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LPC vs SQE: Sit, pass and join us! (Based on personal experience of clearing LPC, but qualifying via QLTS)

May you live in interesting times

In 2012 I came to the UK to do the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and then the Legal Practice Course (LPC). I was practicing international commercial arbitration, mainly under LCIA rules, and came to law school directly from practice.

Legal Practice Course

I remember one of my first assignments on the law of contract. We were given a rather difficult scenario related to contractual consideration and promissory estoppel. I spent a weekend reading Chitty, searching lexis and eventually found a solution – how to help the client. I think I did one of my best researches and applied cross-disciplinary knowledge of land law in order to resolve the problem.

How big was my surprise and disappointment when I saw my mark for the assignment! I barely passed, while I had done one of my best jobs. The suggested answer did not provide for any good solution. It was only application of the legal concepts given in the lectures. So, I went to see the tutor.

Eventually, I came to know that our answers in the test were not supposed to offer any practical solution to the client. The only thing the tutors wanted to see was whether we understood the lecture content.

Contrary to my understanding, they did not expect students to do any extra research, so doing it could mean you fail the test – because the original answer you come up with is very unlikely to be among the suggested answers. The suggested answers often seemed to ‘state the obvious’ with a great many ‘keywords’ – elements of legal concepts or particular important facts. Later I came to know that only some universities – for example, Oxford – offer a more flexible approach, encouraging their students to dig deeper and find some practical solutions. That was the GDL/LLB level.

The LPC was much more practical than GDL, though it still involved a lot of standard answers with a minimum room for flexibility. The Legal Practice Course standards also differ a lot from school to school: for example, some may have open-book exams, while the others only offer closed-book exams.

Some big law schools look like assembly lines for lawyers. People are encouraged to watch lectures online, as there are not enough classrooms, and the LPC exams are held in some warehouses in order to accomodate all the students. I had a couple of friends from those massive law schools – they hardly knew their own classmates.

My LPC exams looked like small essays combined with multiple-choice questions. I remember the effort I invested in explaining the things which I found to be obvious and sometimes even not applicable, only to stay within the suggested answers. Instead, my mind was all the time searching for a practical solution that quite often was beyond the LPC course.

As someone who comes from practice and already sees things a bit differently, you look for a solution not simply stating the law and facts, but focusing more on the client. After all, your work is neither writing essays nor answering multiple-choice questions: you normally write emails, draft documents, meet clients and colleagues, and eventually defend your client’s case in front of a judge.

So, even though my LPC was possibly much better than courses offered by other law schools internationally, and honestly truly enjoyable – actually the best course I ever had – with students split into groups and working in teams, competing with each other, this Legal Practice Course still seemed to me not practical enough, based on a lot of educational archaisms. Furthermore, it was a very expensive course.

The biggest problem of the LPC in my opinion, is that you may pay a lot of money for it, but never obtain a training contract and never qualify. There is a big chunk of LPC grads who did not manage to qualify. Since I am teaching for the QLTS (an alternative route for foreign advocates to qualify as solicitors) which I successfully passed in 2016, I have met many LPC graduates who found it easier to go to the US for an LLM and after passing the New York bar exam, become eligible for QLTS. This is the most common way to skip the training contract regime.

LPC students and training contracts

Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme

The QLTS consists of two exams – Multiple Choice Test (MCT) – GDL/LLB level – and the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) – LPC level. All the LPC grads are entitled to an exemption from MCT, so I have never sat it myself. However, I have received a lot of feedback from my students regarding MCT.

We have had candidates whose knowledge of substantive law was quite poor, but they cleared MCT at the first attempt and, vice versa, there have been some brilliant students who read all the books more than once and had a clear understanding of substantive law, but they struggled with MCT.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that QLTS Kaplan has recently greatly improved the test. So now, in order to pass, it is not enough just to memorise MCT Qs & As given by the training providers. I personally believe that MCT may and should be used as a tool to assess knowledge, to ‘sift’ candidates for the next stage. It is only a matter of the question design, and developing a good MCQ requires a lot of work.

So, being exempt from MCT, I still had to pass the OSCE. This is a unique type of exam which was originally used for medical doctors, to assess not only knowledge, but also the ability to perform doctor’s duties as per realistic clinical conditions, also sometimes referred to as ‘functional knowledge’.

The exam is an imitation of everyday’s duties of a newly qualified solicitor in a law firm. You meet clients and interview them, you perform in court or deliver your legal advice to a client, draft different documents and forms, write letters and emails, and conduct legal research.

At the LPC we did the same, but the standard was very low compared to QLTS, and it looked to me more of a formality than a proper training of your skills and functional knowledge. For example, legal writing at LPC was just re-writing something already given to you. They only checked your writing skills, not really combining them with legal knowledge. While OSCE is a combination of both, you have to know all the formalities of legal writing, but you must also demonstrate your knowledge on the merits, and you are respectively assessed on both – law and skills.  

When I sat my last LPC exam, I calculated all the uni exams I had had by that time – they turned out to amount to something around 256 exams. And these were in due time followed by the OSCE – which, I must admit, is the best exam I have ever had: the most interesting, challenging, exciting and the most practical exam of all. Preparing for it, I gained an immense lot of knowledge and understanding, while also greatly improving my skills.

My opinion of the exam was not marred by the fact that I failed it at my first attempt – which is totally not uncommon for LPC grads. Why?

Apparently there are many reasons. In my case, I overestimated the LPC, I thought I was much ahead of everyone else, while in fact I was competing with top lawyers worldwide. It was my big mistake, rooted in unjustified self-confidence. Many LPC grads face the same problem, and a vast majority of them do not really have the required level of legal experience in dealing with difficult clients, meeting super tight deadlines, while LPC is only the level of a trainee solicitor, not of NQ.   

Solicitors Qualifying Exam

QLTS is definitely a successful project by Kaplan and SRA. Its predecessor QLTT was nothing to compare and this is why many top managers in city law firms who qualified via QLTT, think that it is easy for their candidates to pass it, which is not true.

The QLTS’s successor SQE has all the potential to become the best qualification exam on this planet. The SQE has already been tested for many years – through QLTS – something not many people are aware of; and Kaplan continues testing it via pilot assessments. QLTS MCT is similar to SQE Stage 1 and QLTS OSCE is almost identical to SQE Stage 2.  

QLTS vs SQE comparison
Difference between QLTS and SQE

Both of the exams are based on three key methodologies:

  1. The Miller Pyramid – distinguishes between knowledge at the lower levels and action at the highest level;
  2. The revised Bloom’s Taxonomy – questions covering a hierarchy of knowledge and understanding
  3. The Modified Angoff Procedure to determine the pass mark.

Unfortunately, there is a rather controversial debate about the reform, and Kaplan with SRA have received a lot of criticism. That is quite natural as people tend to view changes negatively.

However, let’s take a closer look at the exam above:

  • Costs

It is argued that SQE may eventually be more expensive than LPC/LLB. This is not accepted: even if the cost of the exam reaches its maximum, £1,650 for SQE1 and £4,500 for SQE2, it will be nothing compared to the price of LLB/GDL and LPC, which is estimated at over £30,000.

OSCEsmart graduates are a living proof that it is possible to prepare for this sort of exams for a very reasonable fee, and to combine studies with work. Candidates may work as paralegals, trainees or legal assistants in law firms all over the world, and income from their professional activities will allow them to meet the costs. There is no doubt that the number of SQE-oriented online courses will gradually increase, removing the monopoly of expensive traditional law schools.  

  • Closure of traditional law schools

It is completely understandable that in this situation universities are far from being happy, as they are going to lose a big part of their business, some may even have to shut down their law departments.

At the same time, it has already been predicted that there will be a new kind of law schools employing new technologies and Problem Based Learning. Those traditional law schools which remain may greatly improve their courses, and for sure there will be a lot of students wishing to proceed with traditional law degree.

I think they may focus on particular specialities like what they currently have for different LLMs. In my opinion, the electives were the best part of my LPC. So, by means of traditional legal education, younger students will be able to obtain a particular speciality in law, which may help them to join a particular legal practice.

  • Working instead of studying

Experts consider it very possible that law firms may prefer to raise their own solicitors from paralegals, legal assistants, and continue with training contracts no longer regulated by SRA. As per SQE requirements, the candidates would still have to obtain some university degree, it is just that they may study part-time, obtaining some non-legal knowledge for instance in IT, finance, linguistics or even medicine.

Besides knowledge and obvious lawyering skills, there are other general skills which are essential for legal professionals and employees. Those are meeting deadlines, workload and self management, teamwork, as well as the ability to work autonomously and self-educate oneself. Every manager wants to have employees who know how to work and what to do and even if they do not know something, they are able to figure it out without waiting for detailed instructions.

If you have to choose between two candidates: candidate A with a law degree with distinction but no working experience, and candidate B with no law degree but 2 years of relevant working experience, whom will you choose? The answer seems evident.

Another thing to consider is corporate loyalty – think of how loyal can be the employees whom you literally raise into lawyers. At the end of the day, it is for law firms to decide.

I believe not many universities understand how difficult the SQE exam will be. Simple preparation for it will amount to obtaining full-fledged legal education. In contrast to a common misconception, being eligible to sit the exam does not equal being prepared to pass it.

According to a colleague of mine who also qualified with us via QLTS, even preparation for the QLTS OSCE made her a better lawyer, and I wholeheartedly share her opinion. As long as you pass the competitive exam, it should not matter how you have prepared, what you have read, which courses you have attended if any. For law firms, it will also demonstrate that the candidate is dedicated to the profession, able to manage stress and work under pressure.

So, sit, pass and join us! It is fair enough, is it not?

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