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 set of changes to solicitor qualification that will take place from September 2021.
Becoming a solicitor
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 provide 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
You will need to achieve a minimum of 2:2 in an undergraduate degree. If your undergraduate degree is in a subject other than a qualifying law degree, you’ll need to go on a law conversion course - also called the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
Going the GDL route means that you get to study a completely different subject before studying law. However, you will not be eligible to receive student loans if you are a GDL student, so you’ll need to pay your tuition fees up-front. There are bursaries available for students with specific personal circumstances, but this varies depending on the university you complete your GDL at.
After finishing your degree, you will need to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC). This is a vocational, postgraduate qualification which will teach you specialised skills needed to practise law in real-life work settings.
You then need to complete a two-year (or longer) work placement with a law firm. This is known as a training contract. You can carry out your training contract alongside your LPC, or after it. Training contracts 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 do not - 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.
The PSC: Professional Skills Course
The Professional Skills Course (PSC) is the last part of your compulsory training before qualifying as a solicitor and builds on the skills you’ve learned during the training contract. It consists of three compulsory core modules and four days of training in areas of interest, lasting a total of 12 days. The SRA recommends that you complete this course during your training contract.
The new SQE: what you need to know
In 2019, the SRA announced its decision to reform solicitor qualification in England and Wales by introducing the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). All students will sit the same SQE exams, regardless of what preparatory course or courses they have studied. Based on proposals from the SRA, it’s expected that the first phase, SQE1, will involve six multiple-choice exams to test legal knowledge and practice, and one online skills assessment. The second phase, SQE2, will consist of ten skills assessments that will test skills such as interviewing and legal drafting.
The SQE will eventually replace the GDL and the LPC. You will still need to hold a degree or equivalent qualification (such as a degree apprenticeship) in order to sit the SQE and qualify as a solicitor.
This won’t be introduced until September 2021 at the earliest, and the current system will run alongside the new for a few years yet. If you start an undergraduate degree before September 2021, you can decide to qualify under the old system up until 2032, or under the new SQE. If you start a law degree from September 2021, you will follow the SQE.
In the meantime, keep checking the SRA website for the most up-to-date information, and head over to our Subjects library profile for Law and law studies - there, you’ll find guidance on how to gain relevant experience and make your university application stand out.