updated on 06 July 2023
The training contract, or period of qualifying work experience (QWE), is the final stage on the path to qualifying as a solicitor. It involves a two-year period spent working at a law firm or other organisation that employs solicitors.
Solicitors Qualifying Exam
The way that solicitors qualify changed in September 2021 following the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). As part of the new system, candidates must complete two years’ QWE, but this can now be completed in up to four separate placements at different firms and other organisations. Rules have also been relaxed about when QWE is undertaken, so it’s possible to gain QWE both before and after taking some of the SQE assessments.
However, many firms will still want their trainees to complete the two-year QWE with them (most likely in the form of a training contract) before they can progress to solicitor/associate level. Firms have different ways of working and varied specialisms, so in many cases, it’ll still be important to complete on-the-job training in order to be ready to practise. This means that the traditional training contract is probably here to stay, especially at larger firms.
To find out more about the requirements for qualifying via the SQE and more on QWE, visit LCN’s SQE hub.
Traditional training contract
It’s normal, especially in larger firms, to spend four six-month placements (called ‘seats’) in different departments. In smaller firms the training might not be so structured; for example, non-rotational training contracts are often used, which involves trainees seeking out the work themselves across the firm’s practices. You should always be under the supervision of a qualified solicitor (although usually not the same one for the whole time), who will manage your workload, monitor your progress and help to train you.
Training contract salaries
The minimum pay level for a trainee solicitor is the National Minimum Wage. However, many firms, particularly the larger ones, set their trainee salaries much higher than this.
There used to be a compulsory minimum salary for trainees, but this was abolished in 2014 by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Every year the Law Society still recommends a minimum salary that firms should pay their trainees, but this isn’t enforceable.
The current recommended minimum salary for trainees in London is £23,703. Outside London, it’s £21,024.
As part of the SQE, aspiring solicitors must complete two years’ QWE, which offers greater flexibility in terms of where and when training takes place. While some firms will continue to use a two-year training contract to train their trainees, this isn’t the only way to build up the QWE requirement. Aspiring solicitors can build up their QWE in a range of organisations that provide legal services, including volunteering at a law centre, working as a paralegal, working in a law clinic or via a training contract.
The SRA has also not stipulated when QWE should be completed, and as such candidates can begin building up their QWE before, during or after they sit the SQE assessments. If you’re completing your QWE via a training contract, the individual firm requirements might vary in terms of when you complete the QWE element – for example, some firms might make it compulsory that candidates pass both SQE1 and SQE2 before starting their QWE/training contract with the firm. However, the SQE has been designed with the intention that any QWE built up will support candidates in developing the skills and knowledge required to pass SQE2.
The SRA has put together details on what work counts as QWE but it’s down to the confirming solicitor or compliance officer for legal practice to discuss whether a period of work meets the SRA’s requirements.
What you learn
If you complete your QWE in the form of a traditional training contract, you’ll build on what you’ve already learnt through practical work experience and training, which will prepare you for working life at your particular firm.
What you learn during your training contract depends on the firm in which you train and the solicitors who supervise you. If you join a large commercial firm, you’re likely to spend seats in a range of different departments, giving you all-round commercial experience. However, at a niche practice that mainly concentrates on one or two areas of work, your experience will obviously be less broad. Meanwhile, at a small high-street firm you can expect a varied (but perhaps less structured) workload – an approach that might appeal to those who fear a ‘conveyor belt’ training mentality in the City firms. As many small firms can’t offer detailed training over a wide spread of specialisations, trainees are sometimes permitted to undertake consortium training, fulfilling different training seats in different firms.
The way that QWE is structured will also depend on the individual organisations and candidates. For example, you might choose to spend six months doing pro bono work, six months working in a legal advice centre and 12 months as a paralegal.
Assessment and support
Trainee solicitors are assessed continuously throughout their training contract, which means that any problems can be addressed early and aren’t left until the trainee has qualified.
Almost without exception, firms have a three and six-monthly appraisal for each training contract seat. In this way, trainees receive good feedback about their performance both during and after a seat and get to have their say about anything they’re not 100% happy with. You ought to be treated sympathetically in all your seats and should never feel as though you’re being given more responsibility than you can handle. Nobody will expect you to know everything from day one of your training contract; indeed, some firms dedicate the first few weeks to induction lectures and presentations to get you up to speed with the firm, its clients and different practice areas. Most of your work will involve drafting, writing and researching, with everything being checked by a qualified solicitor and your supervision overseen by a partner (many trainees share an office with their supervisor during their seats).
Find out more about these careers in LawCareers.Net’s alternative careers section.
Choosing the right firm
Your starting point for shortlisting which law firms to apply to should be:
While it’s often difficult to decide this ahead of beginning your practical training and before you’ve even completed the LPC or SQE, you should try to make as informed a choice as possible.
Use the experience you’ve gained during your studies and any work experience, especially vacation schemes, to help you decide. You’ll also benefit from further research, so try to read as much as you can about different areas of work and various types of firm. Go to law fairs and, of course, don’t forget to consult your careers advisers – they’ll have a wealth of knowledge and experience to help you in your search for a training contract or QWE.
You can also learn valuable information about what individual firms are really like by reading profiles of their lawyers in LCN’s Meet the Lawyer section.
You should apply to several firms that fit the bill – and don't be too disappointed if you don’t get offers from your first choices. You must remember that you’re a valuable commodity to the firms and that they’re competing hard to attract you.
It’s widely acknowledged that many students find it difficult to distinguish between law firms. Many are unsure about which firms to apply to for a training contract, let alone which offers to accept. Obviously, it’s hard to generalise about types of firm and what sort of working life is on offer. Nevertheless, we’ve outlined the broad categories of firm to provide insights into the range of practices in the market.
Handle all aspects of multi-jurisdictional business and financial law, with multiple offices throughout the world's major financial centres. Good opportunities to travel. You’ll work for multinational clients in a variety of different legal and industrial sectors, with commercial, legal and linguistic skills being paramount.
Such firms offer a wide range of top-quality commercial work for heavyweight companies. These firms tend to have excellent support facilities, large staffing quotas and high levels of remuneration. Although UK-based, many will have an international workload and strong associations with other firms around the world.
Broad caseloads with some major companies and some larger regional companies. You can expect solid support services and facilities at these firms.
Offer broad-based legal services throughout the country from a number of different regional commercial centres such as Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol. They’re often the result of mergers between several strong regional practices. Clients are mostly UK public and private companies, and local and public authorities. Work is often done on a national basis using expertise across the country whenever appropriate.
There are many full-service commercial practices operating from either a single office or several offices in a particular geographic region. Their clients are mostly public and private companies in the region, and they often offer private client services. The smaller regional firms tend to concentrate more on private client work.
Small firms that tend to offer high-quality work in a limited field. Often they’re innovative and provide a high level of personal service. Opportunities for career development are limited to the specialised practice area.
High street/legal aid
These firms usually act in private client matters and sometimes for small private companies. Hours (and salaries) will be lower than at other firms, but lawyers here often claim to enjoy a more personally rewarding working environment.
For more on this, including examples, see our ‘Types of law firm’ section.
When considering whether to make an application, or accept a training contract or a placement to go towards your QWE, consider:
For non SRA-regulated organisations, the SRA has put together information on how to “provide the best possible QWE to individuals” and “maximise the benefits of QWE” to their organisation. Similar guidance has been put together for SRA-regulated firms.
Vacation schemes/work placement schemes
Even after you’ve decided what category of firm you’re interested in, there’s still the issue of which specific firms to apply to and/or accept offers from. The best way to decide whether a firm is right for you and secure a training contract is to complete vacation schemes or work placement schemes.
You can see firms with vacation schemes/work placement deadlines via LCN’s deadline page.
These schemes are designed to give students insights into firms and to allow firms to assess the abilities and temperament of prospective applicants. It's an ideal opportunity to shine. Typically, a student will be at a firm for two to three weeks and work in multiple departments, assisting qualified lawyers on cases. Firms will also run assessments and teamwork exercises, as well as social events. By the end of the scheme both parties will know whether this is a relationship worth continuing.
It's a good sign if you feel comfortable with the people you meet; you should never feel tempted to present them with a character that isn’t wholly your own.
You can apply for places on work placement or vacation schemes throughout the autumn term. Firms usually accept applications until late January/early February. But beware: many fill the places before the deadline or review applications in the order they were received, so it’s best to apply as early as possible.
When to apply
Many law firms look to fill their training contract places two years in advance. For law undergraduates this means applying in June/July of the summer vacation between your second and third year, although some firms set different deadlines. Some smaller firms accept applications only one year in advance, when they’ll have a better idea of their personnel requirements.
You can consult our searchable list of law firms that recruit trainees to get more information on when to apply. See LCN’s application deadlines page.
Most firms used to abide by a voluntary code of practice for recruiting trainee solicitors which said that training contract offers shouldn’t be made before a candidate’s penultimate year at university. However, this has been abandoned in recent years and many firms offer training contracts to some candidates as early as during their first year as an undergraduate.
The flexibility that comes with QWE means candidates don’t have to complete any formal placements. Instead, they can apply to work/volunteer at organisations that offer legal services before, during and after completing the SQE assessments. Therefore, the application cycle is less structured unless you’re applying for a firm that’s continuing to recruit and train its trainees via a traditional training contract.
How to apply
Applications should be made direct to the contact responsible for trainee recruitment at the law firm. You can get this contact name (along with the address details and application procedure) from our searchable directory of law firms. Competition for training contracts is fierce, with many firms getting hundreds of applications for a single place. You’ll therefore need to ensure that each application is tailored specifically to each individual firm if you want to give yourself a chance of success.
Applying for experience at organisations offering QWE will obviously vary, so do your research and take your time with applications.
Head to LawCareers.Net’s QWE page for more insights into this aspect of the SQE.
Read LCN’s 26-step guide to training contract applications and interviews for more advice on acing your applications and head to LawCareers.Net’s Application hub for all your other tips!