updated on 02 March 2021
Most students know that the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is going to be introduced in September 2021, but understandably, many candidates still have questions about how the new system will work. This article focuses on the Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) aspect of the SQE – read on for answers to some of the frequently asked questions that LCN has been hearing from students.
What is QWE?
To qualify as a solicitor, all candidates must complete two years’ full time (or equivalent) qualifying work experience. QWE is one of the four stages that must be completed before someone can qualify as a solicitor (the others are passing SQE1, SQE2 and the character and suitability requirements set out by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)).
QWE can be completed at up to four different organisations, although it may also be completed continuously in the same role (eg, a two-year training contract). Other types of experience can count toward the two-year total, such as paralegal work, volunteering (eg, in a law clinic or for a charitable organisation such as Citizens Advice) or a placement during a law degree.
To count as QWE, the SRA says that work experience must be “any experience of providing legal services that offers a candidate the opportunity to develop some or all of the competences needed to practise as a solicitor”. This means that work experience must meet as many of the requirements set out in the SRA’s Statement of Solicitor Competence as possible to count as QWE.
QWE must be confirmed by a solicitor or Compliance Officer for Legal Practice (COLP) to be eligible.
When do I complete the QWE stage?
QWE can be completed before, during or after a candidate passes the SQE1 and SQE2 assessments, but it must be completed before the candidate applies to the SRA for admission as a qualified solicitor. And as QWE can be completed in up to four separate periods of work experience, there is real flexibility for candidates throughout the process.
However, if a candidate secures a training contract at a commercial law firm (particularly the larger firms), they will probably complete SQE1 and SQE2 before the QWE stage. This is the schedule that many firms have said they prefer.
How is QWE recorded?
QWE must be recorded by the candidate so that it can be confirmed by a solicitor. The SRA first advises candidates to check with the organisation offering QWE what systems or processes are in place to help them record their experience, if any. This could be a training diary, learning development record or work portfolio.
If nothing is available, candidates should use the SRA’s QWE training template to record their work experience. The template enables candidates to record physical evidence (eg, copies of documents) as well as descriptions of how the candidate feels they have met the competences in the Statement of Solicitor Competence. Candidates should regularly check in with their confirming solicitor to ensure that they are both clear about how the competences are being evidenced. This could be done in a regular meeting or appraisal.
How is QWE confirmed?
QWE must be signed off by a solicitor who is qualified in England and Wales, but the solicitor does not need to have a practising certificate. This means that, for example, law lecturers who are qualified solicitors and are involved in university law clinics can confirm QWE.
A solicitor can confirm QWE without directly supervising a candidate’s work, but they must have reviewed the candidate’s work during the relevant period of work experience and they must have received feedback from the person/people who supervised the candidate. The confirming solicitor can either work within the organisation in which the candidate did the work experience, or outside the organisation. However, if the confirming solicitor works outside the relevant organisation, they must have direct experience of the candidate’s work.
A barrister cannot confirm QWE unless they are also qualified as a solicitor.
The confirming solicitor does not decide whether the candidate is competent or suitable to practise as a solicitor – this is assessed by the SQE and the character and suitability threshold. Instead, the solicitor must confirm:
Can QWE be completed overseas?
QWE can be completed overseas, as well as in England and Wales – as long as it meets the requirements set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence.
Can QWE be in just one area of law? And do you have to specialise in that area once you qualify?
QWE can cover a single area of law or multiple practice areas. Technically, upon qualifying, a solicitor could specialise in a different area to anything they covered in their QWE, although the majority of solicitors end up specialising in an area that they have already experienced during their training.
It is important to understand the distinction between qualifying as a solicitor and having a job as a qualified solicitor. For example, if a candidate completes all their QWE at a law clinic, passes the SQE and qualifies as a solicitor, but then applies for a newly qualified role at a large corporate law firm, that firm is under no obligation to hire them or accept that the candidate’s QWE makes them suited to corporate work.
For this reason, candidates who have already completed some or all of the QWE requirements before applying for training contracts at commercial firms may have to accept that some firms will still require them to undertake a full two-year training contract before they can progress to associate level.