updated on 09 March 2020
The training contract, or period of qualifying work experience, 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.
Change ahead: the Solicitors Qualifying Exam
From 2021, the way that solicitors qualify is changing with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). As part of the new system, candidates must still complete two years of qualifying work experience (QWE) to qualify as solicitors, 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 is possible to gain QWE both before and after taking some of the SQE assessments.
However, many firms will still want their trainees to complete a significant period of work experience with them alone before they can progress to solicitor/associate level. Firms have different ways of working and varied specialisms, so in many cases it will 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.
The traditional training contract
It is normal, especially in the larger firms, for you to spend four six-month placements (called ‘seats’) in different departments. In smaller firms the training will not be so structured. 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 is not enforceable.
The current recommended minimum salary for trainees in London is £22,541. Outside London, it is £19,992.
The SRA no longer stipulates the exact terms of training contracts, which means that individual firms have been given greater freedom to design their own training programmes. However, trainees are still required to meet the SRA's competence statement (released in 2015). There is now more scope for firms to design innovative training contracts, but the broad principles are the same.
What you learn
The two years of a training contract build on what you have already learnt through practical work experience and training, and prepare you for working life at your particular firm.
What you learn during your training contract will depend on the type of firm in which you train and the solicitors who supervise you. If you join a large commercial firm, you are 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.
What you learn during your training contract will depend on the type of firm in which you train and the solicitors who supervise you.
You cannot qualify as a solicitor without passing the Professional Skills Course (PSC). This is a modular course which aims to ensure that you have reached the appropriate level of skills and knowledge during the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and the training contract. Firms must pay for their trainees to attend the PSC.
The three core modules are:
There is a written exam for the financial and business skills module, but no formal assessment of the others. You'll also need to complete 24 hours' worth of elective modules. If it is taken full time, the PSC will last up to 12 days. However, each module can be taken individually. Many of the larger firms run the PSC in-house as part of their ongoing training programmes.
Choosing the right firm
Your starting point for shortlisting which law firms to apply to should be the type of practice you want to work in, the sort of work you want to do and where you want to do it. While it is often difficult to decide this more than two years in advance of beginning your practical training and before you have even completed the LPC, you should try to make as informed a choice as possible.
Use the experience you have gained during your studies and any work experience, especially work placement schemes, to help you decide. You will 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, do not forget to consult your careers advisers - they will have a wealth of knowledge and experience to help you in your search for a training contract. 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 multiple firms that fit the bill - and don't be too disappointed if you do not get offers from your first choices. You must remember that you are a valuable commodity to the firms and that they are competing hard to attract you.
It is 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 is hard to generalise about types of firm and what sort of working life is on offer. Nevertheless, we have outlined the broad categories of firm to provide an insight 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 will 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 here.
Offer broad-based legal services throughout the country from a number of different regional commercial centres such as Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol. They are 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 are innovative and provide a high level of personal service. Some niche practices are so specialised they are unable to gain authorisation from the SRA to offer training contracts, as they can't offer a sufficiently broad training experience. 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, consider:
Work placement schemes
Even after you have decided what category of firm you are interested in, there is 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 work placement schemes.
Work placement schemes are designed both to give students an insight into the firm and to allow the firm 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 and you should never feel tempted to present them with a character that is not wholly your own.
You can apply for places on work placement schemes throughout the autumn term. Firms usually accept work placement scheme 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 is best to apply as early as possible. See this comprehensive list of work placement scheme deadlines.
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 (and before you start a law conversion if you are a non-law graduate), though some firms set different deadlines. Some smaller firms accept applications only a year in advance, when they will 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 should not 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.
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 will therefore need to ensure that each application is tailored specifically to each individual firm if you want to give yourself a chance of success.