Legal apprenticeships are all the rage at the moment.
It’s easy to see why. From a firm’s perspective, they are able to take on young fresh talent and mould them into the closest thing possible to an ideal member of staff. Apprentices can imbibe the culture of a firm and learn how to go about their work in a way that matches the expectations and ideals of its partners. It also looks good on the old CSR checklist.
For an ambitious and bright 18-year-old who cannot afford to backpack around South East Asia for a year or stomach taking on a part-time job and a sizeable chunk of debt at University, legal apprenticeship makes perfect sense. You earn as you learn, and you may be missing out on partying until the wee hours on a school night, but you can afford to eat more than baked beans and shop somewhere else other than the local charity shop.
The popularity of legal apprenticeships, which can now lead to a career as a paralegal, chartered legal executive or solicitor, has seen a number of education providers introduce courses to meet demand. The University of Law, for example, has launched a new solicitor apprenticeship programme for 2017. It is designed to create successful partnerships between the University and employers to meet the requirements of the Government’s employer-led trailblazer standard for solicitor qualification. A number of law firms and employers have already signed up to the ULaw programme, including Plexus Law in Leeds.
For its part, Yorkshire is well placed to be able to cope with a surge in interest in apprenticeships.
Firms such as Clarion and Gordons, for example, have been championing them for a number of years now. The latter saw its latest graduate – 23-year-old Megan Boldison – qualify as a chartered legal executive in its private client team last month. Boldison was one of a handful of 18-year-old school leavers accepted to train as a chartered legal executive back in 2011. Clarion, meanwhile, appointed its tenth and eleventh CILEX apprentices recently, after having launched its own scheme just four years ago.
Another firm that can claim to be a pioneer in legal apprenticeships is Walker Morris. Travy Foley, the firm’s head of HR, says that the firm has already had great success in training apprentices to work in both legal and support positions.
“We’ve run apprenticeship schemes both, legal and non-legal, for a number of years,” she explains.
“We take 16 to 18-year-olds with little or no qualifications into various parts of the business where we train them for a year with a view to hopefully keeping them on in full-time permanent work. We have successfully trained, and recruited two members into our IT department and have recruited various junior fee earners into our recoveries department where we have mentored them into fee earning roles.”
One of the attractions of doing so, says Foley, is the part it means that Walker Morris plays in enabling social mobility.
“We’ve found this route encourages people from a range of backgrounds and certainly helps the law profession to be more accessible,” she explains.
Victoria Davey, a partner at Gordons, says that helping people from a disadvantaged background was the main driver for the firm when it came to setting up its own legal apprenticeship programme. Back in 2011, Gordons’ managing partner, Paul Ayre, was watching a programme on television one day about how hard some young people were finding it to get into certain careers. It inspired him to do something about it.
“We targeted some local schools that had some really bright kids for whom university was just not an option,” says Davey. “That’s not why all our apprentices have chosen apprenticeships with us now, but when we started it off it was definitely built around the concept of social mobility.”
John Bailes, the founder and managing director of Bailoran Solicitors, believes that bringing apprentices in from a working-class background will also help improve the profession’s image.
“By encouraging a good calibre of candidate who may have lost this opportunity due to issues around university funding, you will also diversify the legal profession for the general public,” he says.
Getting involved in legal apprenticeships
Foley believes that more firms should open their doors to apprentices – but not just to make themselves feel a bit better about their contribution to society. There are also some hard-nosed, practical reasons to get on the bandwagon.
As she points out, the solicitor apprenticeship can last up to six years, making it more of a commitment than a traditional solicitor traineeship of two years.
“That’s five to six years when they are working and being productive for the firm, which should provide a return on the training investment. It also provides opportunity for both the apprentice and the firm get to know each other and assess if they are suited.”
In Walker Morris’ view, says Foley, the hope is that individuals end up having a positive experience, bond with their colleagues and can envisage a clear career progression path. This, she says, all encourages them to stay with the firm way beyond their apprenticeship.
Bailes agrees. He argues that legal apprenticeships promote learning at work while reducing the financial pressures that trainee solicitors undergoing the traditional route will experience, making the whole experience a more fruitful one for both parties.
For Sharna Poxon, head of human resources at Taylor&Emmet, taking on apprentices is actually preferable to employing graduates.
She says that the firm, which currently employs 11 legal administration, legal secretary, legal executive and licensed conveyancer apprentices, sees a faster return on investment from them than graduates.
“Recruits who are fresh out of school or college perform at a higher level than university leavers and adapt to our culture and environment quickly. This is because they have not yet had the opportunity to acquire strong opinions and expectations about their role.
“We can assess an individual’s performance effectively and use work-based learning and employer sponsorship as tools to retain and grow our team organically, limiting the flight risk.”
Graduates, however, she says, often treat their first employed role as a springboard to bigger and better opportunities.
“Knowing they will move on to pastures new in a relatively short timeframe does not bode well, considering the cost and effort that goes into recruitment and training people to our required standard,” says Poxon.
“[And] let’s not forget apprentices can have five years of solid work experience under their belts before graduates even hit the employment market, making these candidates far more desirable. Not only can they demonstrate a solid work ethic, but also a practical understanding of life in a law firm, rather than just theory.”
Legal apprenticeships: Not for everyone
Nevertheless, legal apprenticeships are not for everyone.
Foley points out that just as different routes to qualification suit different individuals, so to do they match up to different types of fields within the legal profession.
It is also the case, says Davey, that apprentices can change their minds once they are well into a programme.
“A few have decided that it wasn’t for them,” she says.
“We’ve had 17 in total and we’ve lost some along the way due to a mixture of things.
“It’s not an easy way into the law as you have to work full time as well as study and do your exams. So some have come to have some regrets, especially those with friends at university. When you’re at home working hard and your mates have gone off and are having a good time, then that makes them think again.”
Others have had their hands forced as Gordons keeps the bar very high. Davey says that when their apprentices qualify, they can’t be seen to be any less worthy of their positions, or be treated as inferior to anyone who has taken the traditional route. Consequently, if an apprentice fails an exam they get the chance to re-sit it. But if they don’t pass the re-sit, then they have to leave the programme.
“That can be hard because it may be someone that you’ve had at the firm for three years or so and we like them and think they’re great. But it’s the same as going to Uni.
“If you don’t pass your finals, then you’re not offered the job. Unfortunately we have lost a few who can’t meet the academic criteria.”
Getting through an apprenticeship may be tough, but getting onto one can be even tougher. Many firms remain suspicious of apprenticeships and will not offer any, no matter how many initiatives the Government comes up with to try and encourage them.
“We don’t take apprenticeships,” says Tim Stone, a partner at 3volution.
“At 16/17/18, some students are far more mature than others, sure. But a lot of them would be better off staying in education and learning about a subject. And it’s not just about learning, it’s also about growing up.”
“Graduates have some life experience at 21. That can be important.”
This article was originally published in Issue 149 of Leeds & Yorkshire Lawyer