The new solicitor apprenticeships herald a fantastic opportunity for both students and law firms alike, but as yet, places are limited. Kate Durcan speaks to recruiters and apprentices to reveal the pros and cons (are there any?) of this route to qualification.
With a whopping 53% of current 18-24-year-olds believing university is not worth the money*, the timing of the new solicitor apprenticeship could not be more relevant. If you don’t relish incurring £40k of debt before your 21st birthday, apprenticeships could be the answer. And the best bit? You still obtain a law degree (and all the necessary postgraduate qualifications to be a solicitor) absolutely free.
Yes, you did just read that: your entire legal education will be paid for by your law firm and the government. In addition, you could qualify as a solicitor within six years, the same time it takes the current route of university, law school and training contract. Quite frankly, what’s not to like?
Well for one, solicitor apprenticeships are still a relatively new phenomenon, with just a limited number of law firms offering them. Such is the infancy, that even large firms are typically hiring just two to six apprentices a year, but with hope, that number will rise.
Eversheds Sutherland, one of the first firms to launch its apprenticeship scheme, will have a total of 18 solicitor apprentices this week when it welcomes ten more into the fold, spread through its London, Leeds, Birmingham, Coventry and Ipswich offices. Nonetheless, competition to secure an apprenticeship is fierce.
‘It’s as competitive as our graduate recruitment scheme,’ admits Eversheds’ James Wilson, emerging talent business partner. ‘We get just as many applications for our apprenticeship as we do for our training contracts.’
‘We have been blown away by the calibre of candidates,’ adds Jo Wilson, diversity and inclusion manager at Dentons. ‘We have an incredibly robust recruitment process that mirrors our graduate recruitment, with the very same standards across the board,’ she adds.
Dentons recruited three new solicitor apprentices this October, who will work at the firm four days a week and spend one day studying. After four years, they will join the firm’s trainee solicitor programme for the final two years. ‘I can’t believe it’s actually happening after all the planning that has gone into it,’ says Jo.
Have you got what it takes?
• The minimum requirements for the Trailblazer Solicitor Apprenticeship is five GCSEs including English and Maths, plus three A-levels Grade C or above and relevant work experience.
• Minimum requirements for the paralegal and legal executive apprenticeships: GCSE Maths and English plus two A-levels Grade C or above.
• There is no advantage to taking law at ‘A’ level, except that it may help you decide that a legal career is for you.
• Recruiters appreciate that school leavers will not have the volume or calibre of work experience that is expected of graduates. However, any relevant experience, legal or otherwise, to help you stand out from the crowd is highly recommended, say recruiters.
• Although study days are once a week, most lectures and tutorials are completed via webcam, with chat boxes and online assignments. Lectures are recorded, so can be replayed if needed.
• Study is completed over a series of ten-week modules with exams at the end of each. Apprentices will typically attend university for two days within each module.
• The recruitment process at large firms is similar to that for trainee solicitors: online applications, followed by an assessment centre for a series of team activities, critical thinking tests and interviews, for example. It’s full on, especially for school leavers, but the firm is investing a lot of time and money into those selected.
Blazing a trail
Although legal apprenticeships have been around for some time, apprentices could only qualify as paralegals or legal executives. About four years ago, the government stepped in, wanting to promote apprenticeships across all business sectors, and offered employers financial incentives to take on apprentices in return for high standards of training.
A group of law firms, known as ‘trailblazers’, got together with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and developed a pioneering solicitor apprenticeship, enabling school leavers to qualify as solicitors without going to university. It’s known as the Trailblazer Legal Apprenticeship Scheme and was officially launched in September 2016, although the majority of firms are welcoming their inaugural solicitor apprentices this autumn.
The new scheme has set the standards for three levels of apprenticeship: paralegal (Level 3), lasting two years; chartered legal executive (Level 6), which takes five years; and solicitor apprenticeship (Level 7), lasting six years. Depending on the firm, it may be possible to start out on the paralegal scheme first to see if a legal career is for you, and then work your way up to full-blown solicitor should you so choose.
This is the preferred route of Lucy Helps, legal apprentice at Burges Salmon in Bristol. She is one year into her Level 3 apprenticeship after gaining ‘A’ levels in law, English language and religious studies, and will decide later in her career whether to continue all the way to solicitor qualification.
‘It’s a big thing at 18 years old to sign up to a six-year apprenticeship without experiencing the job first,’ considers Lucy. ‘We are only doing the paralegal apprenticeship at this stage for two years. It gives the firm a chance to see if we are right for the course and for the firm, and for us it is much less of a commitment.’ Lucy is one of four existing apprentices at the firm and a further four are joining in October. ‘I was worried about going straight from college to a big law firm, but we get so much support here: we have a supervisor, a manger and a mentor. You’re not dropped into the deep end at all – that is important to know.’
There are heaps of benefits to the solicitor apprenticeship other than getting your degree paid for and earning a salary while you study. Number one is the work experience you gain. It’s not always easy obtaining quality work experience on the traditional route to becoming a solicitor, yet academics aside, it is arguably the key factor that will score you a training contract.
As an apprentice, the work experience is all taken care of: you work as you learn, which can put you ahead of the field. Rachel Martin has just commenced the solicitor apprenticeship at Addleshaw Goddard. She kindly ducked out of lectures at BPP during her induction week to speak to Lex (actually, it was her lunchbreak): ‘Not only will I gain a law degree but I will get so much work experience as well. When I qualify, I will have had eight years’ experience in total (Rachel already worked at the firm for two years and was recruited internally), compared to the newly qualified solicitors who will have had just two years’ experience.’
Jaya Louvre, recruitment manager at Withers, agrees: ‘Apprentices get so much client exposure here, which is what differentiates Withers from some other firms. Our trainees get a lot, but our apprentices will already have had that client contact: they will have immediate access to clients. Apprentices here will have such good grounding and will hopefully develop into well-rounded solicitors.’
Another key benefit of apprenticeships is improved diversity and social mobility within the legal profession – the scheme opens up the profession to people who may never have the opportunity to go to university. This is one of the key reasons why Withers introduced solicitor apprenticeships: ‘We felt that we were missing out on a raft of talent among people who, for one reason or another, hadn’t gone to university, and we want to stay at the forefront of developments in the legal industry,’ notes Jaya.
Jason O’Malley is director of apprenticeships at The University of Law, one of the main course providers partnering with law firms on the scheme, along with BPP and City University. ‘The feedback we are getting from parents and students is that if it wasn’t for this scheme, they would never have been able to qualify at this level,’ he says.
‘The people on our course this year are from a lot of different backgrounds, including mature students. Apprentices include people who have previously entered legal administration programmes, completed paralegal (legal services) apprenticeships and are now progressing to solicitor. We also work with some firms and employers in more disadvantaged parts of the city and we work closely with a variety of schools and careers advisors.’
‘The whole point of us setting up the programme is to make law more accessible,’ confirms Jo at Dentons. ‘And the response from within the firm is amazing. Apprentices bring a fresh pair of eyes to the business, they view things differently because they have come straight from school and they have creativity.’
Gaining access to a more diverse range of candidates is just one of many benefits for law firms, says Samantha Lee, head of recruitment at Womble Bond Dickinson. The firm has been offering paralegal and legal executive apprenticeships for some years and has just launched its solicitor apprenticeship.
She highlights the increased loyalty and improved retention rates demonstrated by apprentices: ‘These people will spend six years with us before qualifying, compared to trainee solicitors who have only been a part of our business for two years. I anticipate that the solicitor apprentices will really hit the ground running when they qualify.’
Apprenticeships also allow firms to train raw talent from an earlier age, to ‘mould’ them into the perfect fit for their firm.
Even The Law Society doesn’t yet have a definitive list of firms offering the solicitor apprenticeship. While many firms offer paralegal and legal executive apprenticeships, the firms and in-house legal teams listed below offer solicitor apprenticeship too. The list is not exhaustive:
All work, no play?
Probably the most commonly-cited argument against solicitor apprenticeships is missing out on the full-time university experience. It’s a valid point and one that must be considered. After all, uni isn’t just about gaining a degree, it’s where you learn to fend for yourself and grow up (and then run around campus with traffic cones on your head). A full-time law degree also means you study different areas of law at greater depth.
It’s all a matter of personal preference. Alex Hirsh is a solicitor apprentice at Withers, having first completed three years with the firm on its legal executive apprenticeship. ‘I did apply to university during sixth-form, but I went with my gut feeling and realised it wasn’t for me, so I thought about the alternatives. When I considered my personality, I thought I suited learning and working at the same time – it suited my mindset. At the time, I was going against conventional wisdom, so it was quite difficult, I had to be resilient about it.’
Does Alex ever feel he has missed out? ‘No, not at all, it was never what I wanted to do. Now, after work, I have my own money to go out, or can buy things. And I will be at university part-time anyway, so I have no regrets.’
Addleshaw’s Rachel points out that solicitor apprentices not only gain a degree but they are part of student life on their study days: ‘We’ve got all the benefits,’ she says. ‘Addleshaw Goddard are paying for [the course], so we are not getting into debt, and yet we’ve still got a community of students – we will be with the apprentices from other firms at BPP for the next six years.’
Another consideration is that juggling work and study is no walk in the park – it requires good organisation skills and discipline. ‘One thing I’d say is that apprenticeships are not the easier option,’ warns Jason at The University of Law. ‘It involves working virtually full-time while doing a degree, and for the law firms, it requires another level of commitment as they need to build up a portfolio of evidence for each apprentice.’
Busting the myth
So how will solicitor apprentices be received by colleagues and clients when they qualify in six years’ time? Traditionally, the law is a very university-orientated profession, and it has to be said that in small pockets there remains an element of snobbery – for example, about where you attended university, let alone having never attended.
Recruiter Samantha at Bond Dickinson is confident that there will not be a two-tier approach on qualification: ‘I like to think that the profession is changing,’ she says. ‘We are introducing five new apprentices this week and they are so bright, so mature, committed, dedicated and focused; and solicitor apprentices are credited will LL.B degrees anyway, so they will be university educated.’
She does admit, however, that it is the parents who often take a bit of persuading that apprenticeships are not second-rate to full-time university: ‘It is definitely a myth than needs busting,’ she adds.
‘Don’t view this as a lesser route,’ advises apprentice Lucy at Burges Salmon. ‘You get a degree, and nowadays people are far more open to alternative routes into the profession. There is a mass of options now, it is almost daunting, but students should realise that so many choices are a blessing. So be open to everything.’
For the past twenty years, law firms have sought to improve diversity and access to the profession, but little has changed. The solicitor apprenticeship is a real opportunity for firms, not just to improve access, but to tackle the disgrace of debt-ridden LPC graduates outnumbering training contracts by 2:1. More firms must now follow the trailblazers.
‘I think there’s a little bit of “waiting to see” going on,’ notes James at Eversheds Sutherland. ‘Six years is a big commitment, both for the apprentice and the firm. One of the worries is how sure a school leaver is that they want to be a lawyer at that age, and there are questions about how best to assess them at that stage. But I’d be surprised if more firms don’t introduce it.’
Dentons’ Jo Wilson is sure firms are missing a trick if they don’t: ‘Hopefully more and more firms will go down this route. Obviously, a lot are offering paralegal apprenticeships, but I think more will follow suit [with solicitor apprenticeships] when they see our success story.’
Where and when to apply
• It’s early days, so there is no universal timetable structure just yet. However, this year the majority of firms offering solicitor apprenticeships starting in September/October 2017 recruited in February/March 2017. Paralegal and legal exec apprenticeships may come up at any time of the year according to law firm need.
• James Wilson, emerging talent business partner at Eversheds Sutherland, advises: ‘Get out and talk to people; understand the different offerings at the different law firms; and be clear about what the apprenticeship includes and what the firm is providing in terms of support and mentoring.’
• Apprenticeships are advertised online and often within a law firm’s graduate recruitment literature and website. A good online starting point is the government apprenticeship website https://www.findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk plus a host of online job boards, e.g. https://www.notgoingtouni.co.uk and https://www.getmyfirstjob.co.uk
• Attend law fairs, open evenings and taster days at firms if you can.
• Speak to your school careers adviser or service. If they are not inviting local law firms in to talk to students, ask them to do so!
• Approach law firms directly to see if they offer apprenticeships, or will be in the near future.
• Network: it’s never too early to network. Do any of your family or friends work within a legal department? Didn’t Great Uncle Godfrey work as an ‘articled clerk’ many years’ ago?
• Keep The Lex 100 in your Favourites to remain up-do-date with apprenticeship developments.
*Sky News Survey 21/09/17. Figure represents those who have not yet been to university. Of those who have already been to university, 22% said the cost wasn’t worth it.