Assessing apprenticeships

Lawyer 2B looks at the varied forms of apprenticeships in the legal market, and asks whether they are really the answer to the future of legal education.

Apprenticeships are in vogue. The government is very keen on them – and it has set the legal profession in its sights.

“I’m especially excited about a new law apprenticeship which BPP Law School is seeking to develop as an alternative to the traditional means of qualifying as a solicitor,” wrote skills minister Matthew Hancock in The Telegraph this time last year.

And possibly the most significant thing to come out of the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) when it was published this summer was the proposal that alternative routes into the profession should be embraced (1 July 2013).

In its response to LETR, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) agreed with this conclusion, calling for “an end to the historic ‘one size fits all’ approach to the solicitors’ qualification” (15 October 2013).

“What we would hope to see is lots of different pathways which would include graduate and non-graduate routes into the profession,” SRA director of education, Julie Brannan, told Lawyer 2B. She added that it was the role of legal education providers rather than the SRA to think of “new and innovative” pathways into the profession. 

In 2013, a number of firms have started up apprenticeship programs; however, for the moment they are limited in what they can do. The schemes run by Gordons, Field Fisher Waterhouse and Thomas Eggar, for example, currently lead to qualification as a Chartered Legal Executive.

And if true ‘solicitor apprenticeships’ do come to fruition, it may be that the City firms won’t choose to embrace them. As the University of Westminster academic John Flood told Lawyer 2B earlier this year, the training contract route, though expensive, is a good filtering device for the top firms.

It’s noteworthy that the apprenticeship of the most significant international player to launch one does not even result in a CILEx qualification. Mayer Brown’s scheme gives school-leavers a one-year placement within one of the firm’s business services departments. Its first apprentice will gain an NVQ in Business Administration (12 September 2013). Useful, worthwhile – but not the sort of apprenticeship that Hancock or the authors of LETR are envisioning.

But outside the top tier, there are firms that are thinking seriously about how to use apprentices. They a cheaper alternative to paralegals, at least at the beginning, and firms can mould them into whatever they need them to be. It also enables them to build a career structure around less high-end work. The potential problem with an army of paralegals is a quick turnover rate because of a lack of viable progression and stimulating work.

Foot Anstey’s recent establishment of an apprenticeship for graduates and non-graduates, which it labelled a departure from anything that “the profession has done for many years either on the trainee solicitor or paralegal front,” is one example of the innovation taking place. Though the exact details of the scheme are not yet known, the sounds coming out of the firm suggest the possibility of gaining full solicitor status through the apprenticeship is being considered (2 December 2013).

This week Weightmans (5 December 2013) said it was ramping up its apprenticeship recruitment, and is even considering the possibility of today’s apprentices being tomorrow’s partners, whatever the qualification they ultimately achieve.

Meanwhile, the Co-operative Legal Services (CLS), in conjunction with Manchester Metropolitan University, is recruiting 18-year-old school leavers and training them for a variety of roles within its business. Again, the possibility of becoming a solicitor through this route is not ruled out.

CLS director of policy Christina Blacklaws described its training academy as allowing “an 18 year old school leaver [to] join us, perhaps in an HR function, and be supported, mentored, trained and accredited, both internally and externally, to become a solicitor and perhaps a higher rights advocate, or to manage a legal team, or to go into a role in business development or any other of our support functions, and to have flexibility again from there.”

It may be that apprenticeships are the first gateway to even greater flexible training within the profession.

This is certainly John Flood’s prediction: “I think what you’re going to find is there are going to be some very enterprising organisations – maybe the University of Law, maybe BPP, maybe others – that will start to provide education and training for what the market needs,” he said. “Maybe we should have separate tracks within law degrees that might get people into paralegal position, or ABSs, or the City, or welfare law or whatever it may be.”

Meanwhile, BPP’s chief executive and dean Peter Crisp told Lawyer 2B he foresees his law school’s apprenticeship program, so enthusiastically plugged by the skills minister, accommodating a dual-route system, with some participants following the paralegal route and others qualifying as solicitors after starting learning together.

We may not yet know the exact form future apprenticeships will take, but any innovation by a profession in which education and training has failed to keep up with market reform for years must surely be a good sign.