Vinson & Elkins achieves talent development success with SQE

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Vinson & Elkins (V&E) is a global law firm, working with leading companies on wide-ranging matters in key industries across the economy. The firm, which has over 700 lawyers across 11 offices, opened their London office in 1971, making them one of the first U.S. law firms to operate in the city. V&E were one of the early adopters of the SQE, and BARBRI Business Development Director Jonathan Worrell chatted with Grace Gibson-Venner, Associate Director of International Attorney Development and Recruitment at Vinson & Elkins about their SQE journey so far. 

Vinson & Elkins was an early adopter of SQE – when did you embark on your SQE journey and why at that time?

Grace Gibson-Venner: We first started looking at the SQE and what it meant for the firm back in 2020. We started to explore the SQE at that point because it was clear that this was the way the SRA was going to go. We felt that the sooner we got started on figuring out how this was going to work for the firm and our future trainees, specifically because we recruit them so far in advance, the better placed we would be overall. 

The firm already had a partnership with BARBRI in the US, where they are the leading provider of bar exam preparation. We felt the tailored course design that BARBRI offered, leveraging their extensive US bar exam experience, positioned them ahead of other SQE providers in the UK. 

Another deciding factor for us was the timing, as we were in lockdown when we began exploring the SQE. During the pandemic, the flexibility that BARBRI’s online course offered was highly valuable, allowing for hybrid options and remote study. 

Tell us about your trainee programme – how is it structured? How do you support your trainees?

Recruitment for our trainee program begins two years in advance. We look at law and non-law students who have completed or will complete their second year of university by the time they receive an offer. 

For those who have not already completed the LPC or SQE if they’ve embarked on that themselves, we will put them through a year’s worth of training. We use BARBRI as our exclusive SQE provider. In July of the year prior to joining the firm, future trainees begin BARBRI’s Foundations in Law course, which is a four-week foundation in key pillars of law, before moving into SQE1 Prep, which runs through until Christmas. They sit the SQE1 exam typically at the end of January and they’ll go straight into the SQE2 Prep course before they’ve received their SQE1 results and then, once the results are out, they can book their SQE2 exam, which is typically in April-May of that year. The final part of their training is a bespoke practice course with BARBRI, consisting of non-examined modules preparing for practice areas and key skills. 

They will then embark on the training contract in September. Our training contracts are two years in length, and typically involve four seats. Half of the time will likely be spent in corporate, half the time will likely be spent in disputes, and in the second year of the training contract, those seats are non-rotational, meaning that they can be working in the department but they can also take on work from other departments if they want to. This allows the trainees the opportunity to craft their own exposure in terms of experience during the second year with the firm.

In terms of support, we have a robust two-week orientation program when trainees join the firm. They are allocated a seat supervisor, typically an associate, who shares a room with them. Trainees typically also have an associate mentor from the corporate team and an associate mentor from the disputes team who are there to guide them through the training contract over the two years. They are also given a second-year trainee as a buddy for all of the questions they might not want to ask anyone more senior.

We have a professional development programme over the two years, which includes structured training. There is an evaluation 90 days after starting at the firm to ensure trainees are settling in. There are also end-of-seat evaluations throughout the rest of the training contract to assess their progress. Trainees receive support from our training principal, talent leads and the attorney development team.

What has been your experience so far? What have been the biggest SQE challenges and opportunities?

The transition to the SQE has allowed Vinson & Elkins to re-evaluate and improve our training program. We have focused on defining the desired skills for first-year trainees, leading to the development of the Prep for Practice programme in partnership with BARBRI to address fundamental skills before starting the training contract.

Additionally, we have reassessed trainee support and supervision in line with the SRA cultural review, ensuring comprehensive support and refining our training by removing unnecessary elements.

Our experience with the SQE cohort has been positive so far, with trainee competence as strong as, if not better than, previous LPC cohorts. Despite initial concerns, there hasn’t been a noticeable deficit in knowledge among SQE trainees (we credit this to the Prep for Practice course), though it is still early at just nine months in, and there is potential for gaps in knowledge to emerge later.

As I said before, the flexibility that BARBRI offers is an advantage. The ability to do the course remotely means it is more accessible. BARBRI’s system also includes a project planning assistant, enabling students to manage their schedules efficiently by inputting holidays, work hours, and study preferences, with the system adjusting their learning schedule accordingly. 

What advice would you give to other firms about to embark on a new SQE trainee programme?

My best piece of advice is to be open minded. The SQE is still very new and so, understandably, it is going to throw up obstacles, but I don’t think any of them are insurmountable. Also keep in mind that with all change comes opportunity. It’s a good idea to take a step back and look not only at what processes you already have in place, and how you can improve the experience for the trainees, but also the quality of newly qualified lawyers that you get out of your training contract. I think, viewed only through that lens, it makes it a much more interesting process and much less stressful. 

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