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How SME firms can embrace Qualifying Work Experience to support talent recruitment and retention

In our blog, we explore the steps SME law firms, charities and other smaller employers of early career legal talent can take to attract and retain trainee solicitors through roles eligible as Qualifying Work Experience or QWE.

e.g. London

Not yet hiring from the SQE route?

In recent research undertaken by Barbri about SME law firms, over 82% of respondents indicated that attracting and recruiting talent was their biggest challenge, yet over a quarter of such firms are still not taking on trainees through the Solicitor Qualifying Exam (SQE) route to qualification, despite the benefits it could offer them. The main reason for this is uncertainty about the new solicitor qualification route which creates a reluctance to move away from the tried and tested Legal Practice Course (LPC) route. 

However, the time has come for all employers to embrace the SQE. This year’s crop of law graduates is the last that will be able to take the LPC as a matter of course. Although the LPC qualification route will continue to exist as part of transitional arrangements until 2032 to mop up those still completing traditional training contracts, the vast majority of new entrants to the profession will now be coming through the SQE route. So if you are an employer who wants to be able to choose from the biggest pool of candidates, the SQE is the route you will need to become familiar with.

There are many reasons why employers should welcome the new route. SME law firms, charities, law centres, and others who may previously have struggled to take LPC trainees will find that the SQE route offers them new flexibility in developing legal talent specific to their own needs.

More flexibility and less bureaucracy

Unlike the LPC route, employers are not required to be regulated as training providers for the SQE route. This means that any employment that you offer, which meets the competency requirements for qualifying work experience (QWE) can help your paralegal employees qualify. There is no requirement to offer particular seats or rotations, or to offer both contentious and non-contentious placements and you no longer need to commit to a two-year training contract or to fund the Professional Skills Course. This allows SME firms, charities, and other organisations that may have previously struggled to offer full two-year periods of recognised training under the LPC route, to now provide the QWE, that aspiring solicitors need, to suit both their own staffing and workload needs.

What kind of candidates can you hire?

The flexibility of the SQE route means that you can still hire individuals as trainees on two-year fixed term contracts if this works for your organisation, or you can target aspiring solicitor at different stages of their qualifying journey. You may choose to hire a paralegal in a permanent role or offer a fixed term contract if that better suits your business needs, while still support the paralegal as they gain QWE. 

You might want to hire a candidate who has already banked some QWE and is almost qualified, as an alternative to hiring a NQ solicitor.

Or if you prefer a qualification route that mimics the LPC route, you might want to advertise job roles that require candidates to have passed the first stage of the SQE route - the SQE1 assessment– to give you that guarantee of foundation of legal knowledge. 

Alternatively, you may prefer to hire school leavers and support them through the legal training they need whilst they work for you in a junior paralegal capacity. Paralegal and solicitor apprenticeships are designed to dovetail with the SQE route to qualification and can be useful staging posts on the way to solicitor qualification, if you want to ensure individuals are a good fit for your organisation. The financial benefits of recruiting someone into your organisation on an apprenticeship are huge (firms only pay 5% of the training costs) but smaller firms are not always aware of this option. Yet, there are many reputable legal training providers who will handhold smaller firms through the process.

If your organisation already employs paralegals or other promising junior staff, you could improve retention by offering a pathway to qualification as a solicitor, or to one of the alternative qualifications for those with paralegal experience that might be useful for your business (CILEX Lawyer, Licensed Conveyancer, Costs Lawyer). 

Alternatively, your business might benefit from supporting a non-law graduate to become a solicitor. As the SQE route to qualification requires a degree in any subject, rather than a law degree, with a demonstration of the required legal knowledge for qualification satisfied through the SQE1 assessment, firms can create their own bespoke training paths for new recruits who bring with them valuable business, finance, marketing, IT and other technical and specialist areas of knowledge. Such trainees can gradually acquire work experience as they simultaneously build up the legal knowledge they will need to pass the SQE assessments, through part-time study.

If you want to ensure that your new recruits will definitely qualify as solicitors once they complete their QWE, then you could choose to offer job roles that require candidates to have passed the practical skills SQE2 assessment element of the SQE route as well as SQE1 assessment. This reduces the risk of delays in qualification since around 20% of candidates have not passed the SQE2 assessment on their first attempt. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that you will be most attractive to aspiring solicitors if you offer work experience at the earliest possible stage in the qualification process and this is something you will need to balance against your own workforce needs. 

And remember, given that we are still in a transition phase between the LPC and the SQE routes to qualification, there will still be some applicants in the job market who passed the LPC but have not managed to find a traditional Training Contract. These individuals have been given an alternative route to qualification by the SRA which requires them to pass the SQE2 and gain two years of QWE.

All of these different options have their own pros and cons, and you will need to decide what matters most to your business – having candidates who are ready to qualify quickly, or moulding your own new solicitors over time.  

Further resources

The SRA provides guidance on what good QWE looks like so take the time to familiarise yourself with this guidance to ensure that all QWE roles you provide are high quality.

The Gazette recently published an article highlighting the value of smaller organisations taking on trainees and supporting their qualification journey via QWE and the SQE route. Take a look - the decision really is a smart one.

Not sure how to best advertise QWE roles? Take a look at our article on making your job opportunities stand out.

Get in touch with the team at LawQWE if you would like to talk through your options of different solicitor qualification routes on employers@lawqwe.com or call us on 0203 478 1154.