The SQE: Opens doors to in-house qualifying work experience

With the induction of the SQE, it’s now easier for aspiring lawyers to qualify and in-house teams can benefit from this change. Lizzy Lim, legal counsel at Trustpilot and Law Society council member, explains why.

According to the Law Society’s Annual Statistics Report 2020, 23.7% of practice certificate holders were in-house but only approximately 10% of trainees were in-house. Why is there a discrepancy between these figures?

I trained in private practice and moved in-house to Trustpilot at approximately one-year post-qualified experience (PQE), and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

I recognise that I’m fortunate to work somewhere where the main mission is to be a universal symbol of trust, but most of those who have made the move in-house cite the benefits including better work environment, greater variety of work and increased motivation by having ‘skin in the game’ as counsel to their company.

What is the SQE? And how can it benefit in-house teams?

The SQE can seem daunting at first glance but, by way of a brief summary, it is the new route to qualification that is open to all aspiring lawyers, and consists of:

  • obtaining a degree-level qualification, which does not have to be in law
  • completing SQE1 and SQE2 examinations
  • completing two years of qualifying work experience (QWE)
  • satisfying the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) character and suitability requirements

The previous routes to qualification will remain open to certain individuals under the SRA transitional arrangements, but it’s worth noting that those who have completed a Legal Practice Course (LPC) will be exempt from the SQE1 examination.

The SQE offers more flexible training than the traditional training contract as:

1. Candidates can sit the SQE examinations whenever they want

The only requirement is that they must sit SQE1 before SQE2.

It is expected that the SQE1 examination will be sat at the beginning of the QWE, and that the SQE2 examination will be sat at the end of the QWE to ensure the aspiring lawyer meets the necessary standard to qualify.

2. Nearly all organisations in the legal sector may constitute QWE

This includes experience at legal clinics, on vacation schemes or work as a paralegal. It might therefore be that in-house teams only need to ‘top up’ some experience to get a junior lawyer on their team.

3. There is no minimum seat length requirement

Those studying the SQE must complete two years of QWE in a maximum of four organisations, but organisations may structure it however they want. For example, you could choose to offer a few months' placement if you need short-term assistance or a full two-year placement in one team.

4. There is no requirement for a certain amount of contentious or non-contentious work

As a litigator, I am an advocate for offering contentious work to all aspiring lawyers, but I appreciate that this is not always possible. The removal of this requirement is a big win for in-house teams who have a variety of work but have been holding off on training for fear of not being able to offer contentious work.

So how should I structure their experience?

The simple answer is: do whatever you want!

I have yet to come across an in-house team who would not be able to offer the key attributes that will need to be met in QWE, such as interacting with stakeholders, seeing how solicitors work in practice, opportunity to consider ethical challenges and developing the necessary competences.

Organisations just need to take a common-sense approach to decide how any experience should be undertaken so that the aspiring lawyer is being given a variety of work to develop their skills.

This is a win-win for the aspiring lawyer to flourish and for organisations to get comfortable signing off their QWE.

When should I think about their post-qualification life?

Right at the start.

It is important to bear in mind that when an aspiring lawyer qualifies, they will expect to be promoted to a solicitor and receive the corresponding salary increase. However, in-house teams are usually bound by an organisation’s salary review timetable.

Typically, organisations have a once-a-year salary review, so it is worth considering the implications of qualification at the start of any work experience and planning it so that it comes to an end at the time of the salary review.

This is also a helpful exercise for budget planning purposes as you can incorporate the training and post-qualification salary costs in the respective years.

Do I need to make sure they are developing their technical skills?

Training or working in-house is great for developing commercial skills. However, it is sometimes forgotten that technical skills need to be developed both during training and post-qualification.

It’s therefore essential to incorporate technical skills training into any experience. Some organisations have a weekly get-together with aspiring lawyers to go over technical skills or hold team webinars to provide technical skill insights.

Personally, I am a fan of the latter as it’s a good refresher for those post-qualification.

What about networking skills?

It is well understood in private practice that networking skills and developing connections are essential to a legal career.

However, this does not have the same weight in-house where the focus is on building connections with your colleagues for the benefit of your client.

Although I appreciate this is important, it is also important for aspiring lawyers to develop their networking skills and start building their own connections. I don’t think anyone loves networking from the start, and let's be honest it can be quite scary.

I still get nervous before networking events, but a little nudge goes a long way and in-house teams should be providing their aspiring lawyers with opportunities to network and build those skills.

Thinking ahead

The in-house environment can undoubtedly offer a rich training experience for prospective lawyers. The inauguration of the SQE has removed requirements for aspiring lawyers to undergo contentious work experience, leaving the untapped in-house sector ripe for opportunity.

Hopefully, this development will enable the next generation of lawyers to benefit from the in-house experience. Companies will reap the rewards too, with greater opportunities for legal staff recruitment and retention.

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