Apprenticeships: you’re hired!
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Apprenticeships offer a cost-effective alternative to the traditional route into law, providing trainees with on-the-job experience. Laura Manning weighs the pros and cons
The story of the 16-year-old who leaves education with two GCSEs, begins a skills or a trade apprenticeship and goes on to run their own business before they hit 25 is not an uncommon one. But for the school-leaver who starts a legal apprenticeship, the end is yet to be written.
Apprenticeship opportunities in the legal market are still a fairly new concept, and the lack of information as to the depth of training and progression opportunities for apprentices means the profession continues to look warily at the fledgling training model.
But with immediate work, the opportunity to earn on the job and the chance to avoid racking up a mountain of debt, the apprenticeship is definitely giving universities a run for their money.
To date Co-operative Legal Services, DWF, Gordons, Irwin Mitchell, Kennedys, Minster Law, Plexus law and Pinsent Masons have all rolled out legal apprentice schemes, with the majority choosing to harness the knowledge and expertise of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) to deliver the academic side of the training.
This combined route can act as a substitute for A-levels, a degree and the professional training course requirement, giving school-leavers the opportunity to dive head-first into a legal career while learning the theoretical elements simultaneously.
“The way I view it is I’ve started my career at 18, while most trainees join aged between 23 and 28,” says Jasmine Smith, an apprentice at Gordons. “In effect, I could have almost a 10-year head-start.”
Smith initially dreamt of going to university to study politics and then continue down the route to law via the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) qualifications.
Availability of finance was the key determining factor for Smith, who was put off the traditional route because she felt she could not justify the financial burden it would put on her family.
“It was a major thing for my family to commit to as well as me, but I knew I wanted this career and didn’t think there was another route to do it,” she explains. “At first Gordons’ scheme seemed too good to be true, and I thought to myself, ‘how can I justify going to university and law school when I know there’s another way in?’.”
With tuition fee hikes meaning universities can charge up to £9,000 per year, and the cost of the GDL and LPC sitting as high as £9,400 and £13,550 respectively in London, an aspiring lawyer could face debt of almost £50,000 – and that is not taking into account the cost of living expenses.
As part of an apprenticeship the law firm would put up the £6,900 cost of CILEx as well as covering the full cost of other training needs. Meanwhile, the budding lawyer’s entry-level salary would go towards any living expenses.
It is too early to confirm an average salary for an apprentice, although the national minimum wage for apprentices dictates a minimum salary of £2.60 per hour. DWF pays its apprentices £10,000 per annum, while first-year trainees at the firm receive a salary of £25,000.
However, it is not only money worries that is driving the trend, believes Barbara Rollin, a partner at Gordons who has played a significant role in the launch and development of the firm’s apprenticeship scheme.
“I think what we found was that the cost of legal education wasn’t the main driver, as children who come from underprivileged backgrounds are eligible for grants,” she says. “The cost really isn’t the driver, it’s the hands-on experience and the job security.”
Nick Hanning, deputy vice-president at CILEx and the first legal executive to be given partner status, is happy with his decision to go the CILEx route over the traditional one, although he admits that there is a certain stigma attached.
“I don’t regret choosing this route as it’s never hampered me in my day-to-day job,” he emphasises. “We’re all striving towards the same goal of providing excellent service to our clients and for the consumer to be represented in the best possible way.”
Hanning chose a career in law at a later stage in life; he found that CILEx was his only route in without A-levels or a degree.
Indeed, there is no prescribed minimum educational standard for CILEx, although four GCSE passes at grade C or above (including in English Language) are recommended.
“At first I was very dispirited as I was told I’d have to have a degree to be a lawyer, but I couldn’t afford to give up work and go to university,” relates Hanning. “CILEx requires qualifying employment as well as academic exams, so I then spent around a year trying to find a position.”
With an apprenticeship, however, the ‘position’ is in a sense handed on a plate to the aspiring lawyer.
“Legal apprenticeships are really a no-brainer as they also include the fantastic support,” enthuses Hanning.
Smith lists five key advantages of her apprenticeship that she feels top her peers’ law degrees.
“The fact you’re linking the theoretical side of the job with the practical; gaining an invaluable knowledge of the working world at a young age; progressing quicker than the other route; the job security; and the overall experience as an apprentice. The only disadvantage,” she says, “is being 18 and in a full-time job when my friends are
enjoying university. It’s quite a commitment.”
Smith joined Gordons in September 2011 following a gruelling application process. She began in commercial property and has since moved into residential property.
“Our training’s tailored to us and what we’re interested in,” reveals Smith. “So instead of doing a completely different seat, I was given the opportunity to gain a more in-depth knowledge in property.”
“I don’t feel there are any major disadvantages apart from the fact that it does take a little longer to complete than going down the traditional route,” says DWF apprentice Sloane Mills, who is currently working in administration before a planned move to become a paralegal. “The advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages.”
Reasons to not do an apprenticeship
However, even the advantages will not sway some people round to the idea of giving up on the ‘solicitor route’. The reason? That a legal executive in practice continues to tread a fine line between those who are treated as equal fee-earners and enjoy similar levels of autonomy to their solicitor colleagues, and those who negotiate the more difficult terrain of subordinate professionalism, such as being seen as either a failed solicitor or glorified legal secretary or paralegal (see the ‘Live and Learn’ feature in Lawyer 2B’s winter 2011 edition).
“[The term] apprenticeship has a slightly derogatory sound to it, as the name’s seen to not have the right appropriateness for law,” muses Hanning.
Rollin agrees. “I think there’s still quite a lot of snobbery,” she says. “People see their positions being diminished by other people finding new ways into the profession.”
However, Rollin believes there is also a “dawning of realisation” that making the profession into a closed shop with a who-you-know culture is wrong.
“There’s a recognition in the profession that we need to make it more accessible,” she contends.
DWF trainee Francesca Coupe, who works alongside an apprentice at DWF, says that despite working together and doing similar work, she does not regret her choice to complete the traditional route into law.
“It’s still a very well-respected route and perceived by others to be a challenging and rigorous process,” she says. “I understood the most direct route would be to study the LPC and complete a training contract, which would expose me to a variety of practice areas.”
However, Coupe feels that the traditional route does lack “a sense of innovation and modernisation” and is deficient in the necessary hands-on experience from day one. “The traditional route only focuses upon this crucial aspect as you begin your work in the industry – ie when you become a trainee,” she admits.
Developments from the ratification of the Legal Services Act 2007 and the introduction of legal disciplinary practices (LDPs) have both worked to boost the reputation of legal executives recently, while further up the career ladder greater numbers of legal executives are receiving partner status, with more than 200 partners across CILEx. Legal executives can also now gain their own advocacy rights and even apply for certain judicial appointments.
“We have all the rights we need other than the right to open our own practice without a solicitor holding our hand,” Hanning says.
As legal executives, the apprentices will also have the opportunity to transfer to solicitor status should they wish to do so. Hanning believes there is little point, though.
“If I chose to become a solicitor, I’d have to complete the GDL and LPC, so the question is, ‘why would I want to convert?’,” he says. “Historically I suppose it made more sense, as you needed the status to become a partner. But now, if it’s not going to change your work, or what you do, or even your money, why would you do it?”
Hanning does concede, though, that some law firms are still reluctant to promote CILEx lawyers to partner, although he thinks this is something that will change in time.
“The reality is that there shouldn’t be any barriers,” he stresses, “as ultimately your career progression should be based on experience and ability, not the label you wear.
“But we all have to make judgements on paper applications. I only hope that the judging a book by its cover approach will one day go and people will start digging a little deeper to uncover the person’s competences as well.”
Profile: Francesca Coupe, trainee solicitor, DWF
Why did you decide to take the traditional route instead of the apprenticeship route?
I wanted the opportunity to qualify as a solicitor. Having completed my Bachelor of Laws (LLB) undergraduate degree, the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and having worked at a number of placements, both in a legal environment and retail and hospitality, I hoped to be part of the most sought-after development scheme that I could apply for, based on my qualifications.
What do you think the advantages of the traditional route into law are?
I wanted to have the opportunity to study a ‘pure’ subject at university in a considerable amount of depth and complete a number of work placements in a wide variety of roles during my first year. At this stage I understood that the most direct route would be to study the LPC and complete a training contract, which would expose me to a variety of practice areas. It is still a very well-respected route and is perceived by others to be a challenging and rigorous process.
What do you think the disadvantages of the traditional route into law are?
There is a sense of innovation and modernisation that I don’t associate with the traditional route. I’ve learnt far more from hands-on exposure to matters that
I can be actively involved in and by working alongside well-respected people who I can learn from. The traditional route only focuses upon this crucial aspect as you begin your work in the industry, ie when you become a trainee.
How do you feel your work and status compares to the apprentices’ at DWF?
The seat I am currently completing matches the level of responsibility and involvement as that given to the apprentice I sit next to. We work well together, attend events and conferences that DWF organises together and share the work between us. Essentially we’re being trained together, but the nature of my work requires me to change seats after four months.
If you had to give advice to someone doing their A-levels about which route to take into law, what would you say?
I would take the same route as I chose five years ago, but I would focus on the work experience and opportunities that help to develop skills that remain unchallenged in a university environment.
Profile: Sloane Mills, administration assistant/paralegal apprentice, DWF
Why did you decide to do a legal apprenticeship instead of the traditional route?
I knew that I would be able to earn money while studying and gaining experience in the field rather than getting into lots of debt, especially as the fees had just risen, and having no experience after graduating.
What do you think the advantages of the apprenticeship route into law are?
The main advantage is gaining valuable on-the-job experience while achieving professional qualifications through the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx). It is encouraging to be able to put what I have learnt into practice on a day-to-day basis.
What do you think the disadvantages of the apprenticeship route into law are?
I don’t feel there are any major disadvantages apart from the fact that it does take a little longer to complete than going down the traditional route. The advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages though.
How do you feel your work and status compares to the trainees’ at DWF?
I think at DWF importance is placed on equality and I’ve never been made to feel inferior to anyone else. Everybody has to start somewhere and the skills I am learning will help me progress to a paralegal position later on.
If you had to give advice to someone doing their A-levels about which route to take into law, what would you say?
I would definitely suggest taking the apprenticeship route, as in my opinion
it is the perfect way to start a career in law. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but the benefits of working and learning at the same time make it worth all the effort.