If you fancy learning on the job and getting paid to do it, a law apprenticeship might be your ideal route into law – and you won't even need to impress Lord Sugar.
What are apprenticeships?
A levels, university, GDL, LPC, training contract, qualification... that's he traditional – and costly – route to becoming a solicitor. But now there's a new option, introduced as part of the government's national 'trailblazer' apprenticeships push: the legal apprenticeship.
The idea behind a legal apprenticeship is for non-graduates who've done their A levels to study and train with a firm, initially as a paralegal, and then have the option to progress to the solicitor path and qualify around the same time as a trainee would. Instead of higher education and the debt that comes with it, apprentices get paid by the firm to learn and work... so drinks are on you!
Legal apprenticeships may be quite new, but the idea has precedent. The concept of a legal 'trainee' is actually a pretty recent idea: the term 'training contract' wasn't thought up until 1990. Wind the clock back to 1728, year of the Attorneys and Solicitors Act, and you'll find a very different route to law: wannabe solicitors were obliged to spend five years as clerks under articles, training directly with established lawyers. Trainees were called 'articled clerks' right up until 1990. Nowadays it's normal to do most of your study at university and in classrooms, but once upon a time the 'on the job' route now championed by legal apprenticeships was the only choice available.
“We wanted to do more for equality of opportunity and social mobility.”
One reason why firms and the government want to promote apprenticeships is to boost diversity within the professions. “We wanted to do more for equality of opportunity and social mobility: opening up a new apprenticeship route to qualification was a way we could deliver on that. Clients have been supportive and eager to learn from our apprenticeship experience too,” Jones Day graduate recruitment manager Diane Spoudeas explains. “We want our apprentices to reach the same position as trainees at the point of qualification.” The recently introduced Apprenticeship Levy (an extra 0.5% business tax to encourage large businesses to take on apprentices) will also have played a role in firms' rush to introduce apprenticeships. But there's no obligation for firms to take on apprentices and many are sticking solely to offering training contracts for now.
The number of firms offering legal apprenticeships is small but growing, and each is taking its own approach. Some only run apprenticeships up to paralegal level; others include both this and the option to continue on to train as a solicitor; more still only provide a route to qualification as a solicitor. Click here for a full overview of what apprenticeships different firms profiled in Chambers Student offer. (One point to note is that many firms also recruit non-legal apprentices in say their HR teams, but we're not covering that here.)
How do you become a legal apprentice?
To begin an apprenticeship you need to have completed your A levels. Apprenticeships are not designed for graduates or those studying at university or law school. Solicitor apprentices study part-time for their LLB over four years, coming out with a bona fide law degree. A part-time LPC (soon to be replaced by the SQE) makes up the following two years of study. During this entire time you'll be working as an apprentice within the firm that's hired you, usually four days a week as suggested by the government.
Each firm has its own application process, which may consist of several stages. Bevan Brittan's process begins with a vacation scheme similar to for the training contract, graduate recruitment and training coordinator Katie Deering tells us: “Candidates sit with a different department every day before completing written assessments and interviews.”
Halima Khanum, solicitor apprentice at Withers, recalls: “The application process was really intense. After the interview I left thinking I had no chance!” Prior work experience can stand you in good stead, but it doesn't matter if you've never stepped foot in a law firm. Withers recruitment and diversity advisor Elliott Pentland comments: “Work experience is always useful” to boost your chances, “but it doesn't have to have legal context. We've had candidates come in straight from school.”
“By the end of year two I was drafting and amending documents such as witness statements.”
Once you've earned your spot, a good legal apprenticeship programme will get you stuck in early. “The work sits somewhere between that of a paralegal and a trainee, shifting from one to the other over time,” Pentland suggests. Do your research on any firm you're interested in, as if you get a spot you'll be there for a while! Apprentices sometimes rotate through different departments as trainees do. Jones Day legal apprentice Rebecca Funnell says she chiefly works with the firm's property and disputes teams: “I've been researching cases, reviewing evidence, drafting documents and completing or submitting Land Registry and other legal forms.” Sounds pretty similar to the tasks of a trainee to us! Halima Khanum tells us: “They throw you straight in – by the end of year two I was drafting and amending documents such as witness statements.” In their final two years, solicitor apprentices effectively complete a training contract alongside the firm's 'regular' trainees.
Apprentices juggle practical work with academic study, and normally doing one day a week of private study and classroom learning in line with government guidelines. “The balance is good,” Rebecca Funnell reflects. “I attend classes on Monday afternoons and only need a couple of hours extra on the weekend or a weeknight for study.” Halima Khanum tells us of her experience: “You do have to put the hours in, but it's been really good. I have tutorials every Monday and face-to-face sessions with teachers every six weeks.”
Why be a legal apprentice?
So the million-dollar question is... apprenticeship or training contract? Firstly, let's dispel the idea that an apprenticeship is the 'easy way'. Signing up for potentially a seven-year programme is a daunting prospect, and Bevan Brittan's Katie Deering suggests “you have to be particularly motivated” if it's your route of choice. You have to know from the outset, at age 18, that you want to be a solicitor and be able to demonstrate your commitment to a career in law to the firm you're applying to. Halima Khanum concludes: “Apprenticeships are best suited to people who can roll with the punches. You have to be self motivated and open to challenges.”
“At interview we look at how confident applicants are that they want to take this route over university.”
As a wannabe apprentice you need to be sure you won't change your mind about becoming a solicitor: one of university's big advantages is not needing to make a career decision straight out of school. “We're looking for someone who'll stay the course,” Diana Spoudeas confirms. “At interview we look at how confident applicants are that they want to take this route over university.”
The apprentices we spoke to were clear on why they chose this route. “By the time you get to the final years of the apprenticeship you know the firm inside out,” Funnell points out, “and you get work experience from a young age so you're used to the professional environment.” If learning by doing is your thing, an apprenticeship might be just the ticket – Khanum tells us “it's crazy how your studies come up in your work.” And by working alongside your studies “you're gaining knowledge for the long term.”
What are the long-term career prospects of apprentices within law firms? Katie Deering of Bevan Brittan reckons it's “too soon to tell” given today's apprentices are pioneers testing the route for future generations, but "that being said, by completing a solicitor apprenticeship you'll qualify with six or seven years' practical experience compared to the training contract's two. A candidate who has built this extra expertise will definitely stand out." Long-term there's no reason why an ex-apprentice shouldn't compete on equal terms with a solicitor who's taken the traditional route.
The times they are a changing
Determining the future of legal apprenticeships is like gazing into a crystal ball, but it's safe to say they've caught on with both firms and young people. “I could see us bringing in more apprentices in future,” says Diana Spoudeas of Jones Day. “We recruited two in the first instance and have made four offers this time around.” Likewise at Bevan Brittan the apprenticeship programme is “definitely going to continue and we may increase the intake,” according to Deering. “Following the Apprentice Levy I expect we'll see more law firms take on apprentices.” It's possible the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination, the new route to qualifying as a solicitor from 2020 (or 2021), will make apprenticeships a more common and attractive route.
“Every day I'm learning something new.”
“University sounds good short term but long term this is definitely the best route for me,” believes Rebecca Funnell. “I get a wide range of experience from day one and I'm paid for it!” Halima Khanum adds: “Compared to uni this has every perk and almost none of the disadvantages. I've been at Withers two and a half years and every day I'm learning something new.”
To anyone committed to a career in law from a young age, a legal apprenticeship will appeal as an alternative route to achieving your career goals.
This feature was first published in May 2018.