Case study: qualifying through equivalent means - Marc May

Meet Marc May of RPC, Bristol, who qualified in November 2016 via equivalent means. Marc answers questions about his route to qualification and his experience of the equivalent means process.

Please tell us about your career so far

I’ve actually had quite a varied career so far. I left school with no A-Levels and joined the British Army as an electronics technician (in the Royal Corps of Signals).

During the four years I was a soldier, I completed an Open University law course while I was in Germany and Iraq, which I subsequently used to get into the University of the West of England (UWE) to do my LLB degree.

When I finished that the recession was in full swing so I decided to go travelling to make sure law was for me. I worked whilst travelling which included hostel management and Shiitake mushroom farming.

I came back and finished the LPC in 2015 and after a temporary six month stint at Simmons & Simmons, I joined RPC where I still am today.

Did you apply for training contracts and attend interviews prior to applying to qualify by equivalent means?

I think in total I applied for five or six training contracts. Out of those I was invited for one interview but didn’t get the training contract.

The main reason I got the interview was because the firm I applied to accepted applications by post, and my application to them was a handwritten letter.

I got to a point where even if I was to get a training contract it would be at least four years before I qualified (due to most starting two years ahead) and so I wanted to consider other ways of qualifying.

How did you hear about equivalent means?

I hadn’t heard about equivalent means until I went for an interview at RPC. At the interview, I was told that other paralegals were considering it but there was an uncertainty around it as no one really knew the requirements or how it could be done. It was left to paralegals to use their initiative to find out more about it and get it done.

What three or more areas of law have you experienced and were all of these ‘seats’ at the same firm? What type work were you doing as a paralegal?

The three areas I used for my application were insurance, professional negligence and banking and capital markets.

The latter involved considering documents/conversations to see whether there had been any instances of insider trading. Insurance work involved running claims for insurers from start to finish, where sometimes I had to settle the matters myself rather than guiding the insured.

The professional negligence work related mainly to defending claims against law firms, property agents or construction professionals. This was either running my own matters or assisting others with higher value work.

My insurance and professional negligence experience was with RPC, and banking and capital markets was with a previous firm.

How did you know that the work you were doing as a paralegal was equivalent to that of a trainee?

Good question. I was never 100% sure whether it was or not. It was really difficult to ascertain what work is actually at a ‘trainee’ level.

From what I could tell, there was little difference in the work, beyond the title of the person carrying it out, and no one I ever asked was able to define what was equivalent.

The lawyers I spoke to had differing views on what trainees actually did which seemed to be dependent on the firm they trained at or had experience of. Some had more administrative experience as a trainee, while others had a lot more hands on experience. I think for me I just took everything I could get my hands on and hoped it was at the level the SRA required.

How did you go about completing the application form? How long did it take you?

It took a long time to draft. From start to finish I think it probably took about four - five months, although I was doing little and often.

I added work I had done as I went on so I could spot the gaps. I could then approach the relevant people within the firm to see whether they had any work of a particular type for me.

It also gave me time to record all the work I had been doing, when and in what area. That meant that when it came to references I could tell my referee exactly what I had done for them.

Taking months to complete it also meant I could go through various drafts of it before it was time to show it to referees (all references are to be signed within three months of applying and the referees have to see the application itself when they do it).

What evidence did you use in your application form? Were partners in the firm happy to sign off on recognising the work you had done?

I used redacted work product, about nine references, employment contracts, payslips, training logs, job roles, list of tasks I had completed, internal email correspondence re training, and other things. The two partners I asked were happy to sign off on recognising the work I had done.

How long did you have to wait between submitting your application and finding out that you had been successful? Did the SRA give you any pointers on where to add more information to your application before it was sent for assessment?

I think it took around four to five weeks for the result to get back to me, which was significantly quicker than the six months I had expected.

The SRA did provide pointers on two occasions. The first was a few days after I had made the application.

The SRA pre-screen the application to see whether there are parts that require tightening up e.g. references are done by the appropriate people, there is proof you worked at particular firms, etc. The SRA then send the application to an external assessor and it takes about four weeks for it to return.

The SRA then allow you a bit of time to provide further evidence if required. I had to add a few pieces of evidence at this stage and then it took a week or two before the application was confirmed successful.

We understand the cost of the application was £600. What are your thoughts on having to pay this fee?

The cost of the application is expensive but given the SRA are going to look through it with a fine toothcomb it isn’t too surprising how expensive it is.

For those considering the route you need to be confident that you have all the evidence you require before sending off the application. There is no way you can be half-hearted in sending it as you would have just spent £600 in vain.

When it comes to the time to apply, you need to be confident everything in the application is watertight.

I also think when you’re doing the application you need to consider the likely increase in income you’re going to receive from changing from paralegal to solicitor. The fee won’t seem so bad then.

Once you were informed your application was successful, you then had to undertake the Professions Skills Courses (PSC). Was this a further cost you had to pay on your route to qualification?

The PSC is a requirement as it is for the traditional training contract and again it is another sizeable expense.

I suppose the benefit here if you have to pay for it yourself is that you can spread the cost over a number of months by doing each component part monthly until you’ve finished it.

If you have got to the point where the last hurdle is the PSC then you have already successfully passed the application. In that instance, I would consider having a conversation with your firm to see whether they can finance the PSC; be it a full payment, partial payment or loan.

So now you are qualified, have you managed to obtain a newly qualified solicitor role?

I haven’t actually applied to any. That is going to seem quite odd to people given the effort that has gone into qualifying!

I think I got to the end of the road and found that I was a little limited in what I could do at the firm I was at.

I knew I didn’t want to practice law in any of the departments I had previous experience in, but I also didn’t have any real idea about the work done by other teams within the firm (as many were in London).

So I’ve gone back to doing something that mixes my technical background with legal drafting, which is why I’m now an Automation Specialist (Solicitor) at RPC.

The benefit of equivalent means is that it gives you a bit of flexibility as you don’t get to the end of it and have pressure to decide on a team you want to bank your career on. Whatever happens, whether I choose to practice law or not, the work I am doing now will be useful as the future of the profession will undoubtedly include technology.

Have you spoken to other firms about whether they would be happy to offer you a newly qualified role, even though you have not followed the ‘traditional’ route to qualification?

No. I know there were people that did not want to do the application on the basis they didn’t know how law firms would perceive it. I think they anticipated some kind of two tier system where those completing the equivalent means route would be a lesser version of the training contract.

I don’t agree with that as the application itself requires the applicant to gain and prove experience of over 40 different aspects of legal practice. It requires initiative and resourcefulness to complete (by seeking out the relevant work) and it ultimately makes those successful applicants stand out as they have not journeyed down a well-trodden path.

What would be your top tips for other junior lawyers considering this route to qualification?

Firstly, it will require a significant amount of discipline. You will need to spend hours and hours putting together the application, refining it and asking for feedback.

The gathering of evidence will take a long time to do and will not be fun. It will require the discipline to do it a bit at a time.

You will never know how much evidence is enough or whether the evidence added is of the right level so you will need to be disciplined to make sure every part of the application is completely watertight.

I would also say you need to be resourceful. The work you need to gain experience of will not be handed to you, so build relationships and get the work you require. If you haven’t got experience of three distinct areas then consider how best to fulfil it, even if it means moving to a different team or firm.

The last is to never give up. If you put in the hard yards during the application you will be rewarded. Always have the end goal of qualifying in the back of your mind.

If you do need help with your application, read my Linkedin articles which contain guidance on the process and what evidence to include.

Marc May

August 2017

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