An England and Wales bar qualification can provide many professional advantages in an increasingly interconnected world as many cross-border transactions and international disputes are often governed by English law. Whether your motivations are to facilitate a move into an international law firm or overseas mobility; to reinforce your skills on cross-border transactions; or to gain additional faith from clients and peers on complex deals; then now is the time to act as the cross-qualification examination process is set to become much longer, harder, and more expensive.
The Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) is working on a new set of examinations for everyone looking to be admitted as a Solicitor in England & Wales, regardless of whether you are already a foreign qualified lawyer or a fresh graduate from a UK university. Dubbed the “Solicitor Super-Exam”, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will roll out several changes to the qualification route for both domestic and foreign applicants – wiping out the LPC (the 1-year postgraduate course that UK law graduates must complete along with a training contract) and QLTS (the current route to dual-qualification for foreign admitted lawyers).
Why the changes?
This change comes as a response to criticism of the LPC. Costing up to £16,000, around 9,000 people pass it every year although there are only around 5,500 training contracts available in the United Kingdom – leaving thousands of budding lawyers, often with impressive academic skill but a lack of ‘connections’, locked out of the legal industry. In June 2016, the SRA’s executive director, Crispin Passmore, stressed that the purpose of the SQE proposal was about “higher standards, not reducing them in any way, shape or form”. Everyone had to be confident that those holding the title of Solicitor were “good enough” to do so, and that “good enough is a very high standard indeed”. The following year, the SRA reaffirmed that their goal was to make sure all solicitors meet consistent, high standards at the point of entry to the profession.”, with Paul Philip (Chief Executive), adding that “The new assessment will mean the public and law firms can have full confidence that all new solicitors meet the same consistently high standards, regardless of how they qualified.” With all of the emphasis being placed on ‘high standards’, one can only assume that the benchmarks for getting qualified may be about to get harder to meet.
What is the current QLTS format?
The Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme is available to lawyers qualified in recognised jurisdictions outside the UK and comes in 2 parts, with a total of under 19 hours of assessment and at a total cost of £2,925 + VAT (£3,510 in total).
Part 1: The MCT
The MCT is a multiple-choice test with 180 questions to be answered within 6 hours (split into two equal sessions – often morning and afternoon with a break in between). The subjects covered are the Legal System of England and Wales, Constitutional law, Judicial Review and Human Rights, Professional conduct (SRA Accounts Rules etc.), Contract law, Tort, Criminal law, Property law, Trust law and Business law. The MCT must be successfully completed before moving on to the second part of the QLTS.
Part 2: The OSCE
The Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) consists of 6 exercises (client interviewing, completion of attendance note/case analysis, advocacy/oral presentation, legal drafting, legal research and legal writing) repeated across 3 subjects (Business, Civil & Criminal Litigation and Property & Probate). The exercises are a mix of written and roleplay, designed to imitate a real law practise environment, and take 4h15min for each subject, normally offered over several days.
Currently, only EU, EEA and Swiss applicants can apply for exemptions to the QLTS. Those who have passed the Legal Practice Course (LPC) are able to apply for a complete exemption from Part 1 of the QLTS. Applicants with demonstrable knowledge and experience of English & Welsh law practise may be considered for certain exemptions in those specific subjects by an SRA assessor (for example, a Corporate associate practicing England & Wales law in an international law firm may be able to apply for an exemption from the Business Law questions). Applicants who are Ireland or Scotland qualified are automatically eligible for a pre-determined set of exemptions.
What has been proposed regarding the new SQE format?
The exact format and content of the SQE is still under review, and open to change, but proposals from the SRA have given an indication of what we could expect to see. The SQE is expected to clock in at a mammoth 35 hours or above of assessment time. It has been proposed to cost in the range of between £3,000 and £4,500 (+ VAT) but given the significant increase in assessment hours, it would be fair to assume that fees are likely to fall on the higher end of this scale, and the SRA noted in November 2018 that the eventual fee may even be outside this range. Like the QLTS, the SQE will comprise of 2 stages:
SQE stage 1
The SQE Stage 1 pilot starts in March 2019, giving us a good idea of what it is likely to involve once it is fully launched. The SQE1 pilot assessment will consist of both Functioning Legal Knowledge (FLK) exams and a practical legal skills assessment. This will be completed over 3 days, with days 1 and 3 of the pilot lasting approximately 7.5 hours and day 2 lasting approximately 5 hours, making the current 6-hour MCT look like a breeze in comparison!
The FLK Assessments consist of three multiple choice tests (MCTs) of 120 questions each. That’s twice as many questions as the current MCT! The subjects covered are Business Law, Dispute Resolution, Contract, Tort, Property Practice, Wills and Trusts, Solicitors’ Accounts, Land Law, Public and Administrative Law, and The Legal System of England and Wales, Criminal law.
On top of this, the Legal Skills Assessment consists of two practical legal skills assessments, each containing one legal research and two writing exercises, completed over a period of half a day. Judging from the assessment guidelines for the pilot, these appear to be based around client advice scenarios.
SQE stage 2
SQE2 can only be completed once SQE1 has been successfully passed and is proposed to be a behemoth of an assessment, clocking in more examination hours than the entirety of the QLTS! 20 hours of practical assessments are expected in 5 key skills areas: client interviewing, advocacy/persuasive oral communication, case & matter analysis, legal research & written advice, and drafting. Each skill will be assessed twice within 2 legal contexts chosen from a list of 5: Dispute Resolution, Property, Business Practice, Criminal Practice, and Wills & Trusts. Some SQE stage 2 exams will be taken on a computer, and others will take the form of role plays.
The SQE2 will obviously span across several consecutive days, but don’t worry – if you aren’t a masochist, or just generally enjoy keeping your sanity, then you will also have the option to take it in two parts. The SQE2 pilot plans have not yet been released, so this content is still very much speculative at this stage.
Good news! In their January 2019 Consultation paper, the SRA stated that “Under the SQE, qualified lawyers from all jurisdictions will be entitled to apply for exemptions from the SQE where they can demonstrate that their qualifications and experience are equivalent in content and standard. We have taken this position because it is fair, open and treats all jurisdictions equally.” Hooray for equality!
However, it’s important to consider that getting exemptions is not necessarily in your favour. You currently need to get a total mark of around 55-60% to pass the MCT. If you choose not to take an exemption in a subject you have expertise in, that means you’ll be examined in the subjects you’re comfortable with as well as on those you are not previously familiar with, allowing you to gain a certain percentage of the marks with relative ease. If you take exemptions you will be dealing entirely with questions in unfamiliar subjects – and whilst the exam may be a bit shorter, it will be more challenging to achieve the percentage required for a passing grade.
It has also been specified that 2 years’ qualifying work experience (QWE) is expected to be required to be admitted, unlike the QLTS which has no such requirements, which can be with up to four different legal employers and can include pro bono work. It has not been mentioned whether there will be exemptions available for this.
When will these changes come into force?
There is still a lot of uncertainty about exactly when these changes will come into force and what they will involve, as the changes are still under review and the inception date has already been pushed back from 2020. However, it has been confirmed that the QLTS will be available to start until at least July 2021. Once the SQE is introduced (currently proposed for September 2021), then no new applicants will be accepted onto the QLTS. For applicants who have already completed the MCT prior to the SQE rollout, the final cutoff date for qualifying under the old route is currently set to be 2024 (based on the present rollout targets) and such candidates would be able to choose between completing the OSCE or the SQE2 – although based on the proposals I am not sure why any sane person would wish to choose the latter option unless they had missed the OSCE deadline!
While the SRA have not finalized their plans, the fact that the SQE looks like it will be an enormous increase in assessment hours and could cost significantly more should be solid motivation to get into the process this year! If you are unsure about whether dual qualification would be advantageous to your career then please do not hesitate to contact us for a chat and some tailored career advice.
Authored By Daniella-Louise Bourne from Abeo Consulting – a specialist legal search firm headquartered in Singapore.
We place a high value on our relationships and work with a comprehensive list of clients which include international law firms, multinationals and financial institutions operating in Singapore and within the Asian region. We give an objective, impartial and honest advice on your career and we pride ourselves on the tailored recruitment solutions we offer.