updated on 07 March 2023
I’m qualifying via the Solicitors Qualifying Exam but don’t understand the difference between training contracts and qualifying work experience. How do I know what’s best for me?
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Training contracts and qualifying work experience (QWE) are ultimately the same thing. It sounds simple when we put it like that – and it mostly is, once you’ve wrapped your head around it.
The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) brought with it a change in the work experience requirements for aspiring solicitors, and the terminology we use to describe this training. According to the Solicitor Regulation Authority (SRA), QWE refers to “any experience of providing legal services that helps a candidate to develop some or all of the competences (minimum of two) required to practise as a solicitor”, including working in a law firm, as a legal apprentice or as a paralegal.
While there are differences in terms of structure and flexibility, the traditional training contract (that many firms will continue to use) now falls under the definition of QWE and can be used to meet the QWE requirements of the SQE. Despite the change in phrase, the term ‘training contract’ is holding its ground and promising to remain popular among firms and aspiring lawyers. So you should know that if you’re hearing the term ‘training contract’ still being thrown around, it simply means the two-year element of QWE taking place at a firm.
Building up two years’ QWE is one of the four requirements to qualifying as a solicitor – and a two-year training contract is one of the many ways that candidates can satisfy this requirement.
Deciding whether to pursue a traditional training contract or to embrace the flexibility that QWE (as it’s intended) offers is a personal choice. We hope that the below breakdown helps you to understand the difference in structure between a training contract at a firm and the more flexible options available with QWE.
Many firms will continue to offer the traditional two-year training contract as a means of training its future lawyers, which will count as QWE.
The way that training contracts are structured varies from firm to firm. For example, some firms might offer a non-rotational system (ie, the trainee seeks the work and there are no specific seats), while others might offer a rotational system (this could be in the form of a six-seat programme in which trainees sit in different departments across the two years).
You can find out more about how the SQE will impact training contracts in this Oracle.
Other variations to consider include firms that’ll require their future trainees to prepare for and complete:
Trainee solicitors will prepare for the SQE with the firm’s chosen education provider, with non-law students likely required to take an additional preparation course to get them up to speed with their peers who are law graduates.
You can find out more about non-law students, law conversion courses and the SQE in this Oracle.
The training programme will be specific to individual firms, so they can ensure their trainees can prepare for life as a solicitor at their firm – some have also developed bespoke ‘Plus Programmes’ with education providers. Many firms want to maintain control over how their future lawyers are trained and won’t always accept confirmed QWE from applicants; it’s likely they’ll request that the applicant completes the two-year training period as a training contract with them, regardless of whether the candidate has started collecting their own QWE or not. As a result, if you’re certain on which firms you’d like to apply to, make sure you’re aware of their QWE plans before you start making training plans.
Much like with the Legal Practice Course, firms will continue to offer funding for the SQE and trainees will also receive a trainee salary. Finally, the way that aspiring lawyers apply for training contracts (ie, applying mostly two years in advance of your training contract start date) looks set to stay the same.
Find a list of training contract deadlines via LawCareers.Net’s Training contract deadlines page.
So, while the training contract will still prevail and count towards a candidate’s QWE, there are now other various ways that aspiring lawyers can build up the required work experience to qualify via the SQE.
Instead of completing your training in a single two-year period at a law firm, the new QWE system offers candidates the chance to build up the work experience element in up to four different placements, including law firms, law centres and university pro bono clinics. The experience can also include paid or voluntary experience.
Find out more about what work counts as QWE in this Oracle.
In order for your role, whether it’s working as a paralegal, volunteering at your university’s pro bono clinic or a training contract, to count as QWE, it must offer you the chance to develop:
The SRA won’t confirm whether your work meets these requirements; it will be determined by the solicitor or compliance officer for legal practice who’s signing off your QWE.
There are also no rules on whether you complete your QWE before, during or after taking SQE1 and SQE2 but the SRA suggests that the practical experience you build up during your QWE will help you to prepare for SQE2. Whereas, with a training contract, the firms are likely to dictate when you complete each element (ie, SQE1, SQE2 and QWE/training contract).
Due to the nature of QWE, candidates can start building up their work experience straight away and it can also be completed anywhere in the world as long as it’s signed off by the appropriate person for meeting the SRA’s requirements.
How to choose?
As with any decision you make, research is key. Find out what your shortlisted firms are doing. If they’re accepting applications for training contracts, this might make the decision easier for you. If you’re not sure on which firm you want to work for yet, maybe building up a variety of experience that counts towards your QWE makes more sense.
It’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of each route. Determine what it is you want out of a career in the profession and what structure (eg, the formalised training contract or more flexible QWE) suits you, your working style and circumstances the best.
It won’t be an easy decision, they never are. Just make sure it’s informed and true to yourself.
Head to LCN’s SQE hub for more information on QWE.