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PQE and Why it Matters to Solicitors in Scotland

The term PQE is heavily used within the legal sector in Scotland.

In this article we define what it means, assess its importance, and discuss some important recruitment issues associated with it.

What is PQE?

PQE is an acronym which stands for Post Qualified Experience and relates to the experience built up by a solicitor after she or he has become fully qualified.

Is PQE only used within the legal sector?

No. PQE is also used within the accounting and finance profession, although in this sector more emphasis tends to be placed on role titles and the type of experience acquired.

Law firms, on the other hand, put great store in PQE.

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Why do law firms place so much importance on PQE?

The internal structures of private practices are built on PQE. The employment of PQE allows solicitors and their firms to formulate where they sit within the corporate structure:

Solicitor: 1-3 years PQE

Associate: 4-8 years PQE

Senior Solicitor: 3-6 years PQE

Senior Associate: 6-10 years PQE

Partner: 9 years plus

How does PQE relate to salary?

During the first phase of a qualified solicitor’s career, salaries tend to increase at an even pace with PQE.

With everything else being equal, increments are made year on year for the first seven years or so.

After this time the relationship becomes less correlated. Beyond seven years careers often diverge.

Highly-talented solicitors may witness their careers accelerating and with it their salaries. Others may see their career trajectory slow to external events, e.g. starting a family.

In terms of PQE, what solicitors are most in demand?

2-6 years PQE.

One big factor in this was Scottish law firms not investing in new trainees during the financial crisis and the recession that followed.

This was exacerbated by the large-scale consolidation which swept the sector as firms explored ways to make efficiency savings.

As a result, the pipeline of 2-6 years PQE solicitors has dwindled. The shortage of solicitors has only been addressed in the last few years.

This has not only made it a challenging recruitment environment for law firms - inhouse employers across the industry have also found it difficult.

3-4 years PQE is the sweet spot for corporates looking to bring legal expertise inhouse. 

Solicitors in this bracket are seen as having enough experience in their specialism to add value, but still ‘green’ enough to adapt to the working practice and environment of a corporate.

I’ve seen job adverts looking for a certain number of years PQE. Doesn’t this contravene employment law? 

Yes, under employment law it is illegal and seen as discriminatory to advertise for a candidate with ‘x years’ of experience.

However, employers quoting PQE in job ads are always careful to state that this is a guide only.

While they may cite 4-5 years PQE, the hiring manager may end up selecting someone with only two years PQE.

So why use PQE at all?

Well, as we’ve discussed above, PQE is still a useful benchmark for solicitors and law firms.

For example, when recruiting a new solicitor into a team it pays to be mindful of the PQE of existing members.

If a firm hires a solicitor with 7 years PQE for a team consisting of 4-5 years PQE, it could be viewed as creating a block on career progression.

Conversely, if the private practice recruits someone with less PQE but the same salary as the current team, unrest can occur.

PQE is still very important culturally.

Is too much importance placed on PQE?

To some extent, yes.

Employers and recruiters should look at the type of experience not just the length. They should also assess the overall capability of the candidate:

  • How do they come across?
  • Would they fit in with the culture of the firm?
  • Do they offer other valuable skills – business development, managerial, or experience in a particularly niche area?

In a tight, candidate-driven market, companies need to think more creatively about the type of person who would fulfil the requirements of the role.

Candidates, too, need to think less about PQE and more about what other skills, strengths and capabilities they can offer a business.

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Andrew Inglis
Business Manager – Legal
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