How to qualify as a solicitor in Scotland
In Scotland, it is necessary to undertake a two-year-long traineeship (as Scottish training contracts are known) to qualify as a solicitor. During these two years you will receive hands-on legal experience and structured learning from an authorised training provider – often a law firm.
When can I do a traineeship?
You’ll first need to have completed either a Scottish law degree or the accelerated law degree (if you are a non-law graduate), as well as the new professional education and training stage 1 (PEAT 1) programme – formerly known as the ‘diploma in legal practice’. As with training contracts in England and Wales, competition for traineeships is fierce and you may need to apply up to two-and-a-half years in advance of starting.
Which legal organisations offer traineeships?
Law firms and organisations that employ solicitors can be found throughout Scotland and come in a range of sizes, so you should be able to find one that suits you. Employers range from small or niche practices to international firms, local councils, in-house legal departments of businesses, and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS).
The work you’ll be given as a trainee is dependent on the type of firm or organisation you join. In big commercial firms, trainees will be part of a larger team and the work can be document heavy and transaction based – this varies depending on the seats you undertake, however. In smaller, niche and regional practices, trainees’ roles will differ and there may be more frequent opportunities to gain client exposure and early responsibility.
A large portion of all trainees’ work will involve legal research, drafting agreements, attending client meetings and court, and corresponding with clients. ‘Being based in a Scottish office has its perks; we get the chance to work on smaller, unique local projects too,’ explains Murray Dunn, a corporate lawyer who trained at CMS in Scotland. ‘For example, there are a lot of renewable resources in Scotland so we’ve worked on hydro-projects and wind farms. You tend to get more responsibility because there are fewer people involved. The office is smaller so you get to know more people of varying seniority.’
'The biggest perk of training in Scotland for me is that I live and work in Edinburgh. The city has a cosmopolitan atmosphere and an energetic cultural life, especially during the Edinburgh Festival in August when there is so much to see and do,' says Craig Muir, trainee solicitor at the Edinburgh office of Shoosmiths LLP. 'If there’s a drawback to working in Scotland it would be that, given the size of the Scottish market in comparison to England, there are perhaps less opportunities to specialise in more ‘niche’ areas of the law, for example competition law.'
How do I apply to be a trainee solicitor in Scotland?
Most initial applications are completed via an online application system. Smaller law firms may require you to complete an application form or submit a covering letter and CV. Large firms and organisations, including the COPFS, actively recruit via recruitment fairs and high-profile campaigns. You may have to contact smaller firms directly in order to find out if and when they will be recruiting. If your application is shortlisted, recruiters use a variety of methods to further assess your suitability – from individual interviews to full-day assessment centres.
‘We look for bright trainees who have a real interest in practising commercial law,’ says Rob Wilson, partner at the CMS Edinburgh office. ‘A consistently strong academic record is important but promising candidates have to demonstrate more than a purely technical interest in black letter law – they need to be able to understand the sectors within which our clients work.’
What do traineeships involve?
Trainees do up to four ‘seats’ (placements) in different departments as stipulated by the Law Society of Scotland, the body that regulates traineeships. Where possible, law firms and organisations will try to accommodate trainees’ seat preferences, but decisions will depend on business requirements and trainee numbers. Some law firms also offer trainees the opportunity to do a seat in another office (or even country) or with a client’s in-house legal department – these are known as ‘secondments’. ‘As a trainee, the work varied across the different seats,’ Murray, who enjoyed a secondment to an oil and gas company in Aberdeen as a trainee, continues. ‘One of my seats was in property law so I did a lot of registering documents and checking securities. Elsewhere, I reviewed contracts to make sure that they make sense and flag up any points that need to be clarified. Sometimes I drafted basic contracts, but that was often left to the more senior solicitors.’'Working in Scotland means that there are some areas of law you’re more likely to be involved in than if you were working in London for example; these include agricultural property, and oil and gas law,' explains Craig from Shoosmiths. 'As Scotland has its own legal system, magic circle firms often also refer us work with a Scots law element.'
How will I be assessed as a trainee solicitor?
The Law Society introduced a system in 2011 for those intending to work towards a qualification as a solicitor. There are two elements to the system: PEAT 1 and PEAT 2. PEAT 1 covers the postgraduate vocational stage and PEAT 2 covers the work-based stage of the qualification: the traineeship.
During PEAT 2 you’ll maintain an online record of your work and your informal reviews. You will be assessed quarterly to ensure that by the end of your two-year traineeship you reach the required standard for a qualifying solicitor. Trainees must complete a minimum of 60 hours of trainee continuing professional development (TCPD) – structured learning sessions – as part of their traineeship. This will be organised by your employer.
What happens after the two-year traineeship?
At the end of the two-year period, you’ll be known as a newly qualified (NQ) solicitor. Some NQs choose to stay with the firm or organisation they trained with, but you’re not committed to do so – and your training organisation isn’t obligated to keep you on, either. Whether the training organisation is large or small, though, it will always recruit trainees with the ultimate aim of producing a well rounded, employable NQ solicitor at the end.
How competitive is the Scottish legal market?
There has been a cautious optimism in many parts of the legal profession since 2011 generally, but students without traineeships at the start of PEAT 1 need to be aware that they remain in a competitive market. Aspiring solicitors keen to work in areas of the legal profession that do not recruit until the PEAT 1 year (including smaller firms undertaking legal aid work, rural firms and councils), have little choice but to start the course without having secured a traineeship. This is further confounded by larger commercial firms delaying some of their traineeship recruitment until the PEAT 1 year.
In the practice year 2014/15, 540 traineeships were commenced (compared to 530 in 2013/14). Competition for traineeships has remained high since 2008, when the UK entered a recession. However, the number of traineeships registered over the last few years has remained stable.