With the SRA pressing on with reforming legal education and training, all eyes are on the mooted SQE ‘super-exam’, as budding lawyers wonder what will happen to the law degree and the LPC.

Yet one of the most radical developments in legal training is already well underway. The first Government-backed Trailblazer apprenticeship schemes – leading, in their fullest form, to qualification as a solicitor – launched at the end of 2015. In the past 18 months firms including Burges Salmon, DWF, Eversheds Sutherland, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Hogan Lovells have started schemes. The idea of apprenticeships is gaining traction – but some have yet to be convinced.

Why would you?

Bond Dickinson originally set up its paralegal apprenticeship in its Plymouth office to combat high turnover. Head of recruitment Samantha Lee explains: “We have 60 or 70 paralegals in Plymouth and recruit a lot of graduates into those roles. They tended not to stay very long. We saw apprenticeships as an opportunity to stem the flow of leavers and create a pipeline of talent.”

The result of introducing apprenticeships has been significant: Bond Dickinson has seen a 37 per cent reduction in onshore paralegal staff turnover, with the average length of service rising from three years to four.

Additionally, apprenticeships give firms “access to talent they might otherwise miss,” adds Addleshaw Goddard’s Gun Judge, who has been instrumental in shaping the Trailblazer scheme. “The apprenticeship route provides structured career development for students who are passionate about law but are put off by university fees or don’t know that much about the system and ‘self-deselect’. This allows students to try something without it costing them a fortune.”

Apart from the retention and diversity benefits, participating firms say they find that apprentices provide a spark to their business they did not know they were missing.

“Eighteen- or 19-year-olds offer a different spin on things,” says Judge. “They question things you’d never consider questioning.”

How would you?

Your firm’s culture should dictate how you structure your apprenticeship scheme. Addleshaw Goddard and DWF, firms that have traditionally employed paralegals, have set up their schemes differently from the likes of Dentons and Simmons & Simmons.

The full six-year solicitor apprenticeship is a significant commitment.

“Can you provide that structure, and the career opportunities for these students?” asks Judge. Do you have the right level of work for a six-year programme – what apprentices do in years one and two will vary a lot from what they do later on.”

If you don’t have the confidence to start the full-blown solicitor apprenticeship the shorter paralegal and CILEx versions, as well as business services apprenticeships, may be a better fit.

Both Lee and Judge warn that when it comes to apprenticeships it is not only the student going on a career journey: it is the parents and sometimes even the grandparents too. Many will need to be convinced why their child should turn university offers down for an apprenticeship; others will see it as a chance to avoid the cost of uni.

Schools have an important part to play too, but some are still playing catch-up as to what an apprentice is. There remains in some quarters an old-fashioned view of apprenticeship as a trade qualification for plumbers.

Get across the message that it is a solid career choice and making the opportunities for progression obvious will help gain buy-in from parents and schools.

Speaking of buy-in, you will need to get it from your partners too.

“If you don’t, particularly from the teams apprentices will go into, it won’t work,” says Lee. “We did, but it took a while to help people understand why we were doing it and what the impact on them would be.”

“You can’t approach this as an extension of graduate recruitment,” warns Judge, reeling off a list of reasons why: “The people you’re approaching are different. The language you need to use is different. How you interview them should be different – school leavers have no work history so competency questions aren’t going to work. You need to work out what the right fit looks like and how you’re going to assess that.”

“You can’t approach this as an extension of graduate recruitment – the people you’re approaching are different” Gun Judge

Once they arrive in the firm you will need to understand that apprentices are much younger than trainees and often have no office experience, so learning over and above what graduates need will be required. Some may be shy about attending work drinks, while others may get carried away with access to free alcohol.

“At my last non-legal employer we had people asking when they could go to the bathroom,” says Judge. “Make sure your people know how to handle certain questions and are aware of the language they use, not hitting young people with jargon.”

“We were warned about the drop-out rate so we run a recruitment process that helps manage expectations,” says Lee. “We have a ‘work placement scheme’. That might not sound like rocket science but these people might never have set foot in an office before and some could have misconceptions. The placement allows them to self-select before we get to the point of offer. The most clued-up will join and remain with us.”

Bond Dickinson has since moved to introduce the six-year solicitor apprenticeship, teaming up with a consortium of North East firms to jointly run the attraction campaign and recruitment process.

“It’s a great example of how competitors can collaborate,” says Lee.

Judge echoes that when it comes to apprenticeships, there is space for rival firms to work together: “My name is still on the Government website. I get queries every week and answer all of them,” she says. “We’re all happy to share war stories.”