Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) under the new SQE regime has opened up new ways to qualify as a solicitor — but how can you take advantage of this? BARBRI provides a handy guide to get you thinking about this, with a quick overview of what QWE entails, to a quiz to help you work out which path is right for you and student profiles to demonstrate the flexibility that QWE offers.
What is QWE?
How is it different?
Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) is a feature of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) route to qualification that creates greater flexibility for those seeking to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales. The key rationale behind the SRA’s introduction of the SQE was to provide accessibility to the profession and ensure that as a result, the profession becomes more diverse to reflect society — the QWE process strongly embodies these objectives.
Under the previous Legal Practice Course (LPC) regime, candidates were required to undertake a two-year “period of recognised training”, otherwise known as a training contract (TC), in order to qualify. Now, however, the requirement has been modified to require “two years’ full-time (or equivalent) QWE” in up to four different experiences. So, what does this mean in practice?
The change facilitates a shift from the long-established training contract system, where aspiring solicitors were working towards the same objective that ultimately culminated in private practice. Now, however, rather than being restricted by the need to obtain a training contract with one organisation to satisfy full qualification, students can explore different aspects of legal practice that were previously less accessible at the training stage.
What counts as QWE?
One such opportunity opened up by QWE is the chance to spend a period of time working in an in-house legal department prior to qualification. This can offer a great avenue to build awareness of the legal sector outside of traditional private practice, so those pursuing in-house training could be exposed to a more diverse experience than the four-seat rotations under a traditional TC. Other potential routes include legal operations, legal tech and legal project management, all of which offer insight into different sides of the legal industry that would be less accessible under a traditional training contract route. In fact, some firms are now even offering TC’s in these new developing areas.
Additionally, the new QWE pathway allows candidates to follow a portfolio-style approach to accruing their experience, rather than training at a single law firm for two years, which was the only option previously available. Of course, it’s important to note that the training contract route remains open under the QWE approach as well. But if you want to steer away from that, you can gain QWE at “up to four organisations, in paid or volunteer work”, as the SRA indicates. Importantly, such experience can be undertaken before, during or after completion of the SQE1 and 2 assessments, so students are offered the opportunity to study and work simultaneously while preparing for their SQE exams.
Examples of this include time spent working as a paralegal, in a law clinic or at a charitable organisation – the key requirements, as indicated by the SRA, are that QWE must involve providing legal services and cover at least two competencies, points which will be explored further under “Employability resources” below.
It’s worth pointing out here that QWE shouldn’t be seen as just something to tick off. Rather, it’s important to seek out experiences that are as well-rounded as possible. They should be of quality and value to the candidate in their future career aspirations, and focused on hitting multiple competencies, rather than just the minimum requirement. This is crucial to maximising opportunities post-qualification.
Moreover, the QWE route also eases the path to qualification in England and Wales for solicitors who are already qualified overseas. As QWE can be accrued outside of England and Wales, those already qualified with at least two years of QWE under their belt, now only need to take the SQE1 and 2 assessments to qualify in England and Wales, with many such candidates exempt from the SQE2 as well. There is, however, the caveat that QWE gained outside of England and Wales does need to be signed off by an England and Wales-qualified solicitor.
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Hear from BARBRI's success stories
Holly Moore, solicitor at ITV
Holly Moore is a qualified solicitor in ITV’s brand protection team. She started out her career in ITV, as the UK’s first in-house solicitor apprentice, obtaining a first-class law degree and completing the SQE1&2 with BARBRI during her apprenticeship.
What factors contributed to your decision to pursue the solicitor apprenticeship route to qualifying as a lawyer?
When I was at college studying for my A-Levels, I looked into the routes I could take to qualify as a solicitor. Of course, I first came across the traditional route of university, followed by the Legal Practice Course (as the Solicitors Qualifying Examination had not been introduced then) and then a two-year training contract.
For me, that wasn’t a feasible route to qualification for multiple different reasons. I am from a non-traditional background, a first-generation university student, so factors like support, knowledge, and costs made this a challenging approach. I was looking for alternative routes, and the first batch of solicitor apprentices were due to start in September of the following year, lining up perfectly with when I would have finished college.
When I explored the solicitor apprenticeship vacancies, these took away all my worries. The studies were fully funded, so I would still get my degree without having to take out a student loan, and, in fact, earning a salary, which was really helpful. It also meant that I wouldn’t have to go through the stress and worry of trying to sort myself out with a training contract in the future, but to the contrary, get loads of real-world exposure along the way. If anything, I think it put me slightly ahead of other graduates because I had that added experience of having already worked for four years alongside studying for my law degree.
Can you tell me a bit about the departments you sat in during your apprenticeship?
I started with ITV in September 2016 and the apprenticeship was similar to a traditional TC in the sense that I moved around different seats during the six years. Some of the seats I sat in were the commercial legal team, entertainment production and commissioning and brand protection, where I ended up qualifying. I also went on secondment to a law firm for six months.
How did you find your time in private practice to differ from training in-house?
It was really interesting because I got to look at both sides of the legal world – by the time I got my first taste of private practice, I had already spent five years in my in-house role. The work was really similar, but the biggest difference with working in-house is that you are embedded within the client. Your whole work life is around what is good for the business, and that brings in a lot of business acumen. I definitely missed the proximity to the client as a trainee in private practice. Having said that, what I enjoyed about private practice was being able to experience work across different areas of business — really being able to see how the same knowledge can be used in such varied ways across a range of different clients.
Having completed your apprenticeship and successfully qualified (congrats!) what tips do you have for aspiring lawyers who are keen to find out about, and make the most of, non-training contract routes to the legal profession?
The most important thing I’d say is to make sure you’re making informed decisions. Reading pages like this, for example, is a great step in the right direction.
Don’t make rash or hasty decisions, thinking you have to qualify in the shortest amount of time – according to a 2021-21 survey, the average age for qualifying as a solicitor is around 30 years old. So, if you took a more traditional approach and studied law at university, I would strongly advocate for you to take a couple of years and get some experience, before rushing into qualification. In fact, doing so might actually count as QWE and make your route to qualifying quicker, even if you didn’t intend that at first.
With the introduction of the SQE and QWE, the route to qualification is much more flexible. You have the option of working and studying simultaneously, even starting to bank your QWE as early as your uni days, if that’s what you want. If university isn’t an option, or just not something you want to do, there’s now also more variety in the apprenticeship route, with two different streams. There’s the six-year apprenticeship, which is what I did, as well as a two-year graduate solicitor apprenticeship, which covers the SQE and QWE, for those who attended university.
What was it like balancing work and study, and what advice do you have for those who are daunted by how they would manage this?
It’s a completely valid concern, and balancing the two certainly isn’t easy — but entry into this profession isn’t supposed to be! To do both well, it’s really important to set your boundaries and have really good communication. Communicating with both your SQE Prep provider and your employer is crucial – if you’re doing an apprenticeship, that communication will hopefully be easier as you’ll have your assigned study day during the week.
In other cases, setting that boundary of when you work best and when you study best, and making sure those two aspects can coexist without infringing on the other is important. You really have to be harsh with your cut-off times and build in times for breaks, because, unlike university, those breaks aren’t built in. So, making time to look after yourself, especially when balancing study and work, is a priority.
You were in the first cohort to sit the SQE. What was it like studying for this with BARBRI?
I love BARBRI, I think they’re amazing. I have a law degree and graduated with a First, but I would never have passed the exams without BARBRI’s Prep course. The exams are so different that you really need that preparation to pass them, and the knowledge is so vast.
Firstly, the Personal Study Plan sets out exactly what you need to do over the duration of your course, whether that’s 10, 20 or 40 weeks long — you don’t have to stress about making a learning schedule or a revision timetable because that’s all built into the plan. You can just log on and do what it tells you to do, which is ideal after you’ve already had a day at work.
Secondly, the variety of learning methods is also really beneficial. Some people like to read, some like to listen and some prefer to watch. Although I’m probably more of a reader, having all those different elements helps to cement that knowledge. It’s that repetitiveness that really drives home the content and there’s also a huge bank of mock questions to go over in preparation for the exams. It’s really overwhelming to start off with, but believe me, trust the process — you will get there!
What has been a highlight of your career thus far?
There’s so many! Qualification was a huge milestone as I worked towards it for six years, and having joined ITV when I was 18, I essentially grew up there. My whole time at ITV thus has honestly been a highlight.
Post-qualification, doing the work that I enjoy by specialising in IP is certainly very gratifying. There’s also the social mobility work that I’ve been doing, seeing how my blog has taken off over the years and joining BARBRI’s Advisory Board this year have also been huge career highlights outside of work.
You were the first in-house solicitor apprentice in the UK. What changes/developments have you seen in the past few years to make this path clearer to pursue?
I think the solicitor apprenticeship route has really taken off in the past three years or so. The great thing about it is that it can really impact social mobility positively. It opens up a path for those students who are not looking to pursue university, for whatever reason, and would otherwise have just missed out on a legal career, despite being just as capable as university graduates.
With the route gaining prominence, it is attracting a really diverse group of candidates, especially with their being no upper age limit on the apprenticeships. It means that even those who may not have originally considered a legal career, or who have different experiences, opinions and skills to bring to the profession are now being attracted to a legal career, which is a hugely positive thing.
Maab Saifeldin, trainee solicitor at Flex Legal
Hear from Maab Saifeldin on her experience of completing QWE as an in-house trainee solicitor with Flex Legal. Having undertaken placements at BMW and Next 15, Saifeldin talks about balancing work and study, why she chose the QWE route and her main takeaways as she approaches the final six months of her QWE.
Ellen Swarbrick, trainee solicitor at Vinson & Elkins
Hear from Ellen Swarbrick, a trainee solicitor at Vinson & Elkins, about her experience of securing her training contract and completing the SQE as a career changer moving into law after working in energy consulting.