Want to be a lawyer but don’t fancy or can’t afford to go to university? For years and years, if that was your situation it was too bad for you. The only way to qualify as a solicitor was to do a degree, go to law school and then grab a training contract. That’s changed with the advent of legal apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships in legal services are a fairly new concept, but a number of law firms have begun to introduce ways for school-leavers to earn while they learn.

Cheaper pathway

From September 2012 universities began to raise their tuition fees to up to £9,000 per year, and we are forever being reminded that the number of jobs available for graduates is tight. For aspiring lawyers the potential debt continues to rack up through training, with many students having to fork out for the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC), not to mention high living expenses. Legal apprenticeships offer school-leavers a cheaper career path with a qualification at the end.

Different types of legal apprenticeships

The key thing to remember is that not all apprenticeships are the same.

In the past, most legal apprenticeships offered the chance to become a chartered legal executive: a role that’s similar to, but not the same as, that of a solicitor. Plenty of firms have rolled out 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.

Those legal apprenticeships still exist, but in 2014 the government approved new ‘Trailblazer’ standards that will allow apprentices to directly work their way up to legal executive, paralegal or full solicitor status. So, instead of splashing out thousands of pounds to get through university and law school, in the future it will be possible to leave school, earn while you learn with an apprenticeship, and eventually become a solicitor, the same as someone who did a training contract.

Some law firms also offer non-law apprenticeships – for example the NVQ in Business Administration – that don’t lead to a legal qualification.

Below is some more detail about two of the main types of legal apprenticeship.

The Trailblazer Apprenticeship

What does it lead to?

Three law Trailblazer apprenticeships are due to be launched soon. There’s the ‘Level 3 paralegal’ apprenticeship, the ‘Level 6 Chartered Legal Executive’ apprenticeship, and the ‘Level 7 solicitor’ apprenticeship. As you can probably work out from their names, they lead to different . The key point is that they build on each other. So, once you’ve completed the Level 3 apprenticeship to be a paralegal you can continue with your apprenticeship to become a legal executive or a fully qualified solicitor. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to. Some apprentices might decide that they are happy as a paralegal or legal executive.

Who runs it?

So these apprenticeships are very new and only just starting up. Eversheds is one of the first firms to have fully kicked off with the Trailblazer apprenticeship – read our story for more details.

However, the Law Society, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and CILEx have been working with a group of law firms to map out what the Trailblazer will look like. These firms include Addleshaw Goddard, Browne Jacobson, Burges Salmon, Clyde & Co, DAC Beachcroft, Dentons, DWF, Gateley, Kennedys, Lewis Silkin, Mayer Brown, Olswang, Pannone, Simmons & Simmons, Stephenson Harwood, Thomas Eggar and Withers. It would be reasonable to assume that most of these firms will launch Trailblazer apprenticeships once everything is in place. A lot of them already run ‘old-style’ legal apprenticeships which lead to a legal executive qualification and are not hugely different from what the Level 6 Trailblazer apprenticeships will look like.

How long does it take to complete?

The full Level 7 solicitor apprenticeship will take six years (the same time as a law degree, LPC and training contract takes if you were doing it in the old, traditional way). The Level 6 Chartered Legal Executive apprenticeship is likely to take five years, and the paralegal apprenticeship two.

What qualifications do I need?

The recommended academic entry requirements for the six-year-long solicitor apprenticeship are five GCSEs and three A-levels at Grade C, though alternative factors such as relevant work experience or a previous relevant apprenticeship will also be considered. Students who have completed the GDL or LPC will be entitled to exemptions from training. Different employers will probably ask for slightly different grades.

What will I do during the apprenticeship?

You’ll spend part of your time working in the law firm, and part of the time in college studying.

What form will the study take?

Again, it depends on the route you take.

And what about the time spent in the law firm? What will I be doing?

Again, it depends on the firm, but you’ll spend time getting experience of various different types of law. If you do the full six-year solicitor apprenticeship, you’ll obviously cover more areas than if you only go part of the way.

Will I get paid for my work?

Yes! Again, how much you’ll get paid depends on the firm. Addleshaw Goddard pays its Manchester-based apprentices (on the ’old-style’ legal executive route) £12,000 a year when they start. Meanwhile, Kennedys pays £19,000 as a starting salary in London (bear in mind living in London costs a LOT more than Manchester).

Now, £19,000 doesn’t seem much when compared with a trainee’s salary but remember, you won’t be getting into lots of debt by paying university fees, and your salary will go up quite quickly as you progress. If you do the full six-year legal apprenticeships you’ll qualify as a solicitor and get paid the same as someone who’s qualified by the training contract route.

Will I have to pay for the ‘study’ part of the apprenticeship?

No! This a debt-free pathway to qualification (so long as you don’t go mad and spend all your newly acquired wealth on online gambling and cheeky Nandos).

Where can I find out more?

Keep an eye on the legal press. Lawyer2B.com will have news stories about new apprenticeship opportunities.

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Legal apprenticeships: top tips for applicants

Danielle White, recruitment and development manager, Mayer Brown

It is important to note that apprenticeship is not an easier route to qualification as a solicitor, it’s an alternative that allows individuals from a variety of backgrounds to access the legal profession.

The programme requires a significant amount of commitment from both the firm and the candidate, so we assess candidates thoroughly. However, it is equally important that candidates have an opportunity to assess the firm and whether this route is right for their career.

There are a number of stages in the recruitment process including:

  • Completion of an online application form
  • A telephone interview with the graduate recruitment team
  • Online verbal reasoning and situational judgement tests
  • Assessment day – comprising a group exercise, written test and a partner and/or associate interview
  • A final interview with a senior member of the HR team and the London training principal.

During the process candidates should ensure that they are able to demonstrate their commitment to a career in law, good knowledge of Mayer Brown, and also articulate why they believe this legal apprenticeship programme is the right route for them. A clear understanding of what the programme involves, commercial awareness, communication skills and ability to plan/prioritise will also been assessed.

Top tips for students thinking about applying for an apprenticeship programme:

  • Know what the apprenticeship programme involves and be prepared to talk about this in detail
  • Research the firm(s) you are applying to
  • Make your application stand out – what makes you different? What skills have you got that will make you suitable to the role?
  • Look at the competencies the role requires and prepare relevant examples for the interview
  • Practice online tests
  • Make contact with people at the firm and/or with individuals completing an apprenticeship
  • Ask lots of questions during the process/at assessment day – this is your opportunity to assess the firm
  • Be confident in your abilities, relax and smile