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SQE: Importance of on the job training

Specialist Consultant Solicitor with over 25 years experience, Carol-Anne Baker of Bridge Law Solicitors Ltd, shares her thoughts on the Solicitors Qualifying Examination and advice to those considering this route into the legal field

The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) was approved by the Legal Services Board in October 2020 as an alternative route to qualification, which will eventually replace the Legal Practice Course (LPC). The SQE went on to be introduced as a method to qualify as a solicitor from 1 September 2021. 

Comparing the SQE and LPC routes into qualification

Gaining practical legal experience prior to completing the Solicitors Qualifying Examination has become ever more important and places candidates entering the legal field in an advantageous position from the outset. 

Under the LPC route, students had to complete a two-year training contract either whilst completing the LPC or post LPC to qualify as a solicitor. 

If completing the LPC, which remains a route to qualification for a number of years, work-based experience within three years of starting the training contract can result in a reduction of the training contract. However, the rules only allow a period of up to six months to be discounted. This experience also has to be equivalent to that gained during a training contract, which, as most legal professionals are aware, can be difficult to come by pre-qualification. 

Historically, training contracts have often been difficult to come by, due to the number of applicants exceeding how many placements are available. As a result, many law graduates and LPC graduates took up positions in firms working as legal assistants, secretaries, paralegals and so on, just to get a foot through the door in the hope they would be offered a training contract. For many, offers did not necessarily follow, leaving graduates feeling disheartened, working at lower salaries with a lack of career progression and failing to gain training at a level that would allow for the six-month reduction in a training contract. So, it’s clear to see the benefit of such work experience in past circumstances has often not had the benefit expected by graduates. 

Under the new SQE route, students don’t have to pass a law degree or complete a conversion course, but do need to pass both stages of the SQE, have two years of full-time (or equivalent) qualifying work experience and pass character and suitability requirements.

The two years’ period of qualifying work experience can be gained before, during or after the SQE assessments and recognises graduates’ efforts to gain in-practice experience. 

Qualifying experience on the SQE route can include placement during a law degree, working in a law clinic/voluntary or charitable organisation, working as a paralegal or on a training contract. Experience must be grounded in legal work, not in non-legal roles in a legal organisation and the experience gained can be in up to four separate organisations.

Why the SQE route is a positive move forward for the legal industry and aspiring solicitors 

A major advantage to the SQE is it offers a much more flexible route compared to the more rigid LPC system, opening up better opportunities for those wishing to begin a career as a solicitor. 

The effect of getting a foot in the door under the SQE and gaining qualifying experience is not only beneficial to acquiring knowledge, which may assist with passing the SQE but can also effectively result in the period of training being carried out much sooner. 

This allows candidates to effectively bring forward their application for admission as a solicitor as soon as their two years’ qualifying experience is completed and SQE assessments are passed. As a result, students taking the SQE are at a significant advantage if they already have a role that provides them with qualifying work experience in a law firm or similar.

Whilst in the past, it has been difficult to secure employment which counts towards qualifying experience, anecdotally from a number of sources, following the pandemic it has been difficult for law firms to recruit staff, meaning there are opportunities out there for those considering taking the SQE to obtain a role, allowing them to commence their qualifying work experience and speed up their path to qualification.

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