The path to becoming a solicitor in England and Wales is a little complicated, though it leads to a rewarding career. This guide breaks the process down and introduces you to the SQE - a new qualification that all aspiring solicitors in England and Wales must pass.
What does a solicitor do?
A solicitor is a qualified legal practitioner providing advice and support to clients. Solicitors can work with both individual people and groups, as well as larger organisations. Solicitors deal with all the paperwork and communication in client cases - they don’t represent clients in court (or wear the wigs!). If their client’s case goes to court, they communicate with barristers who represent their client. The work of a solicitor can include:
- Attending meetings with clients
- Interviewing and providing advice to clients
- Researching and interpreting the law
- Creating and negotiating legal documents and clients
Some solicitors are employed by a law firm. Others are employed ‘in-house’, which means they are employed directly by the company whose legal work they’ll be doing. It is pretty common for solicitors to start their career working at a law firm, and then moving ‘in-house’ after building up their experience.
How to become a solicitor
In 2019, the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) announced its decision to reform solicitor qualification in England and Wales by introducing the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). This replaces other qualifications you might have heard of, like the GDL and the LPC. All students sit the same SQE exams, regardless of what preparatory course or courses they have studied.
Academic qualifications and the exam
You will need to have achieved an undergraduate degree, or equivalent work experience or qualification (for example, an apprenticeship or degree apprenticeship of the same level).
You’ll also need to pass the SQE exam which is in two parts. SQE1 is focused on functioning legal knowledge, and is tested by multiple choice exams. The SRA website outlines the up-to-date topics, but they might include things like land law, contract law, and wills.
SQE2 looks at how you apply your knowledge to practical legal skills. You’ll be tested with both oral and written exams. Again, check the SRA for up-to-date topics, but these might cover advocacy, dispute resolution, and criminal litigation (including applying legal advice to clients at a police station).
Qualifying Work Experience (QWE)
Before, during, or after taking your SQE, you need to complete two years of relevant work experience. This could be a two-year (or longer) work placement with a law firm - also known as a training contract - or work experience with up to four placements (six months each). This might involve volunteering with a legal advice centre, or working as a paralegal.
If you’re completing a training contract at a firm, these involve structured, supervised, work-based learning. You’ll complete a number of ‘seats’, which generally last six months each, across four different departments. Some firms may require you to work in a particular department, while others will ask for your preference. You'll also be given a supervisor who will answer your questions and assign you tasks.
Some training contracts guarantee a job offer with the training provider upon completion, but many don’t - it depends on what the job market looks like at the time. If you don’t receive an offer from your training provider, you’ll need to apply for newly-qualified solicitor positions like you would with any other job - get in touch with a few well-established recruitment consultants, keep close tabs on the websites of the firms you're looking to apply to, and use the time to enhance your CV.
Character and suitability
Once you’ve completed your exams and QWE, the SRA will assess your character and suitability to be a solicitor. This is to check you have the integrity to practice law in the working world.
The first part of this process is a screening which includes a DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check. This makes sure you are suitable for working with young and/or vulnerable people. You’ll also need to complete an application which demonstrates your legal integrity according to the SRA’s set of rules. See ‘Good stuff from elsewhere’ for more on this.
For more on how to get ahead in your soliciting career, head over to our Subjects library profile for Law and law studies where you’ll find guidance on how to gain relevant experience and make your university application stand out.
Good stuff from elsewhere
What is the SQE?
Find specific details on the SQE requirements, including exam topics and character suitability, on the SRA website.