The solicitor profession has never been more pliable in its qualification routes: the classic track is nowadays accompanied by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives’ pathway and the growing in interest ‘earn while you learn’-styled apprenticeships. In this article, we will expound each and every one of these approaches and their trajectories until qualification.

Becoming a Solicitor: a Step-by-Step Overview

To accomplish a qualification in the legal sector as a solicitor, one needs to understand the process in rigour, so here is a ‘hawk-eye’ review of it:

  • Completing a Law degree or a non-Law degree maps the first stage of aspiring solicitors’ journey. On average in recent years, between 14-17% of all Law LLB university students in the UK graduated with a First-class Honours (1:1), but in principle most future employers insist that candidates have obtained at least an upper Second-class Honours (2:1). Those with lower Second-class Honours (2:2) must not endure total discouragement as law firms have become considerate of mitigating factors, including Covid-19, which may have impaired one’s academic potential. The qualification is so flexible that graduates from all academic areas, for instance, stretching from Biology to Music or Computer Science, can set off on the track to an auspicious solicitor qualification.     
  • Then follows the completion of the Legal Practice Course or the Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL) depending on one’s degree subject. The PGDL is designed for non-Law graduates to secure the necessary legal knowledge before embarking together with Law graduates to enrol in the LPC. The LPC is a year-long course that teaches practical skills and knowledge. A cardinal notice about the LPC is that it will be accepted until 2032 as the Solicitors Qualifying Examination is to substitute it from September 2021.
  • Training Contracts succeed the LPC/SQE as the penultimate solicitor qualification stage. A training contract is a mandatory two-year-long qualifying work experience accumulation, which usually involves rotating around four departments to gain a solid multi-service legal exposure. The Crown Prosecution Service provides Traineeships specifically designated for those aiming to specialise as criminal solicitors.
  • Finally, Trainees must apply to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and satisfy the ‘character and suitability requirements’ to be granted practice license. In order to do so, the SRA can take into account past behavioural issues, criminal record and any other mitigating/aggravating circumstances before its assessment as to whether a candidate matches its professional standards. The SRA has explicitly self-outlined that candidates must:
    • protect the public and the public interest; and
    • maintain public trust and confidence in the solicitors‘ profession and in legal services provided by authorised persons.

The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)

The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is to be enacted from the back end of 2021 to begin replacing the LPC and will involve two assessment phases:

  • SQE 1 trials the ‘functioning legal knowledge’ of candidates with 180 multiple-choice questions designed to offer application of legal knowledge to sample situations incurred in the daily work of solicitors. SQE 1 is split into two sub-assessments, where each covers specific modules, for example, the first SQE 1 exam includes constitutional and contract law, whereas the second SQE 1 assessment incorporates land and criminal law.
  • SQE 2 tests the ‘core legal skills’ of aspiring lawyers, hence it involves four oral and twelve written assessments, which essentially reflect solicitors’ professional duties. Advocacy, document drafting and legal research skills, amongst others, are examined while being applied to five key practice areas of law:
    • business practice;
    • criminal practice;
    • dispute resolution;
    • property and wills; and
    • estates’ administration.

Candidates have a maximum of three attempts to pass each of the two SQE modules, with official exam sittings currently standing at between £3,000-£4,500 excluding re-takes. Yet, some educational providers have propounded that the SQE, when being expanded in the number of modules chosen by test-takers, could be classified as an LLM degree, which would unlock student financial support loans.

Alongside passing the SQE, aspiring solicitors must build up two years of qualifying work experience (QWE), with a training contract being the most straightforward way to do so. Nevertheless, an extensive amount of pro-bono work, law clinic volunteering, work placements and/or vacation schemes can also amount to the required QWE.

To wrap up the topic of the SQE, we must also note that law graduates can directly enrol in SQE preparation courses, juxtaposed to non-Law graduates and BA (Law) graduates, who must convert their degree via the PGDL and only then apply for an SQE course place. Arguably, albeit the SQE being a new enterprise, it may have to be adapted sooner than expected as criticism has already erupted amongst some of the top law firms in relation to the level of academic detail.

CILEx Route to a Solicitor Qualification

Once a Law degree comes to an end, one can pursue the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) graduate fast track diploma taking a year until full-time accomplishment, or double the time if taken part-time. In the process of doing so, candidates shall pick at least two modules for a cost of between £1,800-£2,200, although more academic areas may need to be studied upon requirements. Expenditures could peak £3,000 if exam fees are incorporated, which would still not leave one completely destitute. Candidates will need a minimum of four C-graded GCSEs to be eligible to apply for the CILEx diploma.

Afterwards, before receiving the title of a Chartered Legal Executive, one needs to obtain three years of qualifying work experience, whereby two-thirds can be done whilst studying and at least one ought to be carried out in the post-examination period.

Chartered Legal Executives can transition to the solicitor profession firstly by enrolling as a fellow in CILEx, and later as a solicitor via passing the SQE and satisfying the SRA’s ‘character and suitability’ criteria. CILEx fellows must also present copies of their:

  • CILEx Certificate of good standing issued no earlier than 90 days of one’s application to be admitted as a solicitor;
  • LPC/SQE (depending on which one the fellow has taken); and
  • any other professional qualifications of relevance to the application.

Another way of becoming a CILEx fellow is through the five-year-long Level Six Chartered Legal Executive apprenticeship, which is offered by several firms, such as Gordons LLP. At the same time as building a background in employment, you will study towards accomplishing at least two units in addition to the compulsory Client Care Skills module. Each unit exam lasts three hours and revolves around applying the law to a case scenario.

Solicitor Apprentice Route

Over the last several years the number of law firms keen to adapt their recruitment to a new type of talent acquisition via the Level Seven Solicitor Apprenticeship route has advanced substantially.

The Solicitor Apprenticeship is a six-year-long programme involving a day of studies weekly mixed with four days of working. This direct solicitor qualification route also encompasses working on real-life situations, sharpening one’s employability skills whilst gaining experience in different departments and earning a salary… with employers covering all costs for it!

Solicitor apprentices work towards achieving an LLB in Legal Practice for the first four years of the scheme, whereby all internal assessments towards this Bachelor’s level qualification are determined by the respective educational providers, with some of them being:

The last two years of the apprenticeship mirror the structural rotation of a training contract (four six-month seats) and integrate studies for the bipartite SQE before admission to the Law Society.

Solicitor Apprenticeship applicants need to have completed between six and eight GCSEs and three A-Levels (or equivalent) to be eligible to apply. Some companies recruit only final year high school leavers, while others set no restrictions to the age limit, but it is desirable for them not to have completed a Law degree or a combined equivalent (e.g. Law with a Modern Language). Work experience, be it directly pertinent or not, is always an advantage in the application process; however, employers also look for the right character, skills and work ethic.

  • Graduate Solicitor Apprenticeships (GSAs) are brand-new programmes lasting between 30-32 months, intending to provide training and rotation-based work experience to Law LLB graduates or PGDL converts. Weightmans LLP, Fieldfisher LLP Keoghs LLP and Deloitte Legal offer GSAs, but there are non-legal GSA providers, such as the BBC, Virgin Media and the Bank of England.
  • Paralegal Apprenticeships are sometimes used by employers in their decision as to whether to progress apprentices into a 4-year-long Solicitor Apprenticeship, having carefully observed how well apprentices have managed to cope with their work and studies for two years prior to that.

Solicitor Career Progression

All the pre-and post-qualification solicitor journey efforts are awarded in the abundance of varied career progression opportunities that subsequently arise, namely in:

  • Starting a Legal Traineeship. In other words, this is a training contract during which one would immerse into the functioning of a law firm, later to specialise in an area of law post-completing a certain number of seats.
  • Becoming a Junior/Senior solicitor. A solicitor’s status depends on their level of experience. Junior solicitors have just left the Newly-Qualified induction process and can proceed to working more independently on projects. Senior solicitors have enough expertise in their portfolio to grow into Associates, Partners and Directors in legal limited liability partnerships.
  • Diverting to private practice. With a sizeable responsibility for clients and their cases, private practice can nurture a unique work environment with more impactful legal services, whereas establishing a law firm can bring this to the wider legal market scene.
  • Cross-qualifying as a barrister. The 2004 Clementi Report suggested a recent fusion of the duties of the two professions, so already with a steady base of legal expertise, solicitors could study towards passing the bar vocational training course and associating as a barrister in one of the four Inns of Court.
  • Redirecting to the judiciary. The judiciary is important for the system of checks and balances, plus enforcing justice, so solicitors with at least seven years of practicum can apply to be admitted as inferior judges. These are District Judges, Recorders, and Circuit Judges in the Courts System and Tribunal judges outside of the Courts System. Of course, further advancement in the ranks of Senior Courts members of the judiciary is also possible contingent upon experience.
  • Entering legal teaching. Legal tutoring seems an appropriate pathway for those who may want to experiment in their career via shaping the training of the next generation of solicitors through using their own experience as a career-boosting guidance.

By Georgi Minchev