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How new qualification routes can help diversify legal talent

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The legal profession is often thought to be slow to change and, perhaps unfairly, old-fashioned. There are well-trodden career pathways and educational routes that demonstrate skill and competence, and create new solicitors through established channels – primarily the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC).

Having been in place since 1993, many people in practice today will have qualified to be a solicitor this way. The routes are familiar, tough and vocational. They help prepare you for the illusive and highly competitive traditional training contract. They do not necessarily provide opportunity to the full spectrum of talent looking to enter the legal profession.

The awarding of training contracts compounds the problem of accessibility even further: 77% of trainees at the leading 130+ law firms are Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates. Training contracts have also been increasingly offered to those who have participated in a firm’s vacation scheme – which are typically concentrated in London.

Things have now changed though. And with that, so do the prospects of a more diverse pool of legal talent coming through the ranks.

As of November 2021, Solicitors Qualification Examination (SQE) has been introduced. It will become the only way to qualify as a solicitor in England & Wales as the GDL and LPC disappear over the coming years. In fact, for aspiring lawyers who are not already doing a law degree, LPC or conversion course the SQE is already the only route.


So, what is the Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE)?

Many of you will be starting to familiarise yourself with the Solicitors Qualification Examination and the changes that brings to education and career pathways.

The SQE consists of 3 key parts:

  • SQE1 – assesses legal knowledge through a two-part multiple-choice examination
  • SQE2 – assesses practical legal skills through oral and written assessments
  • QWE – qualified work experience demonstrates experience gained by providing legal services, enabling lawyers to develop competences they are assessed on in SQE

In short, the SQE tests knowledge, competence and the individuals’ ability to perform the role of solicitor effectively. The QWE element provides the individual with the opportunity to find experiences that will support their development and the businesses within which they work to look at how that is valuable to their corporate and commercial goals.

While you no longer need a law degree, you do need an undergraduate degree or equivalent which could be obtained as part of an apprenticeship. New and alternative pathways to increase accessibility and attract talent are opening up.  Legal education providers such as BARBRI can provide quality, flexible and cost-effective course preparation to ensure candidates are ready to sit the exams.


What does this mean for the Training Contract?

The traditional training contract will evolve, an aspiring solicitor will no longer need to find one of the few and far between spaces at a Law Firm. This creates considerable opportunity – particularly for in-house legal teams, disruptor firms, high street firms or those who have not previously been able to offer a training contract.

This change can help organisations think about their workforce strategies and talent development programmes. Qualified Work Experience (QWE) replaces the training contract – it needs to be gained over a two year period at up to four different placements and signed off by a qualified solicitor. The idea is for the individual to develop the competencies needed to be a solicitor but these competencies can be practiced in a legal clinic, volunteering, in-house or in a law firm.


Encouraging signs from first student cohort

Change always brings uncertainty for some and it is still early days with the SQE. However, the new process has been introduced to ensure consistent high standards for all through a centralised assessment process, which is something the LPC didn’t do.

The first set of SQE1 exam results provided a 53% average pass rate, with BARBRI students reporting a 77% average pass rate. The first set of SQE2 results showed a 77% average pass rate, with BARBRI students reporting an 83% pass rate. 


How can this benefit future talent?

 BARBRI is collecting data from its SQE students and – while it is still early days – those who are less socially mobile, who perhaps don’t have English as their first language or who are first generation in their family to go to university are successfully passing the SQE assessments.

This is an extremely positive sign indicating the potential SQE has to support those from a wide range of diverse experiences and backgrounds in entering the legal profession.

There are also other benefits we believe the SQE can have in allowing for a more diverse range of solicitors to receive the qualifications they need to enter the profession:


  • Those who have other commitments (such as caring responsibilities) or those who need to work full time to support their studies can study flexibly over a timeframe to suit them


  • Those who do not have a law degree can access a flexible, online course provider (like BARBRI) to help prepare them for the SQE assessments


  • Those already in the legal profession who have been looking for an opportunity to qualify now have a potential route. Paralegals and aspiring solicitors have a pathway, potentially with the QWE element already in the bag.


  • Those who are qualified overseas can help develop and enhance their career by becoming dual qualified in England & Wales.


  • Those working in social welfare law can apply to take advantage of initiatives, such as SWSQF, which are designed to support them in their chosen field by removing financial barriers and ensuring access to justice is not forgotten.


The change the SQE brings could be transformational for individuals and organisations, particularly those who want to invest in, promote and support their top talent. There is now an alternative way to do this to ensure organisations are attracting, retaining and developing talent.  We will be keeping a close eye on the data at BARBRI and hope that the early positive results continue.


About the author

Lucie Allen

Managing Director, BARBRI International

Lucie is an established and energetic leader with over 20 years commercial experience working across a variety of industries and verticals. Lucie spent 7 years at Thomson Reuters prior to joining Barbri in a global role as vice president in the legal segment where she worked closely with global law firm leaders. Lucie has created organizational structures, built teams, defined propositions and developed successful customer account programmes throughout her career to deliver top line growth. She is recognized for her collaborative approach, influence and ability to execute on her strategic vision. Lucie is passionate about diversity and inclusion advancement in the workplace as well as supporting people with their personal development and career goals to achieve their potential. She is a cohort lead for Thrive with Mentoring, a not-for-profit women’s mentoring programme, sits on the board for London Skills for Growth and London South East Colleges Group and She Breaks the Law as well as ByFoke.

About BARBRI Group

BARBRI offers a comprehensive suite of e-learning solutions for higher education institutions and law-related businesses. These include global qualification preparation, such as preparation for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), U.S. bar exam, the Professional Skills Course (PSC), as well as curriculum, assessment, online programme management, and professional development.