A guaranteed four weeks of work experience await ULaw's SQE students. We caught up with some tutors to understand more.
The times, young student, are a-changing. You’ll be no doubt aware of the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE); the once-in-a-generation shift in qualification route for solicitors in England and Wales. As evolving as it is flexible, the new qualification route will require any would-be trainee to pass SQE 1 and 2 exams, plus undertake 24-months of qualifying work experience (QWE) in order to qualify.
“The modern student is a complex being with a wide variety of commitments and skills.”
‘QWE?!’ we hear you cry. Indeed, where once this occurred at a singular provider (post-LPC) – namely at a law firm where graduates would complete a two-year training contract – students are now permitted to complete the 24-months across up to four different institutions (some of which can even be acquired before sitting SQE1). Much has been made of this flexibility, with experts suggesting that it grants autonomy to students with varying commitments and experiences to a far greater extent than the previous traditional route. “The modern student is a complex being with a wide variety of commitments and skills,” tells John Watkins, ULaw’s Director of Employability. “So I think these changes give more scope for people looking to adapt to their own circumstances, whilst giving them more flexibility.”
According to ULaw’s National Programme Director Jill Howell-Williams, the fact that QWE can be clocked before or during study is a prime example of the new route’s flexibility. Howell-Williams says being able to include time spent on vacation schemes, placements, law clinics, or post-degree work as part of the 24-month QWE is “a game-changer,” finding that the “ability to roll that work experience into the 24- month period is an attractive proposition and is great for widening access in the profession.”
ULaw’s Director of Professional Development, Jim Moser, also highlights some of the advantages: “Getting a wider variety of experiences is great,” Moser notes, pointing out the blend of study and theory often seen in other professions such as medicine or accounting. “Law has always struggled with the ability to give students experience with clients while they study. QWE gives them a real chance to work with clients before they join a firm.” John Watkins agrees with Moser’s sentiment, suggesting that: “Part of the ambition for the change is that students working while studying will put their learning into practice.” For Howell-Williams, this real-world experience is worth its weight in gold. “You can study the practice of law theoretically,” she says, “but nothing beats actually rolling up your sleeves and working with clients directly, solving their problems in real situations.”
"The four-week commitment is about helping students get relevant experience under their belts, which they can then lead with in an employment setting.”
Yet for an industry so stooped in competition and seemingly sharp elbows, securing work experience is a notoriously tricky business. That’s where ULaw comes in offering its four-week ‘QWE Guarantee’. This commitment will see students doing the LLM Legal Practice (SQE1+2) and MA Law (SQE1) guaranteed a month-long stint in the university’s pro bono legal advice clinics. For Watkins, this immersion in real-world legal practice helps straddle the gap between theory and reality. “For us,” he says, “it’s not only about getting students through education and then saying goodbye to them once they’re in employment. The four-week commitment is about helping students get relevant experience under their belts, which they can then lead with in an employment setting.”
Watkins also notes that while the four weeks provided by ULaw isn’t compulsory – as some students will already have QWE clocked or lined up – it is certainly beneficial time to get in the bank all the same. “It’s four weeks of client interaction and meeting deadlines,” he says. “It’s great to add to you CV.” Beyond “technical and practical skills,” Howell-Williams adds that the four-week guarantee will help nurture “people skills too. It will develop behaviours and aptitude while growing resilience.”
But beyond the skills fostered, what will students be doing? “They will see a really broad spectrum of cases,” Howell-Williams says. “They’ll be able to do work on cases in property, immigration, social security, family, and in county court which covers a huge range of smaller contractual and commercial cases. It’s law in action!” And even for those eager for a career in the commercial world, Howell-Williams adds the month-long stint will “open up a view for students to act for individuals instead of larger companies or corporations; it will be very helpful for them to see the other side.” Moser agrees and reiterates: “The law you’re applying might be different between the managing director of a startup and someone being evicted from their house, but you’re nonetheless dealing with people and developing client service skills.”
“The environment we seek to create mirrors the real office.”
To further prepare students for the realities of practice, Moser adds that “the environment we seek to create mirrors the real office.” This will mean meeting clients and intermediaries, working on legal challenges, doing research assignments, and other typical tasks of a trainee solicitor. “This is real world experience,” Moser emphasises. “It can’t be substituted in any other way.” And for students unaccustomed to professional life outside the lecture hall, this work experience guarantee sets them up for the road ahead. “The two main benefits of this guarantee are the employability for future prospects,” Moser highlights, “and the skills you get from working with real clients on genuine issues which is fundamental to the study and practice of law.”
Naturally with one month clocked “you’ll still need another 23 months of QWE if the intention is to qualify,” Howell-Williams rightfully adds. “So I would of course encourage students to take up all of the benefits of our career service in obtaining more experience.” Watkins strikes a similar tone. “Don’t view it as the be-all and end-all,” he says. “But it’s four weeks of invaluable work experience in the bank.” So as all signs suggest the trainee of the future will require competencies in technical, commercial, and interpersonal abilities, Moser succinctly concludes: “The chance to work with clients while studying is comparatively rare, so grab the opportunity with both hands.”