All candidates wishing to qualifying as a Solicitor through the SQE route in England & Wales, must meet the following 4 requirements:
1. Have a degree in any subject (or equivalent qualification or work experience);
2. Pass both stages of the SQE assessment - SQE1 focuses on functioning legal knowledge and SQE2 on practical legal skills and knowledge;
3. Have two years' full time (or equivalent) qualifying work experience (QWE); and
4. Meet the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.
The purpose of this article is to help students understand what constitutes QWE, when might be an appropriate time to embark upon it, and develop an understanding of the SRA’s Statement of Solicitor Competence.
Traditional Training Contract Route vs QWE
Obtaining real life work experience in a legal environment has always been part of the route to qualification as a Solicitor. This form of work experience was structured in the form of a two year ‘training contract’ with a law firm regulated to provide such contracts and train solicitors. Young lawyers during this two year period are known as ‘trainee solicitors’. Trainee solicitors gain experience and training in contentious and non-contentious areas of law as they rotate through various departments (usually for 6 month periods) within the law firm. On completion of the two year training contract the law firm would confirm that the trainee solicitor had meet the competency and ethical standards of a newly qualified solicitor and qualify into the legal profession.
These training contracts are extremely difficult to obtain and subject to fierce competition between candidates, with the number of aspiring solicitors exceeding the number of available training contracts. As a result, many students who have completed a LLB or GDL were unable to qualify into the profession as Solicitor and were often reduced to paralegal or similar legal roles while they searched for the elusive training contract.
For students who do not have a training contract offer, the appeal of the SQE route is the QWE criteria is more flexible and accessible than the 2 year fixed training contract requirements that have so often proved to be a block to aspiring lawyers.
The SRA rules for QWE can be found at (https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/events/on-demand-events/qwe-what-aspiring-solicitors-need-to-know/).
In summary, candidates should be aware of the following about QWE before they undertake any placement:
1. QWE allows a young lawyer to complete their practical training at up to 4 different organisations involved in the provision of legal services in England & Wales or overseas. Examples of organisations include a law firm, law clinic (in Universities), in house legal department or other appropriate organisations. Therefore, QWE must be grounded in legal work and the provision of legal services. For example, if a candidate worked in the HR department of a law firm providing HR support, this experience does not qualify as QWE (see next point about competencies).
2. QWE is about developing some or all of the competences set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence (https://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/resources/continuing-competence/cpd/competence-statement/) The key factor is the Solicitor or Compliance Officer for Legal Practice (COLP) is satisfied that the QWE given has given the candidate the opportunity to develop the competences. They are not confirming whether a candidate is competent to practice. The SQE assessments will assess this.
A Solicitor or COLP will simply need to confirm the length and details of the experience and that no issues arose during the work experience regarding the candidates character and suitability to be admitted to the profession.
3. There is no minimum length of time for placements and in fact many Universities do advertise a guaranteed QWE period through their legal clinics (E.g. 4 or 6 weeks) but candidates should seriously consider if it is advisable to allocate one of their QWE slots for such a short duration of time when they must reach a total of 2 years across 4 organisations. Please note that candidates are not limited to a single placement at each of the 4 organisations and therefore they may consider doing more than one placement at the same organisation to add them together and reach the 2 years QWE requirement.
4. QWE can take place overseas provided it meets the SRA’s requirements and is confirmed by a solicitor of England and Wales. Therefore, QWE may take place in a foreign jurisdiction.
5. QWE can be obtained at any stage of the qualification process. Therefore, candidates can obtain QWE either before, during or after the SQE1 and SQE2 assessments.
6. Candidates should be clear when applying for work experience that they are seeking QWE and not general work experience. This will help ensure that both the candidate and organisation keep accurate records of what work a candidate has done, which competencies have been developed and ensure QWE is confirmed at the end of the placement. The SRA provides a template for recording QWE and candidates should keep clear and up to date records of their QWE. Candidates should get their QWE confirmed by a Solicitor or COLP before leaving that place of employment. The SRA provide useful guidance should you not be able to reach an agreement with your employer about whether the work you have done does not meet the QWE requirements. Once your QWE is confirmed, you should register your QWE with the SRA.
QWE is a major change in the route to qualification increasing both flexibility and accessibility. The SRA hopes that this will open up the route to qualification to candidates who have been held back by the lack of training contract opportunities. The ability to undertake QWE at any time also ensures candidates can secure paid legal employment as they work to pass SQE1 and SQE2. As more organisations become familiar with the rules around QWE, it is hoped that the number of opportunities for flexible paid legal work will increase thereby opening up qualification opportunities to a wider cohort of aspiring solicitors who have been let down by the traditional training contract route.
Sunit Tejura is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Roehampton Law School and is leading the Law School’s response to the SQE. Prior to joining Roehampton University he worked at Kaplan for seven years teaching on their Legal Practice Course, Graduate Diploma in Law and writing multiple choice questions for the Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme (the precursor to the SQE). Sunit is a qualified Solicitor (England and Wales) and Attorney at Law (New York).