Putting into practice what you have learned
Under the traditional Legal Practice Course (LPC) route to practice, a training contract is the final hurdle to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales. However, as of 1 September 2021, under the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) route to practice, this was officially replaced by ‘qualifying work experience’ (QWE). More information on this change can be found further on in this article.
Trainees usually start their training contract at law firms during August/September of each year, although many of the larger City firms also have spring start dates, spreading their intakes across the year. The size of trainee intakes at law firms varies dramatically — whilst some small firms take on only a handful of trainees, some Magic Circle firms take on as many as 100.
Different sized intakes also offer a very different training experience. This is seen most notably in the level of supervision, the quality of work given, and the structure of the training programme itself. To directly compare the different trainee intake sizes at law firms, see Legal Cheek’s Firms Most List.
Training contract: what does it involve?
Typically, trainees undertake four six-month ‘seats’ (two years in total), rotating across different practice areas at the firm. However, not all law firms structure this in the same way. Some firms offer more than four seat options, while some adopt non-rotational approaches to seat allocation. Equally, others require trainees to undertake seats within certain practice areas, whilst other firms have greater flexibility here.
During a training contract, trainees work across various areas of law and are required to undertake seats in both contentious and non-contentious areas. This is a compulsory requirement to ensure the training contract meets the standards set by Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). You can find out more on this here.
When the training contract/qualifying work experience period comes to an end, the firm will make the decision as to whether to retain a trainee as a newly qualified solicitor (NQ). For a comparison of retention rates, see our Firms Most List and select the ‘most retained trainees’ criteria.
The Professional Skills Course
Alongside the work experience you gain during a training contract, trainees also have to pass the Professional Skills Course (PSC). The PSC ensures that trainees have developed the necessary skills during the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and training contract to carry them through into practice. Many of the larger firms run the PSC in-house, embedded within their training contract structures.
The three core modules on the PSC are:
● Financial and business skills
● Advocacy and communication skills; and
● Client care and professional standards
The Solicitors Qualifying Exam
From 1 September 2021, the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) replaced the current system for qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales, at which point the ‘period of recognised training’ or training contract became known as ‘qualifying work experience.’ QWE is designed to be more flexible than a training contract, in that trainees can complete their on-the-job training at up to four law firms/organisations as opposed to just one.
The new system has been devised to encourage an integrated approach to training, in which SQE1 exams will be sat at the start of the qualifying work experience period and SQE2 exams will be sat at the end, marking a transition to more vocational learning. The most significant change the SQE will bring is greater flexibility, allowing trainees to combine both practical and vocational study.
Trainee salaries differ between law firms substantially, with those specialising in criminal law usually paying the least and those undertaking corporate work paying the most. Among the corporate firms, US outfits top the pay table, dishing out hefty six-figure salaries and bonuses to trainees upon qualification. However, it’s worth noting that with these hefty salaries often come long working hours.
You can compare trainee and newly qualified salaries, alongside average leave times, on our Firms Most List. As things stand, the law firms with the highest second year trainee salary are Davis Polk & Wardwell, Kirkland & Ellis, Morrison Foerster, Sullivan & Cromwell, Vinson & Elkins and Weil Gotshal & Manges, all offering £65,000. The highest newly qualified salary is offered by Akin Gump, at £170,000.
The Law Society of England and Wales currently recommends trainees are paid at least £23,703 in London and £21,024 elsewhere.
Equivalent means/the ‘paralegal shortcut’
The equivalent means route, sometimes referred to as the ‘paralegal shortcut’, allows those seeking to qualify as a solicitor to do so through recognised learning or work-experience, as opposed to the traditional requirements such as the LPC and a training contract.
For example, someone working as a paralegal may be able to work across departments, recording their work, and use this as evidence that the work they have completed is equivalent to that undertaken by a trainee during their training contract.
The SRA is able to consider whether an individuals’ experience is enough to warrant exemption under its regulations. You can find more guidance here. Please note that these are currently in the process of being phased out as the new SQE becomes the mainstream route to qualification.
Many of the large corporate law firms give their trainees the opportunity to undertake client secondments, enabling them to spend time within the legal department of one of the firm’s clients. This is a great opportunity to gain confidence and skills, network with clients, and gain a deeper understanding of their needs.
Some of the large international law firms also offer trainees the chance to undertake an international secondment at one of their offices overseas. This is an excellent chance to work in a different jurisdiction and develop transferable skills. However, the internal competition for these secondments amongst trainees can be fierce. If undertaking an international secondment is one of your priorities when seeking a training contract, it is advisable to research the opportunities available at each firm prior to making your applications. Again, check out our Firms Most List to see which firms have the most international offices, and which offer the highest chance of an international secondment as a trainee.
Applying for training contracts/QWE
Most law firms recruit future trainees at least two years in advance of joining the firm. With that in mind, law students who hope to commence the LPC and start their training contract straight after the completion of their vocational studies, should look to apply for these positions in the second year of a three-year course, or their penultimate year of study if on an integrated four-year course.
Most training contract deadlines at City firms are either on or before the 31 July each year. However, this can vary from firm to firm, so it is always advisable to check Legal Cheek’s Key Deadlines Calendar or individual law firm websites. Moreover, it is important to note that some firms recruit on a rolling basis, meaning that they start processing offers as soon as they are received, rather than waiting for the formal deadline, making it advisable to apply as early as possible.
Applications for training contracts can be made directly through the recruiters’ online portal. The firm’s recruitment portal can also include useful information to inform your application, so it is a good idea to spend some time going through this area of the firm’s website.