Speakers from The College of Legal Practice, Acuity Law and Shoosmiths came together to discuss how the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is offering future lawyers greater flexibility
With the introduction of the SQE on 1 September 2021, aspiring solicitors are no longer obliged to obtain a traditional training contract as a means to qualification. At Legal Cheek’s latest virtual event, ‘Take control of your future legal career through the SQE’, members from Shoosmiths and Acuity Law joined legal education experts from The College of Legal Practice to discuss the changes and opportunities brought by the SQE for those looking to enter the legal profession.
• Dr Giles Proctor, The College of Legal Practice’s CEO
• Kathryn Newton, Programme Leader at The College of Legal Practice
• Isabel Parker, non-executive College of Legal Practice board member and former solicitor at magic circle law firm Freshfields
• Nicola Wellman, HR Manager at Acuity Law
• Natalie Watkiss, who works in leadership and management development, coaching/mentoring and apprenticeships at leading law firm Shoosmiths
1. The flexibility of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE)
Alongside completing SQE1 and SQE2, aspiring lawyers must gain two years of QWE in order to qualify. What counts as QWE is an “incredibly broad brush”, Kathryn Newton, programme leader at The College of Legal Practice, said. Those on the SQE pathway therefore have an enormous amount of flexibility. The panel discussed how QWE can be obtained from up to four different organisations, which don’t necessarily have to be law firms, and can include in-house teams, law clinics and unregulated providers of legal services. Moreover, QWE can be obtained from overseas organisations ― music to the ears of international students and professionals looking to qualify in the UK.
To be ‘qualifying’ work experience, Newton said, individuals must be “exposed to some of the solicitor competencies”, and so aspiring lawyers would do well to ensure that within their QWE they have access to a variety of tasks that will broaden their skillsets. Having said this, Newton also emphasised that students should ensure “the work experience being undertaken is of the type that will enable you to practice in the area of law that you are seeking to practice in”.
Isabel Parker, non-executive College of Legal Practice board member and former solicitor at magic circle law firm Freshfields, noted that some larger corporate law firms may prefer candidates to have “at least some experience in a corporate setting”, which is something to bear in mind for those looking to practice as City lawyers. However, she also emphasised the importance placed on “demonstrating softer skills”, which she suggested can be gained in “many different ways”. As such, she encouraged aspiring lawyers not to dismiss pro bono as part of their QWE portfolio, as many law firms will look favourably upon these transferrable skills.
2. The benefits of studying a virtual course
The ability to study a completely virtual course enables aspiring solicitors to complete their SQE studies while simultaneously banking their QWE. Moreover, virtual studying gives students the option to “earn while they learn”, Dr Giles Proctor, CEO, The College of Legal Practice’s, explained, which is made easier by the “various study modes around the SQE, which tend to be more flexible than those currently available for the LPC”. At The College of Legal Practice, Newton said, students can choose their course depending on how much time they are able to commit each week to their studies, with the options of SQE1 prep courses of 13, 20 or 40 weeks in length, and SQE2 prep courses of 10, 20 and 27 weeks.
Aspiring lawyers are also given an optimal level of supervision and support, Proctor said, with dedicated 1:1 regular meetings with your supervisor to touch base on the progression of your studies, as well as offer advice and support with regards to navigating QWE.
3. Opening access to the legal profession
In recent years, pressure has been building on law firms, both from society and clients, to open access to a more diverse pool of individuals in their recruitment processes. As Parker noted, the ability to study virtually and “earn as you learn” can “enable those from a variety of backgrounds to work towards a legal career, such as those with caring responsibilities… or those who simply cannot afford to study the course without working”.
Moreover, Parker said, law firms are now “widening their recruitment horizons ― they are actively seeking greater diversity, greater social mobility and greater cognitive diversity”. Parker explained this is largely down to the fact that “clients are pressurising them” as both a result of their individual ESG (environmental, social and governance) obligations, and in order to unlock the wider range of skills and viewpoints that come with a more diverse panel of legal advisors. As such, the opportunity brought by the SQE to improve access to the legal profession may be looked favourably upon by law firms during this transition period.
Natalie Watkiss, who works in leadership and management development, coaching/mentoring and apprenticeships at leading law firm Shoosmiths, highlighted that the SQE offers an alternative route into law whereby candidates do not require a law degree prior to starting the SQE prep courses. As such, she noted, non-law students who “may have been put off pursuing legal careers in the past due to the expense of the traditional GDL course”, may be more inclined to study the shorter SQE prep courses, particularly if they have the flexibility to work alongside their studies.
4. Law firms are embracing the SQE
Although some law firms remain sceptical of the SQE, preferring to stick with the tried and tested LPC route for now, Parker thinks attitudes are changing in the legal space. She said pressure from clients to demonstrate greater diversity may encourage law firms to consider implementing the SQE route sooner rather than later.
Welsh commercial law firm Acuity law has already implemented the SQE into its recruitment process, with The College of Legal Practice as its chosen provider. Nicola Wellman, human resources manager at Acuity Law, said Acuity’s SQE track will see eight trainees complete their SQE studies alongside their QWE with the firm, over a period of two and a half years “to recognise that trainees will need to take some time out for their SQE studies”. By seat 3 of the training contract, she said, the SQE studies will have been completed, thus enabling trainees to spend the latter half of their training contracts focusing solely on their allocated practice areas and considering their fifth qualification seat.
Shoosmiths are currently in the process of formulating their SQE track, Watkiss said, but are looking to welcome their first SQE cohort by 2023. “The SQE shifts the power between trainees and candidates by removing law firm control on the number of people that they qualify as solicitors, which I think is an absolutely fantastic opportunity for students of today… but also an opportunity for us as a law firm to access that more diverse talent.”
5. Funding options for the SQE prep courses
Unknown to many aspiring lawyers, funding options are available for those looking to study the SQE prep courses. In order to ensure students can access funding, The College of Legal Practice has “wrapped a master’s programme around the SQE1 and SQE2 preparation courses”, Proctor said, which enables students to apply for a student loan that will fully cover both the course fees to the provider, and the separate SQE exam fees to Kaplan.
The master’s programme also equips students with “key transactional skills” that many commercial law firms desire, Proctor said, as well as “core legal business skills” that will enable such individuals to build upon their commercial awareness and understanding of how businesses operate.
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