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LCN Says

Why you should consider qualifying through the equivalent means route

updated on 03 March 2021

Equivalent means is an alternative approach to the traditional period of recognised training (PRT). Since its inception in 2014, it has received very little publicity and remains mysterious and relatively undiscovered. This article will aim to unravel some of the mysteries behind the equivalent means route to qualifying.

The PRT, which the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) will replace in September 2021, requires all candidates to:

Is my experience enough for the equivalent means route and am I eligible to apply?

In short, provided the candidate has at least two years of experience in at least one area of law they are eligible to apply. As a rule of thumb, it is advisable to have at least six months of experience in each area of the law claimed, which would be considered 'equivalent' to a training contract seat.

In the past we have been approached by people with upwards of 10 years of experience, asking whether it is possible for them to apply through the equivalent means route – the answer is ‘yes’, but, you must provide evidence to justify your experience. All evidence must be corroborated by a reference who directly supervised that work.

Using experience from years ago may present difficulties in relation to obtaining evidence and having it corroborated by a reference, and therefore it is unlikely that this can be used to support an application; however, bear in mind only two years of relevant experience is required. The more experience demonstrated of 'equivalent' training and the professional standards required of a trainee solicitor, the more robust an application will be.

How do I use references to support my application?

A reference must corroborate all evidence. Anything included in an application not supported by a professional reference who oversaw the work will likely end up excluded. Previously, assessors have requested that a reference corroborate the evidence or it must be removed. This is something that can be avoided following our guidance and will ensure that no proportion or your application is discounted.

To ensure that all evidence included in an application is supported by a reference write out a skeleton plan for what experience, knowledge and skills are being claimed for each of the PSS requirements (first column of section 5 on the PRT), what evidence will be included and which reference(s) will be used to corroborate the evidence. This keeps the application process focused and ensures that the information included is within the remit of the reference.

How do I prepare and identify evidence I can use?

In reality, anything can be evidence if it generates value to the application. Some of the evidence that we have seen has been set out below.

Appraisals and feedback forms

It is helpful if your appraisal and feedback forms have been dated, provide detailed information and have been signed off. If they have not been, they will need to be corroborated by the referee. In any event, these should be used only where a referee completed the appraisal.

Training documents and presentations

These are useful for demonstrating learning, learning outcomes and assessments, and further details and clarification can be added to column 2 of the PRT.

Redacted documents

Redacted documents can sometimes be difficult to obtain. The very nature of our profession is risk-averse and confidential if however, there is the option to use previous documents that the candidate has negotiated or worked on (with the consent of the employer/previous employer) then these must be entirely redacted.

Articles

If the candidate has produced thought leadership or other articles for a firm, if available and allowable, use these in the application; publications are great for demonstrating knowledge, expertise and understanding in an area of law.

Scenarios or case studies

This evidence will need to be placed into column 2 of the PRT application form and can provide invaluable details to an application by demonstrating specific experience, skills and knowledge. Writing detailed overviews of situations faced (ie, being instructed by a client, negotiating, demonstrating advocacy or referencing legislation and case law used previously) helps to strengthen a case study. Remember, all details must be corroborated by references for them to be of any benefit to the application.

Reference formats, do they matter?

The SRA requires references to be on letter-headed paper from the firm where the work was undertaken. This requirement can present issues where, for example, the reference has moved on from said firm or company. It is unlikely that a reference will be comfortable putting their reference letter onto their current firm letter headed paper due to lack of association with the candidate and work undertaken. From previous experience, in this scenario, the reference can be provided on normal (without letterhead) paper and provide a brief explanation as to why this is the case.

What should the reference include?

Merely asking for a referee to corroborate an extensive application is not going to be viable. The aim is to make the process as easy as possible for your reference. One way to achieve this is by providing a tailored template with guidance notes, this will expedite the process and mean it is relatively pain-free for the referee. Below is a guideline of what a reference should include (although this is not an exhaustive list):

  • The referee's details. Including contact details, SRA number, current firm, and if different from the firm where both parties worked, the previous firm, too.
  • A statement specifying the referee has read the application fully, understanding the PRT and equivalent means' requirements and agreeing with the evidence being claimed.
  • Specification of the evidence being claimed and a clear indication of the evidence they are corroborating in the PRT form (ie, PSS 1.1, 2.1, 3.2).
  • Include details about supervisory arrangements, such as the frequency of performance reviews and feedback styles be that setting targets or professional development goals. If possible, provide examples that the reference can corroborate or ask them to provide examples.
  • Provide space for a personalised overview. This should include the referee's opinion on character, professional skills and knowledge. This section allows the referee to provide precise details about the candidate, and it is essential that this is a comprehensive summary.
  • Finally, the reference must include a signature and date area (essentially a declaration).

For ease, we have a reference template form available here.

Closing considerations

Equivalent means is a professional application and the opportunity to showcase work, skills and knowledge as though the candidate were acting for a client. The application must be immaculate, clearly worded and professional.

Failing to plan is planning to fail. Do not jump into writing the application, consider the structure and how the reader will follow the analysis of the experience being summarised. Providing a clear and logical structure is half the battle when submitting an application; typically, it is not that the applicant does not have the right (or sufficient) experience or evidence. Instead, it is their lack of coherent structure and presentation in the application that makes it difficult for assessors to follow.

Make clear and logical analyses and arguments for each of the PSS requirements. A thorough explanation is required to prove what the candidate achieved and how they achieved it – think of the STAR method. It is advisable to provide details on what was done, how it was done, what support was used, what the outcome was, what was learnt, and most importantly what skills were gained that showcase the PSS requirement in question.

Do not rush writing the application. Pulling something half-hearted together will inevitably lead to a substandard application that will be returned with a request for amendments to add information, update, re-write or gather further evidence. Note that it is common for the SRA assessor to request further evidence, information or clarification. If this happens, see it as a safety net before the final submission.

The assessor is vital to a candidate qualifying through equivalent means; treat them with courtesy, respect and professionalism. They are a professional doing a professional job and, what is more, the fate of this application is in their hands! Communication with the assessor (and all people) should be succinct, polite, professional and above all helpful – making their life easier when writing the application and dealing with them is naturally going to put you in a stronger position and demonstrate you will be a valuable addition to the profession. There is no place for rudeness or pushiness in any professional setting.

Be patient. Although it is nerve-wracking having to wait, once the application has been written and submitted, the hard work is over (or if it is successful, it has only just begun!), be patient and wait for SRA and assessor communication, do not chase, this is bound to annoy them and put them under pressure. Please give them the breathing room to assess the application thoroughly!

Before submitting an application, it is imperative that the requirements for the SRA equivalent means application have been checked and fulfilled. It is advisable to objectively assess your own application against the extensive SRA criteria. 

Nicholas Blomfield, is the founder of EQML, a qualified lawyer in England, Wales and Ireland and works in financial regulation, funds, banking and asset management. He has worked with major firms in these areas including Credit Suisse, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and BlackRock. EQML aims to help people wishing to qualify through equivalent means; you can find more information via the EQML website.