How I became an in-house lawyer via Equivalent Means
It is a safe bet to say that the experiences of aspiring solicitors and the landscape of legal qualification has undergone a seismic shift in the last few years due to a global pandemic and the introduction of the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
Sitting as in-house counsel to a construction trade association in a plush office overlooking the shimmering waters of St Katharine Docks, it’s tantalisingly easy for me to dismiss the chaos of the last few years as nothing more than a fever dream, but within that maelstrom lay my path to qualification via Equivalent Means and eventual transition from private practice to in-house.
What is Equivalent Means?
Equivalent Means is a route to qualification that was introduced by the SRA in late 2014, and in some ways it was a vanguard and, dare I say it, a quasi-pilot scheme that led to the subsequent introduction of the SQE.
When I mention that I qualified via Equivalent Means, a common question that I am asked, and one that I am sure is a shared experience for my peers who took the same route, is: “Oh, do you mean CILEX?”
The reality is that, even today, Equivalent Means is a lesser known route to qualification and it is one that the SRA is now starting to slowly phase out with the launch of the SQE.
It is, however, important to acknowledge the groundwork that Equivalent Means laid down for the SQE.
It was a gateway to becoming a solicitor for many paralegals who had years of robust legal experience under their belts but may have felt that they were constantly hitting their head against a glass ceiling.
I first properly considered Equivalent Means in 2019, at which point I had been a paralegal at an international City firm for almost five years and was more than ready to kick on with my career and progress to becoming a solicitor.
The firm I worked at had been very accommodating in facilitating me in gaining experience in a variety of practice areas, with a main focus on construction law.
However, over the years I wistfully watched a series of trainee solicitors come and go from the department, with some joining the team permanently post qualification and enjoying a greater degree of work responsibility and exposure to clients.
I had heard murmurings about Equivalent Means prior to this stage in my career, but it was at this point where I decided to peruse it at length and came to the hopeful realisation that this could be my golden ticket to qualification and joining my colleagues in the post-qualification world.
Undertaking the Equivalent Means route
However, the task ahead of me was daunting. In order to be eligible to qualify via Equivalent Means, applicants had to be able to showcase at least two years of legal experience in three different practice areas, and this had to be evidenced in an SRA application form.
This application form was driven by work-based learning outcomes; applicants had to demonstrate competence equivalent to that of a trainee solicitor in 12 different practice skills, ranging from dispute resolution and case management, to drafting, legal research and client communication.
Under each practice skill were a series of key skills that applicants were required to have gained experience in, evidenced by way of examples and supporting documentation such as appropriately redacted fee-earning work.
The application would need to be supplemented by supporting reports by supervising solicitors that the applicants worked under, giving an undertaking to the SRA that the applicant:
- had been effectively supervised during their legal experience, and
- had the level and quality of training analogous to a trainee solicitor undertaking a traditional training contract
I was asked to present a business case to my firm explaining what Equivalent Means was and why I wanted to qualify via this route.
The firm accepted and agreed to support me through the process by funding the Professional Skills Course (PSC), which, akin to undertaking a training contract, was a prerequisite to qualifying and enrolling on the roll of solicitors.
This led to a juggling act where I had to balance my fee-earning work as a paralegal, undertaking the PSC modules and working on the Equivalent Means application form.
The wildcard thrown into this mix was the COVID-19 pandemic from early 2020 when the workforce shifted to remote working – and aspirations of qualifying into a department of your choice and the overall state of the legal job market were thrown completely up in the air.
The application was intensive and guidance on completing it was incredibly scarce, and – without meaning to sound overly hyperbolic – it often felt like traversing a dark labyrinth without knowing whether you were heading in the right direction or not.
My final application turned out to be close to a hundred pages, plus a lever-arch-file worth of supporting documentation.
I submitted it to the SRA for review who provided preliminary feedback before an external assessor went through the application with a fine comb and gave a final verdict. To my huge relief, my application had been successful and I was approved to qualify as a solicitor.
Life after Equivalent Means
Qualifying via Equivalent Means was a very fulfilling and satisfying experience, but I had qualified into the middle of a global pandemic. I found myself jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The job I had hoped for at the firm I had trained at was no longer on the cards. Cue a seemingly endless series of remote interviews and a purgatorial wait.
I eventually accepted a NQ role with another leading international City firm, and approximately a year and a half into PQE life, I took a leap of faith and transitioned in-house to take on a role as legal counsel at the Electrical Contractors Association.
There is a lot that I have taken from my qualification route, including resilience and renewed professional ambition, and I have since then had the privilege to support and mentor several aspiring solicitors on their journey to qualification via Equivalent Means route, which fuels my passion to break down barriers of entry into the legal profession.
Whatever your journey to qualification may be, embrace the challenges that it presents as it will help mould you into the lawyer that you will become, and the fruits of your labour shall be bountiful.