Qualifying work experience — how is the legal industry responding?

Robert Dudley, head of employability and engagement at BARBRI, explores how the legal industry is responding to the qualifying work experience (QWE) requirement of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), which is providing a timely solution to the talent shortage while improving diversity and inclusion across the sector.

Robert Dudley|BARBRI|

The legal landscape is evolving with shifting client needs, greater lawtech opportunities, changing operations in the economic climate, new team expectations and much more. Among all this, the battle for talent rages on. In 2022, 85% of law firms in the UK stated that they were planning to increase their headcount, with 93% saying they were not planning on making any employee reductions.

Yet, the talent pool that firms can access is shrinking. Recent data indicates that many employees at UK law firms have sought out in-house roles for greater job security and more flexible working patterns. As such, the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) and, more specifically, its qualifying work experience (QWE) requirement, provides a timely solution while also improving diversity and inclusion across the sector.

The SQE provides a more flexible, cost-effective way to enter the profession compared to the existing Legal Practice Course (LPC). This is supported by the reformed training contract thanks to the QWE alternative, meaning aspiring legal professionals can earn while they learn. Under this requirement, candidates must complete two years of relevant work experience in up to four placements which can be taken before, during or after the SQE assessments.

It offers flexibility for candidates and employers alike, creating greater exposure to a broader range of competencies during the qualification process. With part-time study options and both law and non-law graduates able to access this route, the opportunity to become a solicitor is now available to a broader pool of talent. This includes lawyers from lower socio-economic backgrounds, where diversity data stands at just 17% compared to a 39% national average, who can now benefit from more qualification opportunities.

Those already working within the industry, such as paralegals and legal assistants, were arguably the first to benefit from QWE, with the ability to ‘bank’ their existing experience should they wish to qualify. The only caveat is that any QWE must be confirmed by a qualified solicitor with direct experience of the work conducted, a compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) or a solicitor outside of the organisation with direct experience of the work conducted.

The Law Society of England and Wales has embraced the industry’s support of QWE. In 2022, it recommended that aspiring solicitors should be paid £21,024 outside of London and £23,703 in the capital for QWE during the SQE or their training contract. This is due to rises in inflation and will help make this a more viable option for candidates across all socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s at the discretion of individual firms to take this on board, but figures from 2022 show that average salaries across all roles have risen by a minimum of 5% to attract new talent and to adapt to higher inflation rates.

While firms of all sizes across England and Wales are reviewing how and when they will embrace the SQE, there is still some confusion and apprehension surrounding QWE from both candidates and employers, in terms of how it is gained, what is being signed off and what truly counts as qualifying experience.

That’s why learning providers like BARBRI are working to help ease this transition through its QWE Kickstart initiative alongside The SQuarE Route, which is offering a minimum of six months of QWE for a limited number of candidates, starting from 2024, while also providing practical skills beyond the qualification process, including masterclasses in CV, cover letter and application writing; commercial awareness training; and skills training to help with competency interviews, case study tasks and presentations.

Not only can these partnerships help to create a profession that is more representative of society today by tackling a key barrier to entry but will also support the SQE’s continued implementation.

Plus, the benefits of QWE are undeniable. BARBRI data shows that 94% of candidates who sat the SQE2 assessment reported passing. Solicitors Regulations Authoritydata tells a similar story, highlighting that candidates who had undertaken QWE achieved a higher pass rate in SQE1 and SQE2 assessments, demonstrating the value of gaining industry experience alongside SQE preparation and putting their learning into practice. As the sector continues to embrace this new requirement, we can expect to see the full scale of the benefits of QWE.

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