Following the introduction of the new route to solicitor qualification, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), Jonny Hurst, Head of Outreach and Student Recruitment at BPP University Law School, debunked seven of the biggest misconceptions on the qualification that are ‘doing the rounds’ within the student community.

Myth 1: “The SQE is easier than the LPC”

Law graduates and current students who started their law degree or conversion course before the end of 2021, are still able to choose between the SQE or LPC pathways to qualify as a solicitor. For some students, the potential deciding factor between the two routes is to choose the pathway of least resistance, by opting for the one which is considered to be ‘easier’.  Currently, there’s a perception that the SQE is going to be easier than the LPC, because SQE1 is entirely assessed by way of multiple-choice questions. However, SQE1 is comprised of 360 questions across two x 5-hour exams. This means you must answer questions quickly and under intense pressure, reviewing a ‘single best answer’ format, rather than answers that are obviously right or emphatically wrong.

The pass rate of the first SQE1 assessments sat in November 2021 was 53% – significantly lower than most LPC pass rates. However, we are pleased to report that from BPP’s only cohort who sat those assessments, our Solicitor Apprentices, 14 out of 17 of them passed both papers at the first attempt, with most doing so very comfortably. While it is too early to come to any conclusion as the relative difficulty of the two regimes, what appears clear, albeit from a small sample of our students, is that the type of SQE preparation course and the provider chosen by a candidate may have a significant influence on their prospects of passing the SQE.

The SQE assessments are also ‘closed book’, unlike some LPCs. At BPP, our LPC exams are almost all ‘open book’, enabling candidates to take hard copy materials into the exam. Many students find open book assessments less stressful, but that doesn’t necessarily make them easier.

When all the above is taken into account and is combined with the fact that the LPC is assessed to the level of a ‘day one trainee’, whereas the standard expect of an SQE candidate is equivalent to that of a newly qualified solicitor, it would appear that there is a good case for arguing, overall, that the SQE may be more challenging to pass.

Myth 2: “A law graduate doesn’t need to take another course to pass the SQE”

In theory, there is nothing stopping a law graduate from paying the SQE assessment fees and taking the exams. In fact, much of the core knowledge covered in a law degree or law conversion course is covered in around 50% of the SQE syllabus. However, as well as needing to learn, from scratch, the other half of the SQE curriculum (which is broadly similar to the core practice areas and core skills covered in the LPC), it’s not as simple as re-acquainting yourself with your previous notes and studies and learning a few more modules.

You need to keep pace with changes in the law and be fully prepared to sit such high stakes, specialist assessments. Such preparation can come in many forms, but at BPP, we believe that the best preparation includes a combination of interactive classroom teaching (whether in person or online), a dedicated learning platform driven by artificial intelligence to support your preparation, together with plenty of opportunities to practise both the MCQs for SQE1 and the skills which will be assessed in SQE2.

Myth 3: “It doesn’t matter what course you take as long as you pass the SQE”

While your main aim may be to pass the SQE assessments, the range of courses on the market is vast, and some will prepare you for both the SQE and your career better than others. There are some courses/materials which are self-directed ‘DIY packages’ which offer little or no personal tutor guidance. For some students this may be sufficient, but for the majority we’d recommend a course that offers a more comprehensive and personal approach to getting you prepared for the exams.

What’s also worth considering is the resit fees involved with the SQE. Taking both exams once will cost £3,980 (£1,558 for SQE1 and £2,442 for SQE2). You have to pay the same fee again if you have to re-sit either exam in full, with the only exception being that you can ‘bank’ one of the two SQE1 papers. But re-sitting one SQE1 paper would still set you back another £779.  That’s why it’s imperative to maximize your chances of passing first time by choosing a more comprehensive preparation course than opting for a ‘quick test-prep’ approach.

Whilst for some candidates, the main aim is to ‘get over the SQE line’, which is a viewpoint that could be seen as a little short-sighted. There are some comprehensive courses which offer not just a thorough ‘belt and braces’ approach to the SQE, they will also prepare you for working life in practice far beyond the curriculum of the SQE. The content of the current LPC includes knowledge and skills which firms prefer their new talent to have already started to develop by the time they start in the office or remotely. This is why BPP has added specialist practice areas and skills to our SQE preparation course and have wrapped up this extra learning in an SQE Master’s programme.

So, it’s worth remembering, an enhanced SQE course wrapped up in a Master’s provides three added benefits:

  • More time and materials to prepare for the SQE assessments
  • It is eligible for postgraduate Master’s funding from Student Finance (England) which is £11,570 for the 2021/22 academic year, and £11,836 for 2022/23; and
  • You receive additional specialist learning valued by most law firms

As you only invest in your career once, most students would be best advised to consider more than just the quickest or cheapest way to prepare for the SQE.

Myth 4: “The SQE will be cheaper than the LPC”

In some instances, this may be true. You could enrol on a self-study SQE prep course and pass the exams with nothing more than the guidance from online study materials. But if you’re not fully prepared, or if those materials are inadequate, this is likely to increase the likelihood of failing the exams and incurring costly resit fees.

To sit both parts of the SQE exams twice will cost almost £8,000 (see above) before you consider the cost of any test-prep course, so you will need to factor the risk of incurring these additional costs into your plans. Unlike the SQE, the fees for an LPC will include your exam fees, with LPC resit fees being relatively small compared to the SQE. In addition, the SQE2 exams are currently only scheduled to be held in certain cities around the UK (currently Manchester, London and Cardiff), so, depending on where you live, you may need to incur travel costs and overnight accommodation to sit these assessments.

One other potential factor to consider with the cost of the SQE is the cancellation policy. Currently, if you don’t cancel within the 14-day cooling-off period after having booked your exam, you will forfeit 75% of the relevant fee.

In addition, the cost of a comprehensive SQE course wrapped up in a Master’s programme is not likely to be radically different to that of its LPC Master’s equivalent. So, factoring in the re-sit cost risk, it could be more cost effective for a significant number of students to follow the LPC pathway.

Myth 5: “Qualifying Work Experience is the same as a training contract”

While Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) and a training contract both provide your practical ‘on-the-job’ training, they are similar, but not the same. A training contract normally takes place at a firm once you complete your LPC. This is normally a two-year period that is supervised by dedicated professionals, such as a training partner or graduate recruitment team at a single law firm. They can oversee your progress and help to add guidance where required as part of a two-year training programme.

Whilst QWE at most medium to large law firms will resemble their training contract, QWE can also be acquired at up to four firms or legal employers.  It will be easier to accrue QWE in the latter way, but such work could be fully paid, under-paid or unpaid, and there is a risk of there being less of a strategic thread and direction in your training and development when your QWE is acquired across multiple placements. Effectively, the onus for ensuring the overall quality of your QWE lies with you.

So, acquiring multiple QWE placements may be more transactional, with each placement being signed off for the work you are paid to undertake, without it necessarily forming part of a structured plan for your overall training and development as a practising lawyer.

As well as being easier to accrue, one of the other main benefits of QWE is that QWE trainees can specialise much earlier because a traditional training contract requires trainees to combine experience in both contentious and non-contentious work.

Myth 6: “There is no need for non-law graduates to take a law foundation course”

Under the SQE, there is no requirement for non-law graduates to take a law foundations or conversion course prior to sitting the SQE. While this is the case in theory, the reality is that anyone looking to take the SQE needs to have a firm grasp of a considerable amount of core legal knowledge to have any chance of succeeding in the assessments.

If you were to start an SQE preparation course without any prior legal training alongside peers who had previously studied law or taken a conversion course, you will find progressing considerably more challenging than those with 1-3 years of law already behind them. In practice, you need a solid grounding in the law behind you to succeed in the SQE as a non-law graduate. A law foundations course for non-law graduates will put you on an equal footing with those who have a legal background. In addition, if asked, most firms would recommend non-law students to take such a course prior to preparing for the SQE as they may perceive a candidate with no solid foundation in law – even if they pass the SQE – as lacking depth in their overall legal education.

Myth 7: “The SQE route will widen participation in the legal profession”

Widening participation in the legal profession, which we at BPP are dedicated towards, was a laudable intention of the SRA in their design of the SQE.  They had hoped to make it quicker and cheaper to qualify for all students and to create a level playing field for all candidates sitting the assessments.  The first set of SQE results has already shown a large attainment gap between the results of white students compared to their black and Asian peers, such difference being larger than for the LPC. As a result, the SRA has commissioned Essex University to conduct research in this area with a view to taking the steps necessary to work towards closing this attainment gap.

If you want to know more about your potential training options, including the SQE prep courses available, we recommend you visit our dedicated SQE page or get in touch and speak with an expert adviser.