Route minders

As commoditisation of legal services continues apace, Chris Ashford argues that the time is ripe for the introduction of legal apprenticeships

An uncertain economy and growing cost pressures ­continue to act as key drivers for innovation in routes into the legal profession. In the US a July comment section in The New York Times, written by blogger, lawyer and journalist David Lat, called for a return of the legal apprenticeship in US legal education.

Lat argued that “one could easily imagine law school, in terms of formal classroom instruction, lasting two years instead of three and costing two-thirds as much”. The US system differs considerably from UK legal education in that the law degree ­follows undergraduate study. For example, a BA in History is followed by a Juris Doctor (JD) at law school.

Nevertheless, apprenticeships are now on the US legal education agenda. I first proposed the concept of a ’modern legal apprenticeship’ for UK law firms in 2004. In a time of relative economic prosperity and what we will look back upon as comparatively ’cheap’ university education, it did not seem to gain much traction beyond the initial excitement.

Time for action

However, with the economic situation ­looking perilously uncertain and the cost of legal education trebling for many in 2012, the economic context has changed dramatically. After years of an ever-expanding LPC ­market, it now appears to be contracting, with law schools reporting significant falls in applications. The 2011 The Times/Herbert Smith student advocacy competition ­question seemed to capture the mood of the day with its introductory statement and question: “The university dream is turning into a nightmare for many people. The apprentice lawyer: is this the new route into the law?”

While the BPTC restricts students to ­traditional routes into the bar, the LLB and LPC have seen tremendous innovation. The introduction of the Legal Services Act (LSA) and the growth of the paralegal have seen the concept of a modern legal apprenticeship turn into a reality as top 100 firm, ­Yorkshire’s Gordons, launched an annual legal apprenticeship earlier this year (see page 28). Gordons will pay the apprentices’ salaries and also fund their fees to train as legal executives over a period of four years, offering an attractive ­alternative to law school.

In the summer, national firm Irwin Mitchell also announced a new partnership, with the College of Law, and the creation of the IMU Law and Business School. The decision comes as Irwin Mitchell coverts into an alternative business structure (ABS) – one of the key changes enabled by the LSA. The firm will offer non-legal staff legal ­training alongside business skills training tailored to their expertise, providing an ­alternative career and training route. In the new legal economy the traditional LPC and BPTC lock is challenged.

History lesson

These alternative routes are, in many ways, far from modern. They reflect the earlier approach of taking articles, whereby ­graduates would move from an LLB to a practical stage undertaken at a law firm.

Set against this new landscape, law schools are attempting to innovate and respond. A growing number of law
schools, notably those of Northumbria and ­Nottingham universities, have sought to combine academic and vocational elements, providing a lower-cost path into the profession via traditional qualification routes.

Other universities are accepting that they need to provide new ’value’-driven routes that seek to provide some degree of depth. BPP Law School is launching a two-year accelerated law and psychology degree, while the University of Kent has launched a law with a language LLB that can be obtained in three years rather than the usual four.

A further approach has been taken by the University of Sunderland, which was the first university to offer students the opportunity to graduate with the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP) Diploma in Paralegal Studies alongside their LLB. Students who complete a number of option modules over the course of their LLB programme are able to graduate with both a law degree and the NALP diploma without any additional assessment.

Ready trek

This readies graduates for transitional ­paralegal work, or direct entry to the ­traditional LPC or BPTC. It is well-suited to new ABS structures, whereby firms place a greater emphasis on a new breed of ­paralegal and legal personnel as legal ­services become commoditised.

For students and would-be lawyers, the new routes, whether in the form of value- enhanced law school pathways or innovative in-house routes such as those at Gordons and Irwin Mitchell, offer more choice than ever before. It may seem a bewildering maze of options, but the legal training ­marketplace has never been more diverse or flexible.

Chris Ashford is reader in Law and Society at the University of Sunderland and is a ­former legal education officer at Irwin Mitchell