What should the ‘E’ stand for in PQE? Ask the Agony Aunt

This week’s question for the Agony Aunt – “Is your career being held back because your PQE is actually turning into post qualification inequality?” – led to a number of important issues being brought to our door here at the Attic – about maternity leave, taking sabbaticals away from the law and how PQE can act as a barrier to lawyers on a non-linear career path. It’s amazing that three little letters can have such a major impact on people’s lives.

From reading your emails and stories it’s clear PQE – or Post Qualified Experience – is seen as a big issue by employers and lawyers a like. To help everyone, I want to focus on the ‘E’ side of the story – the Experience – because this, I think, is the most crucial chapter.

Historically, PQE is the traditional means to recruit lawyers. Job adverts echo this with descriptions in the number of years required for a certain role – such as “3 years PQE” – driven by the salary that the firm wishes to pay. So, the ‘experience’ element of PQE ends up as a ‘mileometer’ value which has helped to create a sector in which peoples’ careers in many ways, and often to their detriment, are shaped by their age. We know that lawyers wishing to return to work are happier to take a broader look at pay – if it means they can gain entry into the workplace in a way that suits them, and whilst pay is important, it’s not the ‘be all and end all’ factor.

Every law firm needs to know its lawyers are capable of doing the work, and looking at a lawyer’s professional experience based on age and years in the job is one way to gauge this. And of course there will be a link between the seniority of the solicitor, again based on their age and experience, and their salary and fees. But the historical approach to PQE fails to deliver anything else for law forms individual lawyers beyond this. PQE is too rigid and not dynamic enough in a sector that has to embrace a more flexible approach to its work force and staffing needs. PQE does little to spot and nurture talent and it does nothing to drive a wider view of experience which can deliver very concrete commercial benefits for modern day law firms.

Equally, by putting the focus on the number of years (and linking this to a salary levels) rather than a broader metric of experience, historically PQE can act as a barrier to, highly talented men and women.

On the other hand, it can also penalise younger lawyers. Let’s switch from the letters and do the maths, as they say. A job ad asks for 10 years PQE. You did your A levels at 18. You took a year out (to see the world …). You graduated at 23. You went to Law School, then joined a firm, and did your training. Before you know it, under the hard and fast rules of PQE, you’ve got to be a minimum of 35 years old before you can apply for this job, on paper. Yet in reality, you could be one of many brilliant people out there who fall short of the magic figure of ’10 year’s service’ who will who miss out on the role and opportunity. Which means the law firm misses out too. This is where traditional PQE starts to fall down.

The big question – especially having heard your responses this week – is has the legal sector evolved enough around PQE?

Your experiences and insights reveal too many solicitors equate their age and experience with their ability because of the straight-jacket of PQE. Women lawyers who have left full time work to start families have returned to work at the same level where they left off, but have then seen the firm is charging them out at a higher rate. And there is still some stigma attached to lawyers who have left the corporate lifestyle behind temporarily to pursue other professional or personal interests – such as using the law to help social causes, or taking time out to travel and see different countries and cultures – and then returned to private practice. In other walks of life, this broader experience would be embraced and optimised, but too many law firms are still operating with very traditional, and frankly outdated, business models. PQE.

Here are some of the stories and insights. All are dealt with anonymously.

When I returned to private practice in 2013, after spending four years away from the law raising my two children, I was amazed at how my age and PQE worked – and worked against me. It was the first time I had looked into the detail of PQE. I think its much fairer for them to look at the demands of the role and match to the candidates rather than getting tied in artificial knots about age and formal PQE numbers.”

Consultant A, London

“Ever since I joined my firm as a young trainee I have always respected the experience and wisdom of the senior lawyers and partners around me. I work in a large firm, so it’s not always possible to get access to the top team of lawyers, but when there is an open door policy and people have a spare five minutes it’s invaluable to sit down with people with far more experience than me to discuss a certain detail, or to hear their view on how best to work with clients. But ultimately I believe lawyers are permanently learning – and there is no point in our careers where we know it all. And I believe there comes a time, sometimes quite quickly in some people’s careers, where age is not a real reason to position somebody in a certain way. I have dedicated myself to the law and now to this firm, and all round, from my profitability to the quality of my work, I am confident that I am on course to be a partner one day. But when PQE comes into the picture, that ‘one day’ fades more into the distance, as PQE determines some aspects of my career and progression. It’s totally at odds with my ambition and my ability.”

Consultant B, Bristol

“I work in HR, which sounds like the brother or sister of PQE. I know it’s not a perfect system but firms need some way of finding and filtering people during the recruitment stage, and PQE is there to help do this. It is also a framework for the financials – for paying people, and for setting client fees. So firms have needed PQE for a number of reasons. Like so many things today, it is outdated in its original form, and many firms in my opinion are re-thinking what makes a great lawyer and what clients need– and length of service or years in the job is not always the answer to that. The rise of apprenticeship schemes for example, and how these apprenticeships go on to have their own supervised case loads at an early stage, shows there doesn’t have to be a set of rules around what lawyers can and can’t do at whatever age or stage in their career. The trick is not picking holes in PQE, which can be done, but coming up with a new system that works for lawyers and law firms today.”

Legal HR, Liverpool  

So, we need to be more progressive around PQE. The world of work in the legal sector is very different today and that change is increasing. Technology, project-based work, 24 hour demands from clients and new values around work and family life are all reshaping our careers – making people’s CVs far less linear than they used to be. You just cannot look at the meat and two veg of the classic CV – education, career to date and hobbies and make a valuable judgment on what that person will bring to the firm, in every sense. PQE is no measure for assessing the innovation, the communication skills, the empathy and the humanity that someone will bring to the firm, that the firm will benefit from, because of the complete life experiences they have. This human richness is where the real value is. That is why it is so important when you look at PQE to put the focus on the E, with as wide a wide angle lens as possible and repeat after me, ‘Please Quit Evaluating lawyers just on age and experience.’

Next week’s question: “With exam season looming how can working parents help their teenage children prepare and keep their own sanity?