The SRA’s plans to ensure a more diverse profession through training reforms will be wasted if there isn’t also a greater diversity in training opportunities. New, more flexible rules about Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) create that possibility, so it’s time for smaller law firms, not-for-profits and in-house teams to get on board

The now more or less defunct Legal Practice Course (LPC) and training contract system for producing new solicitors was a ruthless Darwinian selection process. Except it wasn’t about survival of the fittest but about survival of the fortunate. Every year, three-quarters of those doing the LPC would emerge at the end of their 12 months of unfunded study to compete for the training contract crumbs on the table, watching enviously as the select few moved seamlessly into trainee mode. The statistics tell us that over the past decade there have been around 5,900 training contract starts every year for around 8,000 individuals to compete over. And behind the LPC graduates joining the 'Squid Game' trainee selection process, lie the discarded legal careers of many thousands more law graduates and law conversion graduates who could not justify the risks to themselves of an unfunded LPC with no guarantee of how they could eventually qualify. What a waste and what a loss to the profession.

Alison Hook

Alison Hook

Ah well, you say, it’s a competitive system to maintain quality and standards. But the collateral damage of using this mechanism to 'quality assure' entry to the profession has been a loss of diversity in candidates and, of equal importance, a loss of diversity of opportunity. The Covid pandemic revealed desperate shortages of solicitors in areas like conveyancing and family law. The cost of living crisis is doing the same thing in areas like debt and benefits advice. And let’s not forget the immigration storm which has not even begun in earnest yet.

The old LPC training contract system not only narrowed the pipeline of candidates but it imposed hurdles for potential employers to overcome through the SRA Education, Training and Assessment Provider Regulations, which made taking on a trainee a challenge. Research that we undertook in 2018/19 revealed that the top 1% of firms by size were providing over 40% of all available training contracts and these were overwhelmingly London based. Even City law firms have recognised that this is not healthy – but wonderful as they are, diversity initiatives like the Social Welfare Solicitors Qualification Fund can only be sticking plasters for a serious wound.

So we should be shouting from the rooftops about the SRA’s move to replace the Period of Recognised Training (training contract) with the requirement for Qualifying Work Experience under the new SQE route to qualification. The new system requires no mandatory two-year commitment, no required 'seats', no professional skills course, and no training principal.

What this means in practice is that, regardless of size or type of practice, any actual or potential employer of legal talent can help an aspiring solicitor to qualify. This might be by offering a two-year employment contract that is, in effect, similar to an old training contract. It might involve hiring a graduate paralegal and seeing if they are a good fit with your organisation, before supporting them through the qualification in some form, as the accountants do for junior accountants. It might mean working with a local university to offer a sandwich scheme, as the engineers do. It might involve teaming up with a consortia of law firms or in house departments to offer periods of Qualifying Work Experience. But equally, it could just mean offering a meaningful paralegal role for almost any length of time.

We know that there are some smaller more specialist firms, in-house legal departments, ALSPs and charities who would have struggled to offer a training contract under the old system, now actually offering qualifying work experience. But the flexibilities of this system have only just begun to be explored. Employers who in the past have complained about the narrow experience of newly qualified City solicitors, or, conversely, that they were required to ensure trainees are exposed to irrelevant practice areas, now have no excuse. The regulation of the qualification and admission has been separated from practical training. As an employer, you can now train the talent you need and it is for aspiring solicitors individually to ensure they are equipped with the full set of skills needed to qualify.

So whatever kind of organisation you work in, provided you have the ability to offer legal work in some form, you can help someone with at least some of their qualification journey. Instead of a small number of firms taking all of the burden of qualifying most solicitors, most of the profession can be involved in contributing a little towards training up the next generation. What a better balanced and representative profession that could produce!

Naturally there will still be people who, rightly, won’t make it through the qualification process, but it won’t be because they didn’t even have the chance to prove that they were capable of doing so.


Alison Hook is co-founder of Hook Tangaza and careers portal LawQWE