Are you a student undertaking or graduating from a non-law degree, or even still at secondary level and deciding what third-level route you’d like to take? Are you a working professional in a non-law field and interested in branching into the legal profession?
The new Solicitor’s Qualifying Examination (SQE) opens up the opportunity for anyone to qualify as a solicitor, even without a law degree. The SQE is a rigorous assessment which aims to ensure that anyone who passes the two stages can be deemed to have the expected high standard of legal knowledge and skills required to become a qualified lawyer, but without needing to secure an expensive law degree from a “prestigious” university. Alternatively, if you wish to becoming a barrister read more about bar professional training course.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority has undertaken a significant reform process in recent years, with the aim of overhauling the route to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales. With the introduction of the SQE, this new centralised, standardised qualification process is now much more accessible and affordable than the old regime. It also allows for more diversity and niche specialisation opportunities in the legal profession, where candidates can use their expertise from their non-law studies or career to focus on a particular area of law, and subsequently add more value to their clients and the profession as a whole. For example, a candidate with an accounting background could go on to specialise as a solicitor in the area of financial law, or a candidate with an IT background could focus on legal issues relating to the digital world. Read more about bar exam in the UK.
Qualifying as a Solicitor for Non-Law Grads – Old and New Routes
To join the roll of solicitors under the previous regime, non-law graduates or working professionals had to:
- Complete a legal conversion course such as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), costing up to £8,400;
- Complete a Legal Practice Course (LPC), costing up to £16,750;
- Complete a two-year training contract in a law firm, which can be very difficult to secure.
Read more about SQE for LLB and GDL grads here.
Under the new SQE regime introduced on 1 September 2021, once students have graduated from their non-law degree, they must:
- Complete at least two years of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE), which can be in up to four organisations and must be signed off by a solicitor or a Compliance Officer of Legal Practice (COLP);
- Pass stage 1 of the SQE, a multiple-choice assessment testing Functioning Legal Knowledge (FLK) in a range of areas of substantive and procedural law;
- Pass stage 2 of the SQE, an in-person oral and written examination which tests the candidate’s practical legal skills in real-life scenarios, such as conducting a client interview and writing up case and matter analysis;
- Meet the SRA’s character and suitability requirements. This is assessed by the SRA, which evaluates a candidate’s history to determine their level of honesty and integrity, and also takes into account any criminal convictions, especially those of a serious nature involving, for example, violence, fraud, or discrimination.
The fee for SQE1 is £1,558, and for SQE2 is £2,422, so you can already see that this route is much less expensive than taking university courses under the old regime. These costs do not include the cost of any SQE training courses, but it is likely that there will be a wide range of courses available with varying levels of flexibility and cost. In theory, you could even self-study from textbooks to pass at least SQE1, but do keep in mind that the standard of knowledge required to pass both stages of the SQE is very high. Graduates of non-law degrees will need to undertake substantial preparation to build up their legal knowledge and practical skills, so we would advise that you do enroll in a course to get structured support and guidance to pass these difficult assessments.
Read more about the Solicitor Qualifying Examination here.
Moreover, unlike the traditional route, some of these steps can be taken concurrently, i.e. you can start your Qualifying Work Experience at the same time as studying for the SQE assessments, rather than having to wait until you pass the academic stage before gaining practical experience. This means that you can fund your studies on the go!
The QWE requirement is also much more flexible on the SQE route than the previous training contracts. Candidates must have completed two years full-time (or equivalent part-time) work, but this can be in a variety of roles in up to four law firms or other organisations offering legal services. It must involve some level of experience in providing legal services to clients and offer candidates the opportunity to develop the practical skills that will be tested in SQE2. This is something all potential SQE candidates should start thinking about early in the qualification process. You could obtain experience in roles such as:
- Working in a law clinic
- Undertaking a law apprenticeship
- Volunteering in a charitable organisation offering legal advice
So, how can a non-law degree holder sit the SQE? Let’s look at the path ahead depending on what stage you’re at in your studies or career.
SQE for non-law students or recent graduates
If you are just setting out on your career journey, well, the world is basically your oyster. You still need to complete a degree as this is a prerequisite for the SQE, but you can choose to pursue your studies in whatever field you’re interested in, and then bring that knowledge and skill to the legal profession through the SQE.
If you are just starting out on your university path, you have a few options available to you:
- If you are just starting out on your university path, you can still choose to pursue a classical law degree.
- Some universities are offering SQE preparation as part of their degree offerings for candidates studying law who subsequently choose to qualify through the SQE.
- The SRA will also continue to grant solicitor qualifications to law graduates along the old route (i.e. GDL and LPC) up to 31 December 2032 to anyone who has enrolled in or started a qualifying law degree before 21 September 2021, or the GDL, LPC, or training contract before 1 September 2021.
- Alternatively, you can complete an SQE non-law degree in any other subject, and perhaps start self-studying and/or gaining some legal work experience in a part-time capacity to build up your legal knowledge early.
Whatever university route you choose, if you plan to follow the SQE route to qualifying as a solicitor, it is important that you start planning for and secure your QWE as soon as possible. This is a crucial step in the qualification process, and there really is no substitute for real-world experience when it comes to learning the practical skills required to work as a solicitor.
If you are still in university, check out the legal clinic on campus and see if you can volunteer. You could also start working part-time as a paralegal in a law firm while completing your degree. It all adds up and will help you succeed in the end, so start obtaining experience as soon as you can.
Finally, of course, you need to prepare for and sit the SQE stage 1 and stage 2 assessments – we have included more information below on how you can do this.
SQE for non-law professionals
Working professionals in non-law fields have a lot to offer to the legal profession. It is always useful to the wider market to have solicitors with expert knowledge in particular areas, so your experience in e.g. economics, linguistics, the property market, or any other field will give you and your clients a considerable advantage when working on the legal side of these areas. You might even have already worked on regulatory matters in your field of expertise which will be valuable experience when you start working as a solicitor. Diverse legal profession is one of SRA’s regulatory objectives. Read more about diversity and solicitors.
Here are the steps you need to consider to make the transition to becoming a solicitor:
- Start building up your legal knowledge. It is likely that the area of law is quite new to you, and the standards required to pass the SQE are very high, so it might be useful to start reading or perhaps take a part-time SQE1 preparation course.
- As mentioned above, it is important to secure your QWE as soon as you can, to start learning how real-world solicitors work and build up the practical skills you will need to pass the SQE, especially stage 2. If you are still working full-time in your own profession, you can seek out part-time work experience opportunities, or perhaps consider going part-time in your existing role to focus more on building up your legal experience. It might even be an option to take on some law-related tasks in your current role if your employer is willing or able to cater for this.
- The SRA also accepts legal experience in previous roles, so it is also worth exploring if any law-related work you might have done may already qualify as QWE. Contact a solicitor or COLP in your company to discuss this with them.
- Finally, you need to actually sit and pass SQE1 and SQE2!
Preparing for the SQE1 and SQE2 assessments
Trainee solicitors must possess comprehensive functioning legal knowledge (FLK) to pass SQE1, and then combine this FLK with practical skills in order to pass SQE2. As a non-law graduate SQE candidate, it is likely that you will need to make significant effort to build up your legal knowledge and skills to the level required to pass this difficult examination.
Self-study will be the most important element of your journey, whether you choose to go it alone or through a university course or SQE training provider. No matter how much you invest in an in-depth course, always keep in mind that “you cannot buy knowledge” – you can only build it up yourself through hard work and commitment. SQE candidates need to have an in-depth understanding of legal concepts and how to apply them to real-world scenarios. SQE1 questions can focus on any detail of the areas of law being assessed, and no training course can teach absolutely everything, so you will always need to supplement your training by reading books cover-to-cover yourself to fully absorb and memorise all the information.
There are a couple of excellent resources you can use to build up your knowledge through self-study: The Oxford University Press (OUP) has developed a set of “SQE Prep & Test” products, with modules available for each of the areas of law tested in SQE1. These packages include study materials as well as sample multiple-choice questions (MCQs) in a format similar to the SQE1 assessment. The College of Law Publishing (CLP) also has a wide range of Legal Practice Guides covering every area of law.
A wide range of SQE preparation courses are currently being developed and launched to help prepare candidates for both stages of the SQE, with SQE 1 courses offering legal knowledge education and MCQs, and SQE 2 courses offering more study materials as well as mock sessions mirroring the practical assessments required for this stage of the examination. The courses are likely to vary in cost and flexibility, so start exploring the options to find the best course to suit your budget and availability.
Our OSCEsmart training course offers in-depth training via practical simulations on the skills assessed in SQE2, where candidates can choose the area of law, date, time and tutor for each session. You can purchase discounted packages or bespoke mock stations. Our packaged modules include learning materials, lectures, and mock stations with personalised tutor feedback for the practical assessments. The smart tutors are solicitors who have qualified through the QLTS (the predecessor of the SQE), so they have personal experience with this examination format as well as the knowledge and insight to guide candidates in identifying their knowledge gaps and areas they need to improve upon in their studies.
OSCEsmart has a flexible modular structure, with prices starting at £70 per mock station and discounts available on bulk purchases, so you can tailor your training according to your budget and specific needs. We will be publishing more information about the structure and pricing for our course and modules in May 2021.
During our four years of coaching foreign-qualified lawyers for QLTS OSCE, we have accumulated in-depth understanding of the exam techniques and tips, formed a team of experienced tutoring solicitors and interviewers. Based on this expertise, we have now also developed training sessions for bigger groups of aspiring solicitors by means of our live- streaming simulations conducted under exam conditions, which we call the Legal Theatre. The service is a live stream of a client interview, which includes a scheduled real-time video session and accompanying materials, available for purchase by aspiring solicitors, QLTS & SQE candidates, law students, and qualified lawyers. Read more about the Legal Theatre here.
With this new qualification route aimed to become the gold standard for assessing the knowledge and skills of aspiring solicitors, passing the SQE will be no easy feat. It will take quite some time and investment on your part. However, representing and helping clients as a solicitor is incredibly rewarding, and combining your SQE and non-law degree experience will bring a hugely beneficial level of value and diversity to the legal profession in England and Wales.