The alternative route to solicitor qualification in Scotland: Pre-PEAT Training Contract Explained
Eve Gilchrist shares her experience of completing a Pre-PEAT training contract via The Law Society of Scotland's alternative route to qualification. She demystifies the process and reflects on her experience in detail. By following this route, Eve did not require to study the traditional LLB and has worked full-time gaining several years of practical experience in the legal sector. She is now a trainee solicitor at Brodies LLP and will qualify as a solicitor in 2023.
The alternative route to solicitor qualification in Scotland
Much has been said recently about the new English Solicitor Apprenticeship. It is far less known that in Scotland, we have our own alternative route to qualification. Qualified solicitors of many years admit to me when they hear I was a pre-diploma (Pre-PEAT) trainee that they have never met anyone who qualified in this way. It is time to shine a light on what is an amazing route to allow greater diversity in the legal profession.
I thought that I wanted to be a solicitor since I was a young child. I had many ambitions but had always harboured that dream (I think due to being the argumentative one in my family!). I told a tutor at 14, before sitting a single exam, that I wanted to be a lawyer. He looked at me scornfully and said, “I doubt you’ll get the grades for that”. That was it – my goal was fixed. Proving people wrong was my hobby. However, I was also a bit of a rebel without a cause and saw great injustice that my career advice at school was a huge book of university courses dropped on the desk in front of me and told “pick one and go back to class”.
I railed against the idea that university straight from school was my only option. I decided to leave school at 16 after my Highers. I wanted a job in the legal industry to make sure the law really was what I wanted to pursue in life. I undertook a legal secretarial diploma and got a job as a legal secretary. When I moved firms, I undertook a paralegal qualification and began working as a paralegal. I considered going to university as I knew I wanted to qualify as a solicitor, but I couldn’t face the idea of not working full-time and earning my own money. I had a flat and I knew I couldn’t go back to living with my parents or asking them for money while I studied. I had done various courses while I worked through distance learning and I really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t see a law degree that would allow me that level of flexibility.
My boss (I don’t work for him anymore but he has been so influential in my life that he retains the title!) said I should undertake the pre-diploma alternative route to qualification if I wanted to be a solicitor. I didn’t even know what that was – how could I become a lawyer without a law degree? He had qualified this way 20 years before – you worked while you studied and came out with the equivalent of a law degree. I knew that was the route for me. I undertook the pre-diploma traineeship between 2017-2020 (exams starting in February 2018 and ending in summer 2020).
What is it?
The pre-diploma/pre-PEAT traineeship allows you to work as a trainee while undertaking qualification at the same time. There are 11 exams to sit over a three-year period (or four if required). This can make the route one year shorter than a traditional LLB Hons. Exam diets are held twice a year, usually February and July/August, and cost £50 each, at the time I sat them. Additionally, there is an essay and a work-based module that documents some of the work you have undertaken as a trainee and what you have learned from your experiences.
You are given a syllabus of areas you have to learn about, a book list and are sent on your way! It is very much an individual type of learning. You are able to learn enough from the suggested books (and always try to buy them second hand as they can be very expensive) but being able to ask questions from colleagues is also very beneficial for certain exams. If your firm has access to Westlaw, the Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia is also incredibly helpful (before I knew what this was, I looked to buy it online… it was on sale for £12,000). However, if you don’t have access to people working in the areas of study or any online resources, it is not an issue. One of the women I studied with on the Diploma did the pre-diploma route through a criminal law firm. I did mine through a civil firm mainly working in litigation. Everyone sits the same exams regardless of the type of firm you are working for.
The exams are all written and two (that I recall) have short oral exams afterwards. I sat all but two of my exams in the Law Society of Scotland’s offices in Edinburgh. My final two took place during the summer of 2020 and therefore I sat them at home. The last two were open book exams, given the remote conditions, which made them different types of exam questions. Example exam papers are available on the Law Society website. You can choose the order you sit the exams (other than the Scottish Legal System exam which has to be done first). You have around six months to study between each exam diet so I chose to do two exams each time.
One negative I found about the exams is the marking system. It marks you A1 for 100%, A2 for 95%, A3 for 90%, B1 of 85% etc, so when I got a C3 on one of my first exams I was incredibly disappointed. When I then realised that this was 60% and would likely be a B in a university exam, I didn’t feel so bad. I made sure I put the correlating grade on my CV so it was clear my B1 was actually a very respectable 85%!
I failed one exam and was able to re-sit it during the next diet. The exam I failed was the first time I had had two exams to sit in one day. I found that too much to deal with – getting all the cases for one exam out of my head and the new ones in.
Especially as I had just had a baby 12 days earlier and could barely remember my own name!
So if you think you may struggle doing more than one exam on the same day, look ahead at the exam calendar and pick your next topics that are likely to be examined on different days.
Pictured is Eve's adorable son aged just 1 week old.
Who can do a Pre-PEAT Traineeship?
If you have legal experience e.g. as a legal secretary or a paralegal, and have the support of your employer to undertake the traineeship, the Law Society should allow your application. The only pre-requisite appears to be that you already work within a law firm. The Law Society cannot find you a traineeship but if you have a firm who is willing to let you do it, it is worth speaking to Martyn Robinson at the Law Society. He is very helpful and will always point you in the right direction. You do not need to have a degree of any kind to be able to undertake this route, although I did meet a German-qualified lawyer who decided to undertake this route to re-qualify in Scotland. There are a wide range of people who appear to choose this route, whereby working and studying is a better option than going to university.
If more employers knew about this route, I am sure many would be supportive of this route. It is beneficial to both trainee and firm – the wealth of experience you build up while studying allows for the practical use of skills in your work and in your studies. You just have to have focus and dedication. If you are someone who likes to work and either can’t or don’t want to go to university but enjoy learning, this is the way for you. The thought of going to university made me so anxious – walking into lecture halls with a hundred other students who all dress like they live in France in the 90's and wear hats INSIDE where I so obviously did not fit in, did not appeal to me in the slightest. This route gave me the option to achieve the career goals I wanted without the torture of an on-campus, full-time university experience.
Are there any downsides?
Some employers will give staff some time off to study for, and sit, exams though others may not. Even with time off, it is a huge commitment to work full-time and study. However, it is also hugely rewarding knowing how much you’ve achieved and how hard you have worked. I was able to study during the day at quiet times of the year (like Christmas), on the train to and from work, in the evenings and at the weekends. I studied generally every day and you simply can’t get away from the fact it is a lot of reading and learning. It doesn’t have to be all encompassing though – I had my son a year before I finished my exams and I still managed to get through it.
Pictured above - Eve with her son multi-tasking and studying for her Law Society Exams
There is no formal contact with other trainees until you meet them during exams (and given that the exams are currently virtual, you may not even get that). You have to be your own biggest cheerleader, knowing every exam gets you closer to the end goal, but without having others to bounce ideas (or worries) off. Perhaps the Law Society of Scotland could consider introducing a more social aspect to the alternative route. It can be a lonely place when the finish line seems far away, but trust me – it is worth it.
I have only come across one person who appeared to look down on the idea “of being a lawyer without a law degree”. Everyone else is hugely impressed with the dedication and commitment it takes to get through it – there is no one to guide you through it other than yourself. You have to learn to figure things out for yourself, which is in itself a key skill a lawyer has to learn.
What happens afterwards?
You still have to do the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (the Diploma) and the standard two-year training contract after completion of your exams. I did the Diploma full-time while working. Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen was the only university who even mentioned the Law Society alternative route on their website. They were the only University who offered an online evening class, which appears to be most suited to those doing the alternative route and therefore likely to still be working full-time. It was a great course with a good mix of people from all different stages of life and experience. I would highly recommend studying the Diploma at RGU (I’m not on commission, I swear!). It again required attending online classes or studying most evenings but it was manageable and only lasted around 9 months. The downside is the cost – it is around £7,000 although (a) the firm you work for may cover the cost of the diploma for you if you secure a training contract and (b) you have to undertake the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice whether you do the alternative route or the traditional LLB route.
In regard to training contracts (the two-year traineeship everyone requires to do after the diploma), some firms will simply offer them to those doing this route and others will require you to apply like everyone else. I ended up going to a different firm for the second traineeship.
Most of the people doing the recruiting for law firms don’t appear to know what the alternative route is, which may put people off from hiring someone from this route. However, the decent firms who you would actually want to work for will be curious and want to know more or already be aware of it, and will highly value the skills and experience you bring. Go somewhere that values you, for you.
One of the many benefits of doing this route is you are likely to retain a job within the firm you are doing the alternative route in anyway e.g. in your previous role as a paralegal, so the pressure may be off in finding a training contract – you still have a job.
Why this route?
You will likely end up in a financially better off position than the traditional university route – no undergraduate student debt while earning a full-time wage with fairly inexpensive exams. There are no huge financial commitments – if you decide part-way through it is not for you then you can simply stop. That is another positive – you can figure out early if law really is the career for you.
The practical experience you gain from on-the-job learning is invaluable. It makes your studying easier, your job easier and makes your CV (and you) stand out.
It is good for your own personal development and resilience – it will prove to you if you want something you can go and do it. You are in control of your own choices. If you want to do your essay and learning log fairly early on, then you can. If you want to leave EU Law until last in the hope they remove it from the syllabus (guilty)… then you can. If you want to read little and often or tackle a book in a full day, the choice is yours. The flexibility is unparalleled compared to other types of learning.
The impact on diversity and inclusion is also really important. It opens the legal world to more people, not just those from specific universities or even specific secondary schools – those who don’t want to or can’t go to university but are capable of being a solicitor. This includes, but is not limited to: “older” people; people with children or other caring responsibilities; those with anxiety issues; and/or people who are already working and need that full-time income.
For employers, the benefits are also all of the above. You can employ someone for no extra cost than a normal paralegal-type role, who will be able to study to achieve their own goals, who will prove how hard-working, dedicated and capable they are, and you can choose from a wider pool of talent. It is a win-win!
How do I find out more?
You can find out more on the Law Society of Scotland website which provides more information on the alternative route.
Martyn Robinson email@example.com is the go-to person and the Law Society for information.
I am also available to speak to anybody who would like a further chat and I hope you found this blog article useful. Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.
By Eve Gilchrist, Trainee solicitor at Brodies LLP
Views expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Scottish Lawyer