The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) route into law has many benefits, namely doing away with the so-called Legal Practice Course (LPC) gamble for self-funding students.
If you opt for the SQE pathway you’ll have greater flexibility regarding how, where, and when to complete the two-year period of compulsory on-the-job training, officially known as Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), aside from training contracts, various other roles count as QWE, including volunteering at a law clinic, a placement year on a sandwich degree and paralegalling.
Unlike the traditional training contract, which is typically done with a single employer and can only be commenced after a candidate completes the LPC, QWE can be gained with up to four different organisations. What’s more, it can even be claimed retrospectively. In other words, aspiring solicitors can now in theory complete a chunk of or indeed all their QWE before committing to self-funding SQE prep courses and relevant assessments. Sounds good, right? So, what’s the problem?
The SQE/QWE arguably enables you to mitigate some of the risks associated with spending thousands of pounds on the LPC with no guarantee of a training contract at the end. You can also spread the cost of course fees etc and if you study part-time could combine this with QWE. That means it may even be possible to get your hands on a coveted practising certificate slightly sooner than if you opted for the LPC training contract pathway.
Unfortunately, however, the SQE/QWE route is also likely to result in some students simply kicking the can into the long grass. My fear is the LPC/training contract bottleneck is shifting further up the food chain and spilling into the newly qualified (NQ) solicitor jobs market.
I have many years of experience (both as a legal recruiter and careers consultant) supporting final seat trainee solicitors from top commercial law firms search for NQ jobs. And for as long as I can remember the volume of candidates outweighs the volume of live vacancies. And when a role does come up the hiring partners/organisations inevitably favour NQ candidates with traditional CVs – ie those that have done a training contract with a single employer rather than ones who have qualified via alternative means such as paralegalling.
It is therefore imperative for any students currently exploring QWE opportunities to have their eyes firmly on their job prospects upon qualification. No NQ job is guaranteed. Every year tonnes of final seat trainee solicitors are let go as soon as they qualify because their firms are unable to hold onto them as NQs. As harsh as this sounds it is business and ultimately boils down to an employer’s resourcing needs.
My advice therefore is to ensure any QWE gained via paralegalling or volunteering has a direct link to the area(s) of law and sectors you want to specialise in once you finish your training. Also, pay particular attention to the job specification to ensure your day-to-day responsibilities will offer you a solid grounding to practice as a solicitor and most importantly satisfy the SRA’s competency requirements. It’s worth noting here that when an employer recruits a trainee solicitor they commit to ensuring the recruit is ‘trained’. Sadly, the same doesn’t apply to paralegals with employer being less invested in such individual’s professional development.
Similarly, consider the size and nature of the organisation you are planning to join. For example, if you do the lion’s share of your QWE in-house you’re likely to find it more challenging to gain an NQ position in larger commercial law firms. And if you gain most of your QWE in the public sector your chances of moving across to the private sector will be limited.
Therefore, in some instances, it may be preferable to use your first ever entry level paralegal job as a bridge to help you secure another one that will offer you a better platform to transition into an NQ. Whilst for some of you it may even be appropriate to move onto a new role that is more closely aligned to the type of lawyer you eventually want to become.
In short, though it’s tempting to cut corners and to gain QWE as quickly as possible, be careful not to shoot yourself in your foot.