One of the key requirements for qualifying as a solicitor of England and Wales is obtaining real-life work experience, to gain direct exposure to the day-to-day life and tasks of a practising solicitor. Historically, this work experience had to be in the form of a formal two-year training contract with a law firm which was licensed to provide training contracts. These contracts commenced after completion of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and were regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Candidates would typically complete six-month stints in different departments, and had to gain experience in both contentious and non-contentious areas of law. It was also compulsory to pass the Professional Skills Course (PSC) during the training contract period.
These training contracts were notoriously difficult to secure, with the demand in a highly competitive market far outweighing the number of contracts available. This meant that many aspiring solicitors reached a barrier in their qualification journey, having spent time and money completing their LLB or GDL and then the LPC, only to find that they could not secure a training contract and becoming “stuck” in, for example, a paralegal or legal clerk role.
This was often no reflection on the capabilities or the potential of these candidates to practise as solicitors, but simply down to the fierce level of competition and sometimes even a matter of pure luck.
The good news is that this process is changing and from September 2021, the work experience component of qualification is now much more flexible and accessible for aspiring solicitors. Below we outline the new SQE QWE process and answer the most common questions.
What is QWE?
As part of its overhaul in the qualification process and the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) in September 2021, the SRA has made significant changes to the work experience requirement. Now, instead of one official training contract, aspiring solicitors must complete two years (full-time, or part-time equivalent) of QWE, meaning Qualifying Work Experience.
QWE can include any work where the candidate is providing legal services and has the opportunity to develop competences as laid out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence. QWE can be performed in up to four organisations in England, Wales, or overseas, and can consist of (amongst others):
- Traditional training contract
- Paralegal work
- Apprenticeship or internship
- Working in the in-house legal department of an organisation
- Volunteering in a law clinic
QWE can be obtained at any stage in the qualification process, i.e. before, during, or after sitting the SQE assessments. This means that candidates can really shape their educational journey into more of a practical experience;
it is now possible to learn the reality of the job on the ground at the same time as studying and learning the law.
QWE must be signed off by a qualified solicitor of England and Wales (who does not need to hold a practising certificate) or a Compliance Officer for Legal Practice (COLP). If the organisation does not have a COLP or a qualified solicitor to confirm the QWE, it is also possible for candidates to get confirmation from a solicitor from outside the organisation, as long as they have direct knowledge of the candidate’s work. The solicitor or COLP must confirm:
- the duration of the QWE
- that the candidate had opportunities to develop solicitor competences
- that no character or suitability issues arose
Other than confirmation by a qualified solicitor, QWE is not assessed or regulated by the SRA. There is no requirement to work in specific areas of law, or even to cover English and Welsh law, as this will be assessed in the SQE.
What are the advantages of QWE vs training contract?
Compared to the traditional LPC/training contract route, the SQE qualifying work experience route has several distinct advantages:
- Rather than completing two years in one stint after completing studies, the two years of QWE can be built up in multiple stints in up to four organisations. There is no minimum length of time for QWE placements.
- QWE can be obtained at any stage during the qualification process, i.e. before, during, or after sitting the SQE1 and SQE2 assessments. This means it is even possible for students to secure paid legal employment to fund their studies while preparing for the SQE.
- Rather than having to complete a training contract in one law firm, QWE can be obtained in up to four organisations. This allows candidates to gain a wider breadth of experience in different industries or roles.
- Rather than having to secure a training contract within the competitive UK market, QWE can be completed anywhere. International students could undertake legal work in their home country while studying for the SQE assessments, or could choose to seek opportunities for work experience in the UK if they wish.
- This flexibility and the overall format of the SQE means that it is now much easier for foreign students to qualify as solicitors of England and Wales, or for foreign-qualified lawyers to obtain dual qualification, from abroad. The route to qualification is now the same for domestic and international candidates, and apart from perhaps needing to travel for the actual assessments, all study, preparation, and work experience can be performed from anywhere.
- This also benefits the industry as a whole, with greater opportunities for cross-territorial knowledge exchange and bringing niche skills and experience into England and Wales.
Do you need a training contract for the SQE?
No! QWE can be completed either in a traditional training contract format or in shorter stints in up to four organisations. There is no longer a technical requirement for a formal training contract.
Will training contracts stop when SQE comes in?
No! While formal two-year training contracts will no longer be required to qualify as a solicitor, it is likely that many city law firms will continue to offer solicitor training in this traditional format. Candidates are then free to choose if they want to pursue a two-year SQE training contract in a law firm or to build up their QWE in a variety of different roles and organisations. It is also worth noting that even if candidates choose a traditional training contract, they are not necessarily tied to that law firm as they would have been under the old regime. If the training contract is terminated or dropped early, for any reason, the period worked still counts towards the QWE requirement and the remaining time can be completed elsewhere.
SQE or LPC: Which route to take?
For aspiring solicitors who have already started or accepted a placement offer in a traditional law degree, GDL, or LPC before September 2021, there is a choice. The SRA will continue to authorise LPC courses up to the end of the 2025/26 academic year, so it is still possible to pursue the traditional route of completing the LPC and securing a formal training contract. However, bear in mind that many course providers may start phasing out their LPC offerings before that date. With the SQE replacing LPC as a much cheaper and more flexible and accessible route, it is likely that most current students will pursue qualification under this new regime.
One more important point to note is that foreign-qualified lawyers, for instance, will need to pass the SQE1 and SQE2 exams, but they do not have to gain two years of qualifying work experience, as the SRA will recognise their existing qualification and professional legal experience. You can learn more about the possible exemptions for different categories of candidates here.
How long will the SQE take to complete?
Notwithstanding the two-year QWE requirement, the SQE will undoubtedly be a very challenging set of assessments to pass and will require significant time and effort to complete successfully. The time needed to prepare for and pass these assessments will greatly depend on the individual candidate’s existing knowledge, skills, and legal experience.
The SQE assessments are based on the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) assessments, which was the previous route for foreign-qualified lawyers to become dual-qualified lawyers in England and Wales.
We have extensive experience in sitting, passing, and helping other candidates to pass the QLTS OSCE assessments and have harnessed our knowledge of these assessments to build a dedicated training platform and service.
Our SUPEREXAM platform has been custom-built to help candidates prepare for the SQE2 assessments in a flexible and affordable manner. We provide SQE training centered around practical mock stations (learn more about SQE mocks here) which give candidates the opportunity to practice realistic simulations of the SQE2 assessments with personalised feedback.