulting for law firms on how they can better retain talent, improve the workplace environment, and increase profitability. Many law firms base all of their profitability on their lawyers billing in six-minute increments, which can be challenging, especially when giving quotes to clients. There’s a lot of studies done recently on how this should change, and all of this really excites me. It interests me from a sports psychology background as well, because I’m also an athlete. Thinking about all of these things and speaking to my partners, who I’ve worked for many years now, very openly about these interests, they encouraged me to go and said it would be really helpful for us if you come back to have these skills to help the legal industry in a different way. I’m not sure if I’m going back to being a lawyer, but I’m definitely not leaving the industry as a whole because I’ve spent eight years there. I love it very much. The skills that I learned from my law degree, my qualifications, my work, etc., are extremely useful. The way that you learn to solve problems and deal with situations as a lawyer is very different from my non-lawyer friends. All of these skills are very transferable, and I know that it’s not uncommon for people to feel a little bit like they’ve got itchy feet and want to change careers and do something different at some point, because law can be quite a demanding industry for the long term. It’s an exciting new chapter, and I am hoping that it works out.

Interviewer: So you want to work with talented individuals to grow a new generation of lawyers. Would this endeavor be akin to human resources? What exactly is your vision?

Charlotte: It is industrial and organisational psychology, basically IO psychology for short. The industry aspect of it is more about people and fit for the industry. So, one of the arms of that is human resources, picking talent that fits the job. But long-term, for example, the organisational side of IO psychology deals with how you can have, for example, how you can have remuneration set so that the people who work for you are motivated to continue to give good work product. So, it’s more about individual behavior and the science behind that in order to set your policies within your organisation to get these people to do what you want them to do.  So, putting those two things together, you have IO psychology, and there are many things you can do with a background in that. You can go into human resources, executive coaching, management, for example. All of these things are possible. My plan is actually to go into consulting, which means I would go into law firms, do a deep dive into the issues, the turnover rate, etc., look at the business as a whole. On one hand, you can look at reforms of how billable hours work. On the other hand, you can also tell law firms how they can change their specific culture or policies to retain talent longer-term or to make more people want to become partners. So, those are the two main areas I’m really interested in. We’ll see where it goes, but I think there is a gap in the market as well. There’s a growing want, especially in junior lawyers, for the workplace to be a healthier, more satisfactory place. And I think that’s really great. People are much more aware that in order to stay in this long-term, to make partner, to have a long and healthy career in law without turning to vices such as alcohol or sleepless nights and being really unhealthy in the long term, law firms need to change a little bit. So, that’s where my interest is. I really want to make sure that it’s a profession that is sustainable and healthy for people if they want to be in private practice for big firms doing transactional work.

Interviewer: So, I’d like to steer our conversation back to the SQE2 assessment and its simulations, especially in light of what you mentioned about the importance of soft skills. I believe this is a valuable approach. The SQE2 exam is structured to help develop these skills, as they are not easily taught but are best cultivated through practice. This suggests that we can design a variety of practical interviews and exercises to train solicitors at different levels – junior, qualified, and experienced – to refine their existing skills. These exercises could focus on handling difficult clients, effectively managing time, or communicating arguments persuasively in court. In essence, the SQE2 can serve as a useful model for training programmes within law firms.

Charlotte: I agree with you. I think speaking to clients gives you soft skills or helps you develop and realise what soft skills are needed. Your submission to the court is also a different set of skills because it’s more formal. It’s about thinking quickly on your feet and presenting information orally in a structured way, which is different because many lawyers sit at a desk and can backspace, copy, and paste their written submissions. So, that’s a different type of soft skill. The SQE attendance note as well, all of these things require certain ways of thinking that you don’t learn in your law degree, in terms of structuring answers, dealing with difficult people, and conducting client interviews.  For example, in wills and probate, clients are often upset or there’s a difficult family dynamic. You have to find ways to show empathy but also maintain professionalism. As a lawyer, you’re not a therapist; you’re there to extract information to help solve problems. You can’t be too harsh or distant, but you have to delicately navigate these conversations. The SQE helps you develop skills that are useful for practice. For example, there may be situations where you’re in a room with your client, opposing counsel, and their client, and tensions are high. As lawyers, we can’t act like our clients and get into arguments. We have to maintain professionalism and not appear to go against our client’s wishes. Managing your own emotions to remain objective is a difficult soft skill that the SQE helps you develop.

Interviewer: Even individuals exempt from the SQE2 might find it worthwhile to consider taking the exam for its valuable feedback. The detailed breakdown of skills and marks can provide invaluable insights. Qualifying as a solicitor doesn’t guarantee a job, so having tangible evidence of your abilities under stress, as demonstrated by the exam, can be a compelling asset for potential employers.

Charlotte: Oh, definitely. I would say that if you’re already a qualified lawyer and you’ve worked for a few years, the soft skills in the SQE should be somewhat developed based on your work experience already. But if you’re coming from law school, you’ve done an LLB, you’re not going down the training contract route, and you’re going through the SQE route, I would say the SQE2 is actually quite useful in terms of learning those skills. It’s very different, especially in the real world, when you’re thrown into, say, a meeting with a client and the partner says, “I can’t make it. Charlotte, go by yourself.” In those situations, which happen far more often than you think, you need to be able to hold your own and have those skills. If you’ve done it in an exam situation like the SQE2, you could handle the most difficult client in real life.

Interviewer: Great. My last question. You are a real professional sportsman. You play for the national team of Hong Kong. How important has sports been in your career? And, in general terms, in your opinion, how important is it for lawyers to also pay attention to sports and similar activities?

Charlotte: I’ve talked a lot about having something outside of work that keeps you sane and helps with longevity. I think the reason why sports are so beneficial is because they’re purely based on the effort you put in. Unlike many other hobbies, sports offer health benefits, get you outside, and if you play team sports, you’re meeting people outside of law, which helps immensely to remind you that what we do as lawyers is not normal. It’s really helpful to have friends outside of the industry, which is why team sports are very important. The things you learn from team sports, like putting the team ahead of yourself, sacrificing for the greater good of the team, those lessons are great skills to have when working in a small team. For example, if someone’s going on leave and you have to cover for them, you’re less bitter about it because you know it’s for the greater good, and they’ll do the same for you when you’re on leave. The important thing is that sports give you opportunities to increase your sense of worth and confidence outside of the workplace. As a junior lawyer, you’re not going to draft things perfectly. You may have a partner who is very particular or a senior associate who is stressed. When you’re spending 12, 14, sometimes 16 hours in the office and facing stress, having something that boosts your confidence and gives you a sense of purpose outside of work is crucial. If your sense of self-worth is solely based on work feedback, you’ll crumble. Spending so much time in the office, if I had nothing else outside and made a mistake, it would make me feel terrible, even if it wasn’t my fault. Having something outside of work that gives you a sense of purpose and self-worth, other than being a good lawyer, is very helpful for the long term.

Interviewer: Thank you so much for today’s amazing Qualified Talk. I think it will be useful for many SQE candidates from Hong Kong and England.

Share This Article

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments