‘Any advice on navigating the NQ lawyer market?’

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By Legal Cheek on


Help requested

In the latest instalment in our Career Conundrums series, a newly qualified solicitor is weighing up their career options at home and abroad.

“I am a soon-to-be newly qualified lawyer at a City firm, although am not looking to stay on after qualifying due to a lack of positions in my preferred practice areas. I am hearing through friends and recruiters that the NQ market is fairly quiet at the moment, and was wondering if anyone had some advice on navigating this? I am also open to roles abroad, e.g. in Europe or Dubai. I don’t know what the general consensus on this is? Are the markets out there any better? And what impact will this have on my career if I choose to return to London a few years down the line? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.”

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“although am not looking to stay on after qualifying due to a lack of positions in my preferred practice areas”

Mate honestly this isn’t the NQ market to be picky.

If I were you I’d secure an internal position in any practice area I can as a back up and then start looking externally.

Worst case scenario you don’t find anything in your preferred practice area but you have a job. You can move into a different practice area as long as it is in the first year or two of qualifying and firms understand the market is very dire and trainees are having to qualify into teams they don’t want to for the sake of being employed in this dire market.

Best of luck!

2 Cents

It depends on what the preferred area is in my opinion.

If it is something like corporate or finance you will definitely secure an external role albeit at a smaller firm than the one you trained at or possibly in house.

The specialist practice areas are the ones where there are very few positions going.


Bold of you to assume trainees will “definitely” secure a corporate or finance role.

The market is not what it was a few years ago where there were an abundant number of roles going in transactional departments.

Keep me in your prayers

tell me about it bro.

It’s even harder to get roles in corporate, funds or finance departments now.

I’m going through multiple rounds of interviews and haven’t been offered a role yet.

My mate qualified a couple years ago and said he didn’t have to go through this much hassle.

It’s hard out here man

Ding Dong The NQ Market Is Gone

This is genuinely the worst I’ve seen the NQ market for several years.

I feel really bad for those qualifying this September.

2008 NQ

You have no idea

Boo hoo boomer

Oh no look at me I paid 5 shillings and a pack of peanuts for university fees.

I bought a house for £95k before the boom which is now worth a million.

Might I add that I made partner in 8 years PQE back when you were guaranteed to make partner simply by sticking it out for 10 years!!!


I qualified last year and the market was bad then. I remember people saying that it’ll course correct and be fine for in a year’s time but it looks like it’s worse this year.

To those final seaters who aren’t being retained: don’t give up hope. Be sad for a day and then kick into action and start contacting recruiters. Be broad in your scope – if you want to do energy disputes, be open to a more generalist disputes roles (you can always specialise later down the line). Alternatively, if you want to do pure project finance work, be open to a more generalist corporate role. The market will hopefully get better at some point but you need to keep an open mind and be willing to explore areas you wouldn’t have considered before.

If you are dead set on pensions or competition then that’s a tricky one as it can be harder to lateral to these later. In that case, be willing to consider Brussels for competition (there are plenty of roles going there) or an in house pensions funds role if you’re not too bothered about staying in private practice. Alternatively you could qualify into another advisory seat and look to switch in 6 months to a year’s time.

It’s rubbish out there but everyone in my cohort eventually got a job. The market WILL eventually sort itself out but how long that takes is anyone’s guess. Good luck!


I’ve heard that a lot of the firms who don’t typically disclose their retention rates have let a lot of trainees go this time.

There is a sparsity of internal roles going. The dilemma is that this appears to be the case across the board at most firms.

If law firms have filled all their internal positions, where are the unretained trainees meant to apply to?

I suspect they will have to move to very small firms or in house.


“ If law firms have filled all their internal positions, where are the unretained trainees meant to apply to?”



We need to expose these firms with low retention so us aspiring solicitors can avoid them


Lol at this, “expose these firms”. Professional services model is to not retain everybody and if they do try to its just to gloss over with a shiny figure for aspiring trainees. Secondly market factors play in, or just departmental dynamics e.g. recruited heavily following year in one area not doing same this year so people decide to move on. Or just that some of the trainees weren’t good enough. This is just how a professional services firm operates.

Silly Billy

Let’s not be obtuse now and pretend retention is not important.

Retention data is perhaps more important for BAME candidates. When you factor in those who aren’t retained and look at the demographics there is more to what meets the eye.

In a dire NQ market like this it is typically BAME trainees who are not kept on and the statistics have substantiated this time and time again.

Throwing out generalisations such as “trainees weren’t good enough” is hogwash.

There are many reasons why trainees are not retained. You may be technically the most gifted and able trainee and it might not secure you a role for things beyond your control.

Beggars can’t be choosers

If you are a trainee looking to qualify into a specialist practice area such as tax, employment, intellectual property, privacy and data, technology and sourcing, pensions, competition etc. I would reconsider and go for something broader.

You can always move back into it after a year or so.

Those are the practice areas where there are very few roles going and those firms are looking for candidates with a lot of knowledge and experience. Having done multiple seats or previously paralegaled in it for some time will help.


All the trainees unretained at my firm are the ones looking for roles in the areas you listed.

I spot a theme.

Silver Circle Trainee

Same here…


The problem is there’s no guarantees these specialist NQ roles will be available a year or two from now. Firms should do better in informing trainees from the outset that there’s unlikely be in any jobs in this area, even at another firm. They shouldn’t let trainees do a seat there and get their hopes up.

Death by sub-group

I’m with you on that one.

I’d also add that firms that have sooo many subgroups also limit their trainees when it comes to qualification.

Example 1: A trainee at X firm has done a seat in Marine Litigation which sits within the broader Litigation team. They want to qualify into the general commercial litigation team but their current firm does not have any roles going in Litigation. This trainee now looks externally for an NQ role but is turned down because their seat was too niche. In a buoyant NQ market this would not be an issue as it is the transferable skills they care about but in the current market this is not the case.

Example 2: A trainee at Y firm has done a seat in Venture Capital which sits within the broader Corporate team. There are no roles going in the VC sub team and the trainee is now unretained. They are looking for a corporate role externally but their seat was very niche and external firms are looking for NQs with experience in private equity and M&A.


If you don’t have the wit as a trainee to work this one out yourself then perhaps you don’t have the commercial savvy to succeed in practice, at least not with your present firm. As has been pointed out here several times, the market is going through a tough patch at present but the warning signs it would have been flashing for a few years at least. I don’t think it is the responsibility of the Firm to molly-coddle trainees to the extent that they have to be hand-held about the availability of positions in specialist areas. Any sensible trainee should surely have a plan-B. Professional life is very of not a bowl of cherries.


Do not go to Dubai. Surefire way to kill your career. Lawyers out there are looked down on.


Please explain why they are looked down on?

Don C.

It’s just an old prejudice. These days it actually makes sense to go to a low tax jurisdiction and it’s logical too. Why bother working in London when more than half your income is taken away when you can get the same money tax free and a much better quality of life in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha? Some will say the quality of work and professionals are second rate but even it’s true (which it isn’t) who cares? Your sole purpose as an employee is to maximise your income for the time provided, everything else like prestige is irrelevant.


How broad is the legal market abroad for Brits nowadays and is it limited to the middle east?

Unretained Trainee SC Firm

I’m due to qualify in September. I have not been kept on due to limited roles and other reasons I will not go into.

I contacted recruiters last year in December because I predicted there would not be many roles going.

I have several recruiters searching for NQ roles for me but not a single application and led to an interview.

For every 1 NQ position there are over 65 applicants. It is very oversubscribed and they are taking the candidates with the most experience. I only have 1 seat in the area I am applying to which does not help.

I don’t know what to do

Ronald M

Flip burgers?


Go overseas, Asia, the middle east….. look outside of your jurisdiction. You won’t know until you’ve tried it and you have nothing to lose.


Given that all of the advice is to take whatever you can get shows how abysmal the NQ market is.

Recruiters are saying the same thing.

People think recruiters are pushing trainees into any role in any practice area they can get in order to secure a commission but this isn’t true.

It is because they know if trainees don’t broaden their scope they may end up with nothing.


Can anyone explain why the nq market is so bad?

Not great

So many reasons. There was an absolute boom in the market in 2021 – 2022. It was easy to lateral, there were external NQ roles even in niche areas. Firms profits were soaring, so they hired.

No there is a market downturn, profit increases are more conservative, and hiring budgets are being slashed. If there isn’t a solid business case for a practice area to take on an NQ, they won’t. They also potentially overhired in those two ‘boom’ years and are trying to avoid letting people go if possible, though stealth layoffs have taken place. Ultimately, the market is now the worst it has been for some time – especially at the NQ level – for all of those reasons combined.

This is NOT the year to be taking a punt on getting your chosen, dream practice area. Take any internal role going. It is better than being unemployed on qualification.


It’s all about the job market in the legal sector, which is reflective of the economic state in the UK.

The UK economy has taken a hit and so have many industries who are making employees redundant. Unfortunately, the legal industry is not any different.

After covid there was a boost in hiring and many law firms needed more people, especially NQs. In 2020 the trainees of that time were able to train at smaller firms and move to Magic Circle and US firms. The last trainee cohort who were able to move laterally quite easily were the ones who qualified in 2022.

The current market is very dire and there are not many NQ roles going. Trainees are lucky if they are retained and need to hope for the best and be very onit with external applications if not. I have friends who are final seaters and they aren’t being kept on and they are struggling to find external roles at firms of the same level to their current one meaning they may have to take a huge pay cut and move to a much smaller firm or even go in house.


They over hired during Covid

Not adding up

Anyone else think it’s weird firms are upping NQ pay when NQ market is supposedly terrible?

Truth Serum

I think the problem is the way people talk about it is misleading.

NQ pay should really just be called the “baseline salary” which is exactly what it is.

When you hear of these Magic Circle and US firms increasing their NQ salary what they are really increasing is their baseline salaries.

They are not doing it for the NQs, they are doing it to retain junior associates from 1-4PQE level. That is who it is currently aimed at.

I agree it can be confusing.

Hope this helps.

Not adding up

That has cleared up the confusion for me, thank you!

Non-Russell Final Year

It is more of a marketing gimmick as the salaries now hardly go up once you have qualified until 3 PQE


The NQ market is in a really strange place. Qualifying this summer and it has been an uphill battle to get an external role after not being kept on by my firm. Businesses took on too many people after covid and cant retain all their trainees now especially in certain areas of practice. I was told I was one of the most impressive trainees in the cohort but there isnt a business in the department i want.

Dont be picky, if you want a contentious role, find a general one rather than a specialist one. Dont be afraid to relocate. Seemed to be roles in my area everywhere but where i live.

if the NQ market is bad now, how will it be as more and more people aulify through the sqe route. Just moving the bottleneck from the trainee point to the nq point which is arguably more stressful for applicants as they are trying to qualify.

1 Year PQE MC Lawyer

A lot has been said above, so I want to offer a few words of reassurance. It might seem like the worst position to be in right now, and it must feel horrible, but things always work themselves out. If this is a career you want to stay in, you have a long road ahead of you, and it’s okay to temporarily pivot where needed (emphasis on temporarily). As someone advised above, if you are offered a role in a practice area you are unhappy with, just take it for now and focus your efforts on applying to the external roles you really want, albeit in this jurisdiction or elsewhere (I’ve seen people move about a lot!) Something will land eventually, but play the game from a position of power. Even if, worst case scenario, you don’t end up retained, guess what? Things will still work themselves out. Be kind to yourself. Life is so much bigger than city law and your worth extends far beyond a job title. Wishing you the very best with everything.

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