To complete the difficult journey to becoming a solicitor, you must first successfully finish either the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), before spending two years as a trainee.
Previously, there was one route for trainee solicitors, which was to get a training contract with a firm for two years. However, prospective solicitors are now able to complete two years of Qualifying Work Experience in lieu, which is equivalent to the traditional training contracts. This has increased the opportunities available to becoming a solicitor.
As there is now a broader range of paths for trainee solicitors to take, they also have a broader range of responsibilities as their roles have become increasingly diverse.
In this article, we are going to look at the ins and outs of being a trainee solicitor, how to get there, what they do, and who actually counts as a trainee.
What is a trainee solicitor?
In the UK, and most other English common law jurisdictions, a trainee solicitor is a prospective lawyer in the process of undertaking professional legal training at a registered law firm or its equivalent in order to become a fully qualified solicitor. A trainee solicitor will normally be on a training contract that lasts two years.
A trainee solicitor may have already completed a Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), or they may still be in the process of completion, in which case their training comes under Qualifying Work Experience.
What does a trainee solicitor do?
The responsibilities of a trainee solicitor vary widely and can range from simple administrative tasks to direct client contact. If a trainee solicitor works at a law firm, their overall duty is to assist in the provision of legal services. However, with the introduction of Qualifying Work Experience, there are now many more roles that a trainee can undertake including paralegal work.
In some of the bigger London firms – the most prestigious of which are known as the Magic Circle – trainee solicitors can expect to work very hard and for very long hours. However, they are rewarded for their work with substantial pay packets.
Here, we will outline just a few of the day-to-day tasks a trainee solicitor may be required to do:
- Provide an effective and friendly service to clients. Trainees are often expected to write or talk on the phone and in-person to clients. Their manner and presentation are therefore crucial because when they are engaging with clients, they are ambassadors of the law firm.
- Carry out administrative duties. These can include many different office procedures that may be particular to the firm or office that the trainee is working in.
- Legal research. Trainees will often be required to follow on from a client query and research any technical aspects of a particular case.
- Drafting minutes. Most law firms will hold a number of meetings every day between the employees, the company board, or the shareholders and trainees are often asked to take minutes.
- Interviews. As part of the research into a case, there may be people who must be interviewed. A trainee may be tasked with arranging these interviews or perhaps even conducting them.
- Recruitment. Trainees are often used to recruit the next year’s trainees. They may be asked to give presentations or run stalls at universities and career fairs.
- Proofreading. Trainees will spend a lot of time proofreading legal documents. Whilst this may be considered tedious, it is a good opportunity for trainees to learn about the specifics of different types of documents, as they may find themselves drafting something similar in the near future.
- Written advocacy. Trainees may also be asked to write court submissions or other forms of written advocacy.
What is the Professional Skills Course?
Another key activity that trainee solicitors undertake is the Professional Skills Course (PSC). This is the final compulsory stage of training before becoming a Newly Qualified Solicitor.
The PSC is a combination of learning and assessments to ensure trainees practice at the best possible level. You can only take your PSC during a period of recognised training.
The PSC is made up of three core modules and a number of electives. The core modules are:
- Finance and Business Skills.
- Advocacy and Communication Skills.
- Client Care and Professional Standards.
Once you have completed your PSC and your training contract you are officially a Newly Qualified Solicitor.
How long are you a trainee solicitor for?
As a prospective trainee solicitor, you can either get a two-year training contract or do Qualifying Work Experience, which must also total two years.
Some firms offer part-time training contracts, which take longer to complete. You should inquire with individual firms if this is of interest to you, because many do not offer a part-time option.
If you have previous professional legal experiences, they may count as Qualifying Work Experience (QWE), which can be used in place of a traditional training contract.
What is Qualifying Work Experience (QWE)?
QWE is available to graduates of the SQE route and of the LPC route providing they meet the transitional arrangements of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). QWE serves as an equivalent component to becoming a solicitor as a training contract and must also total two years.
QWE is approved by the SRA. The SRA state that QWE must be in roles that provide legal services that offer the candidate the opportunity to develop the competencies needed to practise as a solicitor.
QWE can be undertaken in up to four different organisations. This is a marked difference from training contracts, which would normally be taken at just one law firm. QWE can also be paid or voluntary work, whereas training contracts are always paid positions.
QWE may include:
- a placement during a law degree
- work undertaken at a law clinic
- voluntary work at a charitable organisation or law centre
- work in a paralegal role
- a traditional training contract
All QWE must be in legal work. Working solely in the administrative or IT department of a law firm does not count, for example.
QWE can be undertaken anywhere in the world and does not need to cover English and Welsh law. But in every instance, a regulated solicitor or compliance officer must confirm your QWE.
The introduction of QWE means that the breadth of what a trainee solicitor does has been significantly increased. Trainee solicitors may now be paralegals or pro-bono lawyers, for example, amongst many other possible new roles.
Do all law firms accept trainee solicitors?
Not all law firms offer training contracts. Most big law firms offer a number of training contracts each year to graduates of the LPC or the SQE. Some smaller law firms may not offer training contracts, but many do. In most cases, competition for training contracts is fierce.
Every year, there are around 5,500 training contracts available at SRA registered firms. This is far fewer than the number of postgraduate Law students, which in 2020 was around 16,000. Not every law graduate will apply for a training contract as some may choose to train as a barrister and others may pursue different careers. However, the competition for training contracts is very tough, especially at the more established firms.
However, this is another benefit of QWE. As the breadth of what counts as training has been widened, there are more opportunities for prospective lawyers who may have missed out on the few training contracts available.
How can I improve my chances of getting a training contract?
If you want to complete a two-year training contract as part of or in place of QWE, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of being hired.
Law firms want to see that you have done your research and that you know clearly why you are applying for a role with them instead of with other firms. So in your cover letter, make it clear that you know what the firm does, exactly how you will fit in and what you have to offer. Most of this will be down to your legal practice and the kind of lawyer you want to be, but don’t be afraid of selling yourself outside of law as well. Have you won any awards? Are there places you have been to that have shaped the way you engage with the world? What were you involved with at university? Many of these things may seem trivial, but when a firm is reading a letter from two academically equal candidates, your character attributes and experiences will help you to stand out.
You may apply to multiple firms, but for each application, your cover letter should be targeted and written directly to the firm in question. You should also be prepared to substantiate any claims you make in your cover letter in an interview.
You will also need to send off a highly polished CV to accompany your cover letter. Your CV should be clear and simple with no mistakes. Make your qualifications the priority and then list any work experience that is relevant for the role. You don’t need to write paragraphs for every career history entry, just a sentence or two on the skills you gained at a particular place of work and how they benefit your practice. Include any references on your CV as well.
How much do trainee solicitors get paid?
There is no longer a minimum pay grade for trainees other than the national minimum wage and some trainees doing QWE may undertake voluntary, unpaid work. However, The Law Society of England and Wales recommends a minimum salary of £22,794 in London and £20,217 outside London for solicitors on training contracts.
The salary of a trainee solicitor largely depends on where they practice and the field of law in which they practice. Trainees working at a top corporate London law firm can expect a starting salary of around £45,000, which then rises to over £50,000 in their second year. These positions are highly competitive and if you secure a place you can expect to work very long hours with no overtime pay.
Trainees at smaller firms are paid less, especially if they are based outside London. There may be some firms that employ their trainees on the national living wage, but most will pay between £35,000 and £48,000 in London, and between £18,000 and £35,000 outside London.
The UK government offers guidelines on hourly rates for solicitors at different stages in their careers and in different locations across the country. Trainee solicitors in London are recommended to charge between £129 to £186 per hour, and trainees outside the capital should charge around £126 per hour.
So, if you choose to do QWE, your pay could range from unpaid voluntary work to a top-level training contract salary.
What happens after you are a trainee solicitor?
Once you have either finished a training contract or completed the requisite QWE, you are then considered a Newly Qualified Solicitor (NQS). After a year of working as an NQS at a firm, you become a fully-fledged solicitor.