Perkins Coie is designing a training contract that aims to harness the flexibility of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) and take up to a year off the traditional training contract route.

The launch of a legal trainee programme in London is understood to have been signed off by the US firm and will be finalised towards September this year. The first trainee solicitors in London are expected to start in September 2025.

The training contract will be an extension of the firm’s legal business analyst (LBA) programme which is currently recruiting for a September cohort.

Ian Bagshaw, managing partner of Perkins Coie, said: “We’ve put our heads together to design a system that encourages highly talented low-income students in the UK to build the best career in big law.”

The LBA programme is a 12-month fixed-term contract comprised of four three-month seats. Two seats are spent on the business side, with the other two spent on the legal side.

LBAs gain exposure to firm strategy, pitching and marketing as well as legal tasks. At the end of the programme, LBAs have a discussion to determine whether they would like to be a legal or business professional.

“We take the view that Big Law is an exciting place to work whether you’re a legal or business professional,” Bagshaw continued.

Should LBAs choose the legal route, they will switch to reduced working hours while studying for the SQE for a year. At the end of the year, there will be a consultation as to how much more qualifying work experience, if any, is needed to meet the SRA’s requirements. If candidates have enough qualifying work experience and have passed both SQE1 and SQE2, they will qualify as solicitors and be paid in line with Perkins Coie’s New York pay scale. This could shave up to a year off the qualification trajectory for aspiring solicitors in the City.

In the US, Perkins Coie matched its lawyer pay scale with Cravath in February this year meaning first-year associates at Perkins Coie now have a base salary of around £176,000.

A key incentive for candidates joining the programme is the drive to reduce the amount of debt incurred before a training contract commences. Where future trainees at some City firms will be paid a maintenance grant equivalent to less than the London Living Wage alongside their studies, Perkins Coie will pay its first-year LBAs up to £50,000 – the equivalent of a first-year trainee at many City firms.

Natalie Thomas, an LBA at Perkins Coie International, said: “Looking at my own experience, the maintenance grant was huge for me. If I had a training contract with another large firm in the City I would have to move to London, in some cases, on £10,000 which is just not possible. I thought it would be great to have the experience of what it’s actually like to work in a law firm before committing to the GDL or SQE.”

This is “an empowered decision with no loading of debt,” Bagshaw said. “[We looked at] in what way can we make sure that when our talent joins us, they can make an informed decision about a career in big law and secondly that they don’t incur any more debt at this first step.”

Social mobility-driven company Zero Gravity, of which Bagshaw is currently a chair, has the exclusive contract for recruitment to the LBA programme.

Applicants must be a member of Zero Gravity to qualify for the opportunity. The company prioritises access to roles from low-opportunity areas and considers factors such as academic and socio-economic background.

“A lot of law firms look for the same thing: resilience, drive, work ethic and diversity. With Zero Gravity that’s all guaranteed. The culture of giving back with their mentoring is exactly what we’re looking for,” Thomas said.

The partnership with Zero Gravity has led to the creation of a three-week internship for first or penultimate-year university students. The internship will launch this summer, with five students joining Perkins Coie each week. On completion of the internship, students will then interview for the LBA programme.

“In a business sense, we get diverse talent with a high work ethic and resilience and, ultimately it’s up to us to make sure they are empowered and accelerated so that they get paid up sooner. That’s our value proposition,” said Bagshaw.

The flexibility of the new SQE route to qualification for solicitors in England and Wales lends itself to innovation within the training contract structure. It has been adopted by organisations such as FlexLegal’s FlexTrainee scheme and the BBC’s graduate solicitor apprenticeship.

“We’ve thought about everything I may have faced qualifying as a solicitor and removed those obstacles. It’s a very thoughtful programme we’re building,” said Thomas.

An example of this is the welcome-to-work allowance gifted to LBAs before starting their programme to help them buy a new work wardrobe.

Other firms in the City are also starting to use the SQE to train lawyers in innovative ways. Reed Smith brought in a hybrid study and work model for its future trainees in 2022, allowing candidates to experience life at the firm while also studying for the SQE before their training contract start.