So you have completed or are about to complete your LLB or GDL, and you are ready to take the next step in your legal career. With so much reform taking place in the solicitor and barrister qualification routes in England and Wales, what does this mean for you? How does the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) affect your options?
As ever, your overall decision is whether to qualify as a solicitor or a barrister. We are here to explain the differences between these career paths, and explore how the SQE, or solicitor super exam, can affect your next steps as law graduates.
What’s the difference between solicitor and barrister?
In the legal jurisdiction of England and Wales, there is no such thing as a generic “lawyer” – legal professionals are categorised as either solicitors or barristers (although, as we’ll see, there can be some overlap between these two positions). Both professions require a substantial level of education and training to qualify.
What does a solicitor do?
Solicitors mostly work directly with clients. A solicitor is responsible for preparing all of the documentation required before and during a court case or in relation to, for example, commercial or property transactions, as well as providing legal advice and services to clients in a wide variety of areas of law. Tasks could include, for example:
- Commercial contract drafting
- Estate planning
- Real property transactions
- Dispute resolution
- And much more…
Solicitors are generally employed by and work in law firms, or can be self-employed by running their own law firm, usually in the form of partnerships with other solicitors. Their work is generally more office-based than barristers, and involves a lot of documentation, multi-tasking, and project management skills.
The solicitor profession is regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). To become a solicitor under the soon-to-be-defunct regime, LLB/GDL graduates must complete their solicitor training in the form of a Legal Practice Course (LPC) plus a 2-year training contract. Under the new regime introduced in September 2021, graduates must pass two stages of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) and then complete two years of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE).
SQE1 is a computer-based multiple-choice exam testing functional legal knowledge, while SQE2 is a series of practical oral and written assessments focused on the skills candidates need to master for real-life practice.
What does a barrister do?
The primary responsibility of a barrister is advocacy – that is, a barrister represents a client in court and argues their case in front of a judge. They are highly skilled in both public speaking and written communication, and usually specialise in a particular area of law, such as:
- Criminal law
- Chancery law (estates and trusts)
- Commercial law
- Entertainment law
- Environmental law
- Sports law
- Common law (including family, housing and personal injury law)
Barristers are usually hired by solicitors to represent a case if advocacy in a court setting becomes necessary, especially for more complex cases. It is also possible for barristers (with an additional qualification) to be directly engaged by a client under the Public Access Scheme. Most barristers are self-employed, and work in offices known as “chambers”, often sharing with other independently self-employed barristers to split overhead costs.
The barrister profession is regulated by the Bar Standards Board (BSB). To become a barrister, LLB/GDL graduates must complete a bar training course followed by one year of pupillage training, where they learn more about the practicalities of the work by shadowing a senior barrister. Up until September 2020, there was one Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), which has now been replaced by several different bar courses, including the Bar Course, Bar Training Course (BTC), Bar Practice Course (BPC), Bar Vocational Course (BVC) and Bar Vocational Studies (BVS).
Read more about the BSB reform and SQE for BPTC grads here.
Can you be both a solicitor and a barrister?
The lines between the solicitor and barrister professions can sometimes become a little blurred. The short answer to this question is yes, in a sense, you can be both.
With the SQE being a much more accessible and affordable route to qualification than the previous LPC route, it is entirely possible for a qualified barrister to take SQE1 and SQE2 and subsequently qualify as a solicitor. Many barristers would already have a wealth of legal knowledge which will help them to pass the multiple-choice SQE1 assessments, and may relish the opportunity to develop skills they might not already have for the practical SQE2 assessments. You do not need to leave the bar to qualify as a solicitor, but it is not possible to practise as both at the same time.
For qualified solicitors, the situation is a bit more flexible and inclusive. As mentioned, the main difference between a solicitor and a barrister is the role of advocacy. Qualified solicitors have the right of audience to advocate for clients in lower courts (i.e. Magistrates’ Court and County Court), but do not have the automatic right to advocate in the higher courts (i.e. Crown Court, High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court). However, it is possible for qualified solicitors to obtain a Higher Rights of Audience (HRA) qualification, which will then allow them to advocate in the higher (civil and/or criminal) courts – effectively giving them the same rights and access as barristers.
With that in mind, the most beneficial path for LLB and GDL graduates may be to qualify as solicitors and then pass the HRA to become a solicitor-advocate and effectively practise as both!
How does the SQE impact LLB and GDL grads?
For LLB and GDL graduates planning to become solicitors, it is still possible to take the traditional route to qualification, i.e. complete the LPC (full time over one year or part time over two years) and secure a two-year training contract. The SRA has indicated that it will continue to authorise LPC courses until the end of the 2025/26 academic year, but it is also likely that many course providers may start phasing out their LPC offerings before then, in favor of SQE preparation courses.
Law graduates can instead choose to pursue the new “super exam” route to qualification. This is much cheaper and more accessible in terms of obtaining SQE qualifying work experience versus a formal training contract.
An LPC can cost up to £16,750, while the cost for taking the SQE is just £3,980 (£1,558 for SQE1; £2,422 for SQE2), plus the costs for any training you undertake to prepare for the SQE.
You already have knowledge of substantive law through your studies, which will help for the multiple-choice SQE1 stage.
However, without completing the LPC, you have not yet built up the required skills and knowledge in the various practice areas for the practical SQE2 stage of the exam.
Here are some options graduates might consider in pursuing the SQE pathway:
- You can start to self-study, while securing work experience to build up the 2-year QWE requirement as well as learning practical skills. This is the cheapest option, and if you can secure paid employment (for example, working as a paralegal or legal clerk), you can fund yourself through the process. Bear in mind, though, that this may be a somewhat risky approach, considering the high standard of knowledge and skills required to pass both stages of the SQE – it would be difficult to reach that level through self-study alone.
- You can take a traditional post-graduate university law course, which should also help in preparing for the SQE. For example, you could pursue an LLM programme and then take the SQE to become qualified. On the one hand, an LLM will give you a world-recognised Master of Law qualification and will give you the opportunity to specialise in a particular area of law. On the other hand, however, this would be the most expensive option, and an LLM will not give you the practical skills you need for SQE2 – you will still need to build those skills through your 2-year work experience and maybe some focused training. You could potentially do this alongside a part-time LLM; overall, this approach would also be the lengthiest.
- You can take an SQE preparation course. Many course providers are in the process of finalising their course offerings and pricing, but there will be a variety of courses available to suit your budget and needs. Some providers will specialise in either SQE1 or SQE2, while others may offer both. The courses are part-time so you can still work to accumulate your QWE and skills alongside your studies, as in option 1 above. It is important to remember that building up those practical skills in real-life practice will be crucial to get through SQE stage 2.
Our OSCEsmart training course offers flexible options for preparing for the practical SQE2 assessments, with video lectures, mock stations and personalised tutor feedback.
Our prices start from just £70 per mock station and you may proceed on a “pay as you go” basis or avail of discounts on bulk purchases.
For aspiring barristers, you still need to take a bar training course to qualify, which can vary in cost from £11,750 to £17,450. However, if you are undecided, or would perhaps like to enjoy “the best of both worlds”, you could follow the SQE route and then obtain the Higher Rights of Audience to represent your clients in the higher courts, just as barristers do.
The SQE pathway also offers a great deal of flexibility when it comes to qualifying work experience compared to traditional training contracts. SQE apprentices can choose to complete QWE in 6-month stints in different organisations, and this can be done while you are studying for the SQE exam. An SQE apprenticeship is especially beneficial for learning the practical skills you need for SQE2, so you could do this while taking SQE1 to get a feel for real-life practice before you make your final decision as to becoming a solicitor or a barrister.
What does the SQE mean for LLB and GDL students?
The options for current students in LLB degree or GDL courses are much the same as for graduates, as described above. If you have already started or accepted a place in a qualifying law course before 1 September 2021, you can choose between the SQE or LPC routes to qualify as a solicitor. Instead of pursuing the expensive Legal Practice Course and then try to find a training contract (which can sometimes be difficult to secure), you can follow up your LLB/GDL with SQE and find a more obtainable SQE apprenticeship for your QWE.
The SQE exam is also an option for aspiring solicitors with non-law degrees, so you can even choose between SQE or LLB and decide instead to start your academic path in another subject you are interested in. This could even become part of your specialisation if, for example, you obtain a degree in environmental science, and then qualify as a solicitor through the SQE and specialise in environmental law! It should even be possible to find solicitor apprenticeships for your QWE in whatever area of law you’re specifically interested in.
Passing SQE1 is also likely to be accepted by the BSB (subject to further discussions with the SRA) as the academic step towards qualifying as a barrister, so again, aspiring barristers could choose to pursue a non-law degree and then take SQE1 before proceeding to the bar training course.
Transitional arrangements for LLB and GDL (students and grads)
The SRA is endeavouring to make the transitional period following the introduction of the SQE as flexible as possible for current law students and graduates. The transitional arrangements apply to anyone who has completed, started, accepted an offer of a place or paid a non-refundable deposit in the following:
- Qualifying law degree (QLD) or exempting law degree (ELD), before 21 September 2021
- Common Professional Examination (CPE)/Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), before 1 September 2021
- Legal Practice Course (LPC), before 1 September 2021
- Training contract, before 1 September 2021
Anyone who falls under these criteria will be able to obtain solicitor qualifications under the old route until 31 December 2032. However, it is worth noting that many of the LPC course providers may start phasing out their course offerings in favour of an SQE preparation course, and the SRA is only authorising LPC courses until the end of the 2025/26 academic year.
Considering the increased affordability, accessibility and flexibility of the new SRA SQE route, we would recommend that current students and graduates follow this route to qualifying as a solicitor.