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SQE Qualifying Work Experience: Key questions answered

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With the first SQE1 exam set for November 2021, the first preparation courses are underway. Firms and individuals are already preparing for this new route to qualification in England and Wales. A large volume of delegates is on the BARBRI’s inaugural SQE1 Prep course. Yet, one element which is leaving many with feelings of uncertainty is Qualifying Work Experience. Many candidates have asked key questions like – What is QWE? How can I secure it? – and much more. So, we’re here to explain the SQE’s Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) element in-depth.

What is SQE Qualifying Work Experience?

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Qualifying Work Experience or ‘QWE’ is the practical, legal experience element of the SRA’s new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). This comes into effect in September 2021, along with the new SQE. The SQE replaces the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS). These other forms of qualification will be gradually phased out in the coming years.

The SQE comprises of two assessments, referred to as SQE1 and SQE2, plus the mandatory QWE component. The QWE requires aspiring solicitors in England and Wales to spend two years getting hands-on, work experience in the legal sector.

The QWE will give prospective lawyers the opportunity to gain the practical skills needed to succeed once qualified. Meanwhile, the SQE1 and SQE2 aim to develop their knowledge base through exam-based assessments. During QWE, learners will get the opportunity to interact directly with clients, see first-hand how solicitors work and gain confidence in tackling challenges and ethical considerations. It will also help develop the key competencies set out in the SRA’s Statement of Solicitor Competence. This is also how the authorised person will assess and ‘sign off’ any periods of QWE completed.

What are the benefits of QWE?

What is refreshing about the new qualification is that achieving the required QWE quota is much more flexible than the previous LPC. This flexibility allows for parallel part-time study in preparation for the SQE assessments. Considering the SQE is more affordable than the current route, this promises a new generation of solicitors from a diverse range of backgrounds and circumstances. This can only benefit clients from all walks of life who want to identify with and draw upon the experiences of the counsel that represents them.

Equally, those who prefer to work part-time while studying for the SQE exam-based elements are also able to do so. They would have to be sure that their employment opportunities can count towards the QWE. See below what can count as QWE.

How long do I have to complete my Qualifying Work Experience?

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QWE can be before, during, or after undertaking SQE1 and SQE2 exams. If you already have previous work experience or are focusing on it now, before sitting the SQE, this can also count. You would be able to ‘bank’ this time retrospectively provided you keep correct records and can get the ‘sign-off’ for it.

For those who have already started preparation, there is no time limit on getting QWE once you complete the two SQE exams. Yet, consider this as you would your typical CV. If there is a large gap between placements or periods of study, it may look unfavourable in the eyes of a law firm. This is particularly the case with highly competitive city firms. So, the short answer is there’s no rush, but don’t drag your heels either.

Does my Qualifying Work Experience have to be with the same company?

No, this is different from the traditional training contract system. The two years’ QWE can take place with up to four different employers and can be in many different settings within the legal sector.

Work experience can take place in England, Wales or even overseas but the placement needs to be up to the SRA’s standard. Any hours undertaken must be monitored and signed off by an authorised individual.

The person who does this might be a Compliance Officer for Legal Practice (COLP) or a qualified solicitor of England and Wales. Sometimes, another nominated solicitor outside of the organisation, with direct knowledge of your work, might confirm QWE experience.

Don’t forget to record details of any work experience and find an appropriate person to confirm it. You might be able to use it towards QWE evidence even if you’ve not started studying for the SQE yet.

It’s advised to check with your employer if the work being undertaken can help towards demonstrating that you are developing some of the SRA’s competencies.

To help record your QWE, check out our partner Flex Legal’s QWE Diary here.

What counts towards QWE?

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QWE can take place as one consecutive period of time or be made up in stages. Some may choose to stick with one employer for the whole two-year period. Others may prefer to make up the experience at different organisations. Learners are able to gain experience from up to four organisations across a diversity of areas of the law.

  • With that in mind, potential QWE placements could include:
  • Sticking to the traditional ‘training contract’ style with two years at a city law firm post-graduation;
  • Taking on a placement year during a law degree within a law firm;
  • Working as a paralegal or legal secretary;
  • Working in a voluntary sector or charitable organisation such as Citizen’s Advice or a law clinic.

All that matters is that you develop the competencies outlined by the SRA, available here.

Where can I start with securing QWE?

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Remember that, although the scope for securing work experience has broadened, securing opportunities remains competitive.

First of all, make sure that your online profiles look the part and are up to date with all your work experience, qualifications and interests. Most legal and business professionals used LinkedIn to search for contacts and industry updates and to keep an eye out for future talent.

Traditionally, many law firms have offered placements in the summer holiday season. These allow for prospective legal professionals to shadow lawyers and even get the chance to work on live cases. Look out for open days or workshops, which many firms use to select candidates for these placements. These are often a good way to get your foot in the door for a longer period of work experience. If you’re interested in working at a smaller, boutique firm then contacting them directly is worthwhile. Their work experience opportunities are often organised on a more ad-hoc basis.

For something more flexible, some firms are even now offering virtual work experience programmes. To try and widen access to a diverse range of students, these programmes are designed to give learners a taste of how law firms work and offer the chance to take on some of the tasks yourself.

Does Qualifying Work Experience need to be paid?

QWE can be paid or on a pro bono basis. Pro bono work is when someone needs help but doesn’t qualify for legal aid and can’t afford to pay for legal advice. As a student, you can give free advice to the individual in question, under supervision. In return, you get the opportunity to put your skills and theory into practice. Plus, you will be able to meet qualified professionals working in this area and extend your network of contacts.

If you’re in a position to undertake voluntary work on an unpaid basis, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau partners with many legal organisations so that students can deliver pro bono advice to those in need.

There is also the opportunity to work with initiatives such as StreetLaw, which originated in the US and now operates across the globe. It links local community groups, such as schools and prisons, with students who can research and deliver workshops on a particular area of interest to them. Many universities also have free legal advice clinics where you help members of the public, while guided by qualified lawyers. Universities also often partner with miscarriage of justice programmes and other initiatives. It’s worth getting in touch with your legal career centre to find out what are the options.

How do I prove Qualifying Work Experience if I am a solicitor from outside England and Wales?

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If you are a lawyer from outside England and Wales, qualified overseas, your professional experience can be taken into account by the SRA. It would still have to:

  • meet the competencies set out by the SRA; and,
  • be signed off by a solicitor of England and Wales, or a COLP.

You may also need to prove English language proficiency through a test. You can contact the SRA directly for any further information on this.

There is also the possibility to apply for exemptions for the SQE exam-based elements. You can find out more information on this here.

So, there you have it – that’s SQE’s Qualifying Work Experience explained. If you have any further questions you can visit our QWE FAQs. Or if you would like more information about our upcoming SQE Prep courses, speak to our team here.

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