Back in 1993, the Legal Practice Course (LPC) was introduced to replace the Law Society’s Final Examination (LSF). As well as requiring students to demonstrate their competency through exams and coursework, the LPC involves work experience at a law firm. This is known as a Period of Recognised Training (PRT) or a training contract.
Now, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is being phased in to replace eventually the LPC route to practice as a solicitor of England and Wales. It will also replace the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS).
To qualify as a solicitor of England and Wales through the new SQE route, trainee solicitors must hold a degree or equivalent qualification in any subject, meet the character and suitability requirements of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), pass both the SQE1 and SQE2 exams, and complete two years of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) to develop their practical legal skills.
If you’ve already started down one of the old routes, you might be wondering where that leaves you. In this article, we’ll go through everything you need to know about QWE and what impact the SQE has on training contracts.
Can I get a training contract with SQE?
To qualify as a solicitor of England and Wales through the full SQE route, you’re required to undertake two years of QWE, instead of completing a training contract.
If you started a qualifying law degree, GDL, LPC or QLTS before 1st September 2021, you can continue to qualify as a solicitor via the traditional route until 31st December 2032.
Because of this transition period, there will be some overlap and not everyone’s circumstances will be the same. To help clear up any confusion, we’ll explain all this in more detail below.
What’s the difference between a training contract and QWE?
A training contract (or PRT) refers to the two years of work experience you carry out when training to become a solicitor of England and Wales through the law degree, GDL, LPC or QLTS routes.
You can complete your training contract at a law firm or in-house at a large organisation where law graduates train to become solicitors. It’s supervised by the law firm or the organisation’s experienced solicitors and regulated by the SRA.
Trainees rotate “seats”, so you can spend time in different legal departments and develop your practical legal skills in different areas of the law while immersing yourself in the culture of a legal environment. You’ll usually complete four six-month seats, but you can do shorter stints in more departments, depending on where you train. The types of seats you experience will vary according to the organisation’s specialisms, although you will be placed in both contentious and non-contentious seats.
You may also be given the opportunity for a client secondment. This is where you spend your seat with one of your firm’s clients to give you a better understanding of their needs and to build contacts.
You will need to pass the Professional Skills Course as part of your training contract, which takes 12 days to complete if studying full-time. It consists of the following modules:
- Financial and business skills
- Advocacy and communication skills
- Client care and professional standards
Qualifying Work Experience (QWE)
QWE is the two-year work experience period you obtain under the new SQE route to qualifying as a solicitor of England and Wales. It’s similar to a training contract, but you can carry out your work experience at up to four organisations in England, Wales or overseas. It is worth noting, though, that carrying out your QWE with a single employer could increase your chances of getting a permanent role with the firm once you’re a fully-qualified solicitor.
It can be carried out at any time during the qualification process, however, it’s likely that most trainees will complete it after they’ve taken the SQE1. There isn’t a cut-off point by which your QWE should be completed, but from an employability perspective, it makes sense to avoid a large gap between passing your exams and completing QWE. A short gap between roles at multiple organisations is unlikely to put you at a disadvantage. However, long periods away from your studies and work may make you less attractive to prospective employers.
Whether it’s paid or unpaid, your work experience must be confirmed by one of the following:
- Your legal employer (who must be a solicitor)
- A Compliance Officer for Legal Practice (COLP) who you work with
- A solicitor outside of your workplace who has direct knowledge of your work
What counts as QWE?
When you’re completing QWE, you’ll need to demonstrate that you’re competent in a wide range of areas, some of which include:
- Working with others
- Managing yourself at work
- Professionalism and judgement
- Technical legal practice
A full list of all the necessary competencies can be accessed here, however, if you’re still unsure as to whether a particular role covers them all, your current employer or hiring organisation will be able to advise you. You may even be able to cover all the competencies across various roles within the same organisation.
The type of work that counts as QWE includes placements as part of a law sandwich degree, a training contract, a job in a law clinic, time spent as a paralegal in a law firm or an in-house legal department, and voluntary work at a charitable organisation, such as Citizens Advice or a law centre.
However, if your role isn’t grounded in legal work, then it’s unlikely to count as QWE. Some examples of work that don’t qualify are administration, IT, marketing or finance roles (even if they’re within a law organisation), a placement consisting of one repetitive, limited task and simulated legal services.
To find out more about what counts as QWE, you can read our FAQs.
Can I carry over any existing work experience?
QWE can come from experience gained prior to starting your SQE. This means you can carry over time spent on a traditional training contract.
However, if you have already obtained part of the required QWE – through a pro bono placement, for example – it’s up to the individual law firm to decide whether to accept your previous work experience. To practice at their firm, they may require you to undertake the entire two-year QWE period with them.
Do I have to go down the SQE route to become a qualified solicitor?
If you started studying law after September 2021, you’ll no longer be able to go down the LPC route to qualify as a solicitor of England and Wales. If this is the case, you’ll have to take the SQE.
If, however, you started a law degree or LPC before September 2021, you have until 31st December 2032 to qualify in the traditional way. However, you can switch to the new SQE route if you’d prefer.
This is the same for non-law graduates. If you began studying for the GDL before September 2021, you can continue to qualify as a solicitor of England and Wales by progressing to the LPC and completing a training contract. The deadline of 31st December 2032 is the same. Those who started studying for the GDL after September 2021 will need to take an SQE1 preparation course before taking the SQE, carrying out QWE and satisfying the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.
Because the SQE is designed to offer more flexibility when it comes to gaining work experience, students are no longer required to complete a training contract. However, it’s likely that many firms will continue with the traditional training contract format for the time being.
Why has the route to qualifying as a solicitor changed?
A training contract used to be an essential part of qualifying as a solicitor of England and Wales, however securing a placement is notoriously difficult.
That’s one of the reasons why the SQE was introduced. Under the new route, it’s easier for students to gain relevant work experience, as it doesn’t need to be carried out at one single company. For example, you can work as a paralegal at a law firm for a year, do legal work overseas for six months and work as a volunteer at Citizens Advice for six months.
Another reason for the change is to ensure that all new solicitors are assessed to the same standard, which was difficult via the old route because there were so many organisations involved in the evaluation process. With the SQE, all aspiring solicitors will sit the same qualifying exam no matter which route they take, whether it be a non-law degree, a law degree or a law apprenticeship. This is to ensure high standards and consistency across the board, and make the law profession more accessible, as the cost of the SQE is lower than the LPC or GDL.
In September 2021, the SQE was introduced to replace eventually the old LPC route to practice as a solicitor of England and Wales.
This means students going down the SQE route undertake two years of QWE, instead of completing a training contract.
There is a transitional period to account for the changes, so students that started a law degree, GDL, LPC or QLTS before 1st September 2021 can continue to qualify as a solicitor through the traditional route until 31st December 2032.
There’s also some overlap when it comes to work experience, meaning time spent on a traditional training contract will count as QWE. Likewise, if you’re going down the LPC route, you can pass the SQE2 and complete QWE, instead of carrying out a traditional training contract. Although you can switch to the SQE route if you prefer.
If you began your law studies after September 2021, you won’t be able to go down the LPC route. You’ll need to take the SQE to qualify as a solicitor of England and Wales.
The reason for the change is to ensure that all new solicitors are assessed to the same standard. It also makes it easier for students to obtain work experience and a lower enrolment fee means the law profession is more accessible.