The new Solicitor Qualifying Examination (SQE) opens the door to becoming a solicitor for a wide category of applicants.
One of those categories is already-qualified legal professionals, for example foreign-qualified lawyers or UK barristers.
Just like the other categories of aspiring solicitors, in order to qualify under the new SQE regime, barristers and BPTC graduates must:
- have a degree – you already have this;
- obtain 2 years of qualifying work experience (QWE) – it depends on your experience, but if you have only 12 months of pupillage, then you need another 12 months;
- pass SQE1 and SQE2 – but you may be exempt from certain elements or even stages 1 or 2 of the SQE assessment; and
- meet character and suitability requirements.
Please note, your QWE must be signed off by a solicitor.
SQE vs BPTC/new bar courses
Let’s briefly consider what barristers and BPTC grads need to cover in addition to their previous studies and work experience.
After completion of the BPTC, you should already possess good and functional legal knowledge of civil and criminal litigation.
Note: barristers are more oriented to the higher courts and so now need a bit more focus on simple procedural issues e.g. different interim applications such as summary judgment or security for costs, or the plea and trial preparation hearing process. Civil and criminal litigation are two out of the five practice areas tested in the SQE.
You also possibly had some BPTC electives that covered some of the other three areas of practice: Business organisations rules and procedures; Property practice; and Wills and intestacy, probate administration and practice.
These SQE subjects should be your main concern, since it is unlikely that you will be exempt from them.
Furthermore, the SQE is a standardised exam, so it tests that the candidate is up to the level required for a newly-qualified solicitor. Based on the above, your knowledge can be roughly divided into two groups:
- Tested in the SQE exam;
- Not tested in the SQE exam.
Due to the nature of your background as a barrister or BPTC graduate, it is highly likely that even if you possess some knowledge in property, business law or wills and intestacy, a bulk of it may still fall within the group (ii) Not tested in SQE. So, what you need to do now is figure out the gaps in your knowledge that you need to focus on when studying for the SQE.
As a guidance tool, you should use the Statement of solicitor competence. In particular, go through:
- the statement of legal knowledge and identify what you need to cover. Then, have a look at
- the threshold standard, in order to determine the passing level of the SQE competencies.
As for the required skills, you have certainly already developed a bulk of them and probably to a very high standard, which should reward you with the highest marks on the SQE non-legal marking criteria.
As a part of your BPTC training, you have covered the following skills:
- BPTC advocacy
- BPTC conference skills
- BPTC legal research
- BPTC opinion writing
- BPTC drafting.
In SQE2, you will be tested on the following:
- SQE advocacy – the competence level of barristers and BPTC graduates in this skill should be already very high;
- SQE client interview – some of the conference skills will definitely be helpful, however please note the following:
(i) The BPTC focuses on client interviews in both civil and criminal proceedings, while in the SQE, client interview is handled only in property and wills and intestacy;
(ii) Due to the specifics of a solicitor’s work, you are very likely to have an initial or first client interview, which is quite different from the interviews you covered as a part of BPTC conference skills.
- SQE legal research – in the BPTC, this is often a part of advocacy studies, where you are required to search case law via LexisLibrary or Westlaw, but:
(i) In SQE2, you will have to search through different sources, including (in some cases, but not all): commentary, articles, guidances etc;
(ii) In SQE2, there will be no access to the databases, but you will be given a bundle to search within.
- SQE legal writing – this is not the same as opinion writing.
- SQE legal drafting – as with the client interview, the BPTC is focused on civil and criminal proceedings, while in the SQE, you will have only one litigation drafting. The rest will be in other subjects: business, property, wills and intestacy. Similarly, some of the civil and criminal draftings you had in BPTC may be not covered in SQE2, as solicitors do not do this sort of work, unless, for example, they have obtained Higher Rights of Audience, see below.
So, the above applies equally to both barristers and BPTC grads, but you may also have different objectives which will further impact your preparation. Let’s consider them both in turn.
From UK Barrister to UK Solicitor
First of all, you not only possess the required SQE2 skills, but may also be exempt from SQE1 and possibly some SQE2 assessments e.g. civil and criminal advocacy.
Note: even if you obtain the exemption from SQE1, the SQE2 does also test your functional legal knowledge in the substantive law and practice areas. You may, then, decide to purchase some of the Oxford University Press (OUP) ‘SQE Prep & Practise’ products, which is quite a cheap and solid solution to brush up on your legal knowledge.
Depending on your practical experience, the SQE exam shouldn’t be a difficult journey for you. Barristers only need to study the additional SQE areas of practice they are less acquainted with and get familiar with the assessment itself, including the exam techniques.
As UK barristers, after passing the SQE exam and subsequent admission to the roll of solicitors, you automatically carry your existing higher rights with you. In other words, you do not need to pass the ‘Higher Rights of Audience’ (HRA) exam.
From BPTC grad to UK Solicitor
Your objectives are slightly different from those of a qualified barrister and in addition, you have more work to do to improve upon certain skills.
However, the SQE, as a solicitor bar exam in the UK, also gives you the possibility not only to qualify as a solicitor of England and Wales, but later to obtain the Higher Rights of Audience qualification and be admitted to advocate in the same higher courts as barristers. So, via the SQE route you can effectively gain two qualifications in one exam.
Before we move further in our discussion of BPTC graduates, let’s briefly consider the recent changes to the bar training process.
SRA reform 2021 vs BSB reform 2020
These two regulatory bodies have recently made substantial changes to their qualification process.
The Bar Standards Board (BSB) managed to implement its reform one year before the SRA’s ‘super exam’ or Solicitors Qualifying Examination. The motives behind those two reforms are very much the same: to protect the public; diversify the ways to obtain qualifying work experience; and remove unnecessary barriers, giving better chances to talented aspiring barristers and solicitors.
However, the BSB’s approach is quite different and basically opposite to the SRA’s. The SRA’s SQE exam is effectively a single route to qualify, which is based on an independent examination run by the authority and outsourced to a single assessment provider, who may not be a training provider.
In contrast, the BSB did not introduce a single examination, but instead chose to diversify the vocational element to qualify as a UK barrister.
Since September 2020, the Bar Professional Training Course or BPTC has been substituted with different preparatory courses in order to make the admission process more diverse.
The new bar courses have very different names, but must be authorised by the BSB, for example: Bar Course, Barrister Training Course (BTC), Bar Training Course (BTC), Bar Practice Course (BPC), Bar Vocational Course (BVC), Bar Vocational Studies (BVS).
The costs of the new BPTC courses vary from £11,750 to £17,450. Unlike the SRA’s SQE approach, the BSB regulates the bar training courses, the providers of which are also the assessment providers. The key BPTC course providers, such as BPP University and Nottingham Law School, have been authorised to deliver the bar training.
So, in order to qualify as a UK barrister, candidates must have a law degree, complete a bar vocational course (previously BPTC), obtain qualifying work experience usually in the form of pupillage, and join one of four Inns: Gray’s Inn, the Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and the Middle Temple.
In order to pass the SQE, BPTC graduates do not need to attend any specific course and there is definitely no need to pay over £10K for professional bar training.
You should already possess many of the skills required for SQE2, which is the most difficult part of the SQE exam: advocacy, interviewing, legal writing, research and writing.
Your main points of concern should then be:
- Cover the additional areas of law that you did not cover in your BPTC or other similar bar course;
- Identify the differences in the skills and law between newly-qualified solicitors and barristers;
- Develop the skills which you do not possess or need to improve.
Solicitors’ Higher Rights of Audience
One of the biggest challenges in the barrister qualification process as described above is pupillage.
If you are a BPTC or other bar course graduate and struggle to find a pupillage, you may instead choose to switch to the SQE and become a solicitor first.
After you are admitted to the roll of solicitors of England and Wales, you may then sit another exam for a rights of audience qualification – the HRA for criminal and civil advocacy. Technically, you won’t become a barrister, but effectively, HRA will give you (almost) the same rights as a barrister.
At the moment, there are different authorised assessment providers for the HRA, but similar to the SQE, from around mid-2022 the SRA plans to introduce a single exam with a single HRA assessment provider. As with the SQE exam, there is no mandatory training requirement for the HRA.
SQE prep and training
Whether you are a qualified barrister or a BPTC graduate, you very likely do not require substantial training for the SQE and you can easily cover the gaps in your legal knowledge with or without subscribing to any SQE course.
While the SQE is an extremely practical and skill-based examination, it is still an exam with its own exam techniques. It consists of two stages:
- SQE1 – multiple-choice questions. Click here for more information.
- SQE2 – simulations-based assessment, testing you on both the law and the SQE skills. Click here for more information.
It is completely possible to self-prepare for SQE 1, but for SQE 2 you may require some SQE2 training, at least in order to understand the exam and develop the techniques.
Our SQE2 simulator, also known as the superexam platform, is a training facility where you can book a couple of mock sessions with individual feedback and thus tailor the prep to your individual needs.
What is a barrister?
A barrister is one of two main categories of lawyers practicing in England and Wales.
They are qualified legal professionals who have the right to appear as advocates and represent clients in the High Court, as opposed to solicitors who are generally engaged in office-based work.
Barristers in England and Wales are regulated and authorised to practise by the Bar Standards Board (BSB).
To qualify as a barrister, you have to complete the following steps:
(i) Academic stage of training:
- Qualifying law degree (at least class 2:2); or
- A non-law degree (at 2:2 or above) followed by the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)
(ii) Vocational (work-based) training
(iii) Practical experience (known as a pupillage)
What is the BPTC?
The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is a year-long postgraduate course which gives aspiring barristers the opportunity to qualify and practise in England and Wales and makes up the vocational stage of bar qualification.
From September 2020, the BPTC is being replaced by a number of bar courses, such as the Bar Course, Bar Training Course (BTC), Bar Practice Course (BPC), Bar Vocational Course (BVC) and Bar Vocational Studies (BVS).
Here is the list of authorised bar courses providers:
- BPP University
- Cardiff University
- Manchester Metropolitan University
- Northumbria University
- Nottingham Trent University
- The City Law School, City, University of London
- The Inns of Court College of Advocacy
- The University of Law
- The University of the West of England.
The Barrister Training Course (BTC), formerly the BPTC, will cost you at least £11,750, depending on the law school and location you choose to study in.