Equivalent means: how I qualified as a solicitor without a training contract

Marc May qualified as a solicitor through the ‘equivalent means’ route, having gained experience working as a paralegal at a number of firms. He explains how the process works.

equivalent means

When I mention that I qualified via the equivalent means route the first question that people usually ask me is “is that like CILEX?”. Most people I speak to genuinely don’t know what it is or that paralegals are able to qualify as a solicitor in this way. So this is an article on what it is and how I managed to do it.

The equivalent means route to qualification was introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in late 2014 as a way of allowing paralegals with years of legal experience to become solicitors without needing a training contract. In order to be successful, applicants were required to complete an application form as well as provide a portfolio of evidence.  At the time this route was described by a few legal publications as the “paralegal shortcut”.

As a prerequisite the SRA requires all applicants to have fulfilled certain criteria before applying. This includes being able to demonstrate legal experience in three distinct areas and being able to show that the applicant’s overall experience is longer than two years.

The next step is the application where the applicant is required to prove they have experience of 45 different areas of legal practice. The areas broadly correlate with the practice skills standards e.g. advocacy, negotiation, dispute resolution. Evidence such as contracts of employment, role descriptions, redacted work product, training logs or references can be used to prove experience.

I took my first steps to starting my application back in early 2015 when there was very little guidance from the SRA on how to complete the application. The application form didn’t even say what type of evidence was required to fulfil each area so it was a case of stumbling around in the dark trying to figure out what was actually required. In the end, I sought the advice of one of the first people to have successfully applied, Robert Houchill, and luckily he gave me a call and explained to me what was required.

At that point I was better equipped to get the evidence together and spent the next year and a half gathering the relevant experience required. I kept a log of all the tasks I had been given over that time and in which areas, as well as accumulating nine references.

I have to say it was difficult to ascertain what work is ‘equivalent’ to trainee level work. A trainee at a high street firm would have a different experience to that of one at a magic circle firm. The work would inherently be different but yet they are both trainees. It was difficult to really get to grips with whether paralegals really did different work to trainees or whether it was a matter of perception and title.

By the time I came to apply in mid 2016 I felt I had two years of trainee level experience, taking into account six months at a prior firm. My application and evidence came to over 300 pages, but even at that stage it was unclear whether it was enough or whether the experience detailed was of the level required.

The application is £600 so it is fair to say it is not for the faint hearted. Luckily when you send your application to the SRA, they do a first review of the application before they send it to an external assessor. The first sweep picks up any evidence that might look missing e.g. a reference from a particular employer detailing the dates the applicant was employed. Once you have made the required amendments/additions then the application will be sent to the external assessor.

It took around four weeks to get a result from the SRA. My application actually came back with some deficiencies where I was required to provide further evidence within two weeks. One was an oversight on my part where I hadn’t added enough evidence in one box, and the other required me to quickly go and find the relevant experience. So be prepared to use your initiative if the same happens to you.

Once I had submitted that further evidence I was told that the application had been successful. After putting in hours and hours to get the application ready it was certainly a relief when it was successful and all the work had been worth it.

The next stage was to complete the Professional Skills Course, and once that was complete provide the necessary notice to be put on the Roll of Solicitors. In that time there were some administrative tasks such as the criminal record check to establish character and suitability for the profession. By that point I was happy to go over each hurdle to get to the finishing line.

On 15 November 2016 I could finally call myself a qualified solicitor, safe in the knowledge the experience I had gained over the previous two years was equivalent to a training contract.

Some may call it a “paralegal shortcut” but it didn’t feel like a shortcut to me. Given the lack of structure it is tough and it requires relentless amounts of initiative to seek out experience, which would ordinarily have been handed to you as a trainee. There is also always uncertainty about what is trainee level work, and what proportion of paralegal work fits that category, which makes deciding when to apply quite difficult.

All in all, I would say I didn’t enjoy the process but I enjoyed the result. I would recommend it to those paralegals that want to chart their own destiny rather than be at the mercy of a skim read by a legal recruiter deluged with applications. It takes a lot of work but it is worth it.

Equivalent means: things to think about

The below points list some of the key considerations for anyone considering the route.

1. The big gamble

A key benefit of this route is that it is flexible and can be done around the work done as a paralegal or similar role. Some may choose to do this route while also applying for training contracts, which will probably give those attempting the route a little bit of security.

The equivalent means route is a gamble in that an applicant will never truly know when their application is ready. It isn’t like a training contract with four clear seats, and a clear start and end. So you will never know for certain whether your application contains enough evidence or that the evidence you have is of sufficient quality.

The lack of certainty will be unnerving at times, but you just need to keep the long game in mind when preparing for it. You’re doing it to get qualified as a solicitor so it isn’t going to be easy.

Another part of the gamble is the fee for the application itself. It is expensive and some people will consider it prohibitively so. However, I think people should look at the bigger picture when they consider applying.

Firstly, the equivalent means application is expensive but it instantly weeds out those applicants who are not serious about applying, leaving only those that are serious. Secondly, the length of time taken by the assessor to analyse and assess your experience is likely to be substantial, and that would have been factored into the fee.

The last and most important point is this. If you’re a successful applicant you will jump from being a paralegal on mediocre wages to a solicitor on decent wages. You should be able to recoup the cost of the application quite quickly if you manage to find a solicitor role as soon as you’re admitted.

2. Evidence

When I did my application, it was difficult at first to understand what evidence was suitable. It took various conversations with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and one previous successful applicant to get a grasp on what the SRA were looking for. Most questions I’ve received over the last month relate to what evidence is required. For those that are unclear here is a list of possible evidence:

  • Redacted work product
  • References
  • Training log
  • Employment contract(s)
  • Job role description(s)
  • Payslips
  • Log of work done over a particular period

This is what I put into my application but I’m sure there are other pieces of evidence you could put into yours, but this gives an idea of what type of evidence you should collect to evidence your experience. Clearly, some of these will hold more weight than others. Your references will hold the most weight as it should be written by a solicitor who has supervised you and corroborate your experience. The application itself has guidance on the suitability of referees.

There are a few things to note about getting references from referees. The referee should be sent your finished application form when they complete your reference. After all they should be able to see the parts of the application they are corroborating.

So with that in mind, the references need to be gathered within three months of you making the application to the SRA. Whichever firm you are at, the lawyers will undoubtedly be busy and so it makes sense to send first draft references to people who have agreed to be a referee. Firstly, it means those lawyers will have less to do as they don’t have to draft a reference from scratch. Secondly, it gives you the opportunity to properly corroborate the evidence you have put in the application and allows you to cross-reference it.

The other evidence I’d say holds less weight as it is supplementary. Redacted work product is only really going to be useful if it is included in a reference, otherwise it is just a redacted document with no evidence you were the one who drafted it.

Employment contracts, role descriptions and pay slips are useful if you’re using evidence from multiple employers. They show when you started and if using role descriptions, gives an indicator of what your role entailed. However, again a reference to prove dates of employment will also be useful.

I created a log of all tasks I’d completed over a six to nine month period, which included who it was for, when the task was given and in which distinct area. You don’t have to do that but sometimes it may be useful for yours (and possibly your referee) to see which work has been done when and in which area – especially if you need to establish that you’ve done more than four months in a particular area of law.

3. Distinct areas of law

One of the prerequisites of the equivalent means application is that the applicant must gain experience in three distinct areas of law. These can be found here under the ‘Practical experience in law’ heading. The same areas apply for training contracts as they do for the equivalent means application, but the difficulty will be that as a paralegal you’re going to find it more difficult to accomplish.

If you’re employed as a paralegal in a specific area, the chances are the firm you’re working for won’t want you to move to other areas of practice. If the firm you’re working for does not want you to move or experience work in different areas then to accomplish the route you will probably need to move on.

In each distinct area you will need to show at least four months’ experience. This does not work like a training contract in that the experience does not need to run consecutively. It is possible to show that you have gained the experience concurrently, although you will have to evidence that clearly. The experience from the three areas combined should also amount to over two years.

4. Prior experience

The equivalent means application allows the applicant to use experience gained from a previous firm or firms. So for those that have years of legal experience in multiple firms you will be include it all in your application. However, the further back the experience the more difficult you will find it will be to evidence it. It helps to keep in touch with your previous supervisors to make sure they are able to reference your prior work and the dates you worked there.

Other difficulties may include attempting to get a reference from a firm that has a restrictive policy, which only provides references stating the dates worked and applicant’s previous role. It may also be hard to acquire references if the lawyers who previously supervised you have since moved on, or the firm is no longer in business.

5. Ready for sending

It took me quite a while to complete my application as I completed it little and often. I went through various iterations before sending and luckily I had supervisors who provided me with pointers on how to improve it.

An absolute must is getting someone you know well to look over your application and critique it before you decide to send it. Ask them to look for any holes in it so you have the time to find more evidence or gain more experience if required.

Another thing that will hopefully make the application ready for sending is to create a paginated bundle of evidence. When you describe your experience in the application form you are then easily able to reference pages of the bundle. Make it easy for the assessor to find the information!

6. Final thoughts

Be under no illusion – the equivalent means route is not an easy one to complete. It is filled with uncertainty and will require initiative to get all the evidence required. The chances are you may never know

(a) whether the evidence you have is of the right standard and

(b) whether that evidence is sufficient to fulfil the application.

I think to a certain extent you will need to go with your gut. After you’ve put the equivalent means application together and spent hours refining it and making it watertight, I think at that point you will know you’re ready.