Legal apprenticeships take on new relevance

In the past year a ­number of firms have begun flirting with the idea of the modern legal apprenticeship. But what is the attraction of the model and is there a place for it in the legal market?

Chris Ashford
Chris Ashford

When former Irwin Mitchell legal education officer Chris Ashford, now at the University of Sunderland, developed the concept of the new model it was expected to change the face of legal education. But nine years on, the brains behind the scheme admits that it did not have the desired ­revolutionary effect.

“When I started talking about legal apprenticeships it was seen as an exciting initiative, something that could change the landscape of legal education and see the end of law schools,” recalled Ashford. “But ­clearly it wasn’t the end of law schools, and legal apprenticeships aren’t going to have a huge impact – it’s just another route.”

That said, the short cut is an attractive alternative for aspiring lawyers, allowing them to sidestep hefty tuition fees and debt. ­Pinsent Masons, for example, offers its apprentices a salary of £19,000, while covering the cost of the ­necessary academic and practical training.

Law firms DWF, ­Gordons, Irwin Mitchell, Minster Law and Pinsents have all rolled out individual apprenticeship models in the past year, taking on a number of school-leavers in administrative or paralegal roles with the aim of ­training them as lawyers.

“We introduced our scheme for a number of ­reasons,” explained Gordons managing partner Paul Ayre. “One was that we ­didn’t like the idea that access to a profession such as the law was becoming more difficult, particularly in light of the increased cost of further education. ­Another was the appeal of training our own staff from a young age in light of the changes we envisage in the delivery of our services.”

However, doubts over the ability of legal apprenticeships to broaden access to the profession and concerns over whether the model will produce unsatisfactorily qualified lawyers have also been a source of discussion.

Calling legal apprenticeships ’diversity initiatives’ has also been called into question by adversaries who claim they will, in fact, ­narrow access to the profession by giving candidates a second-class legal qualification that will restrict their progress to the top and encourage a two-tier system.

Ashford believes it is not just a case of reaching out to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, claiming that the tuition fee hike will affect the “squeezed ­middle” more than the underprivileged in society.

“There are a lot of people in the middle who won’t be entitled to financial support packages or able to breeze into the profession along with the more affluent,” he argued.

Cash concerns could be an incentive for smaller firms to introduce the model, with training an apprentice costing far less than bringing in a graduate via the traditional training contract route.

And with the legal profession undergoing a shake-up thanks to the Legal Services Act, the time is ripe for firms to break with ­tradition.

“The legal sector is in a period of change in terms of how flexible firms are in the delivery of their services,” said Ayre. “They’ll need to move with the times or be left behind.”