Skills for Justice project can open way to paralegal apprenticeships
Widening access to the legal profession can only be a good thing, which is why the Skills for Justice project to develop a paralegal apprenticeship has been welcomed by many.
With rising university tuition fees, expensive vocational training, a lack of training contracts, cuts to legal aid, the scrapping of the minimum salary, and the increasing requirement for copious amounts of work experience, many who want to work in the profession, particularly those wishing to work in legal aid and high street firms, are struggling.
The Skills for Justice project is at its early stages and by 2013 it hopes to have the first graduate apprentices. The project comes at a time when we see yet another damning report on the lack of social mobility in the profession, this time from the InterLaw Diversity Forum, which found that ‘elite-educated white males still dominate the positions of prestige and higher reward in the sector’.
This bleak assessment follows shortly on from Alan Milburn’s slamming of the legal profession as still recruiting from a narrow elite pool of graduates. Access to professions remains dominated by people from wealthy socio-economic backgrounds, Milburn concluded. He described this as ‘social engineering on a grand scale’.
It is against this backdrop that the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has been raising its concerns with Skills for Justice and the Law Society about the lack of a plan to collect diversity data in respect of paralegal apprenticeships. We acknowledge that Skills for Justice is yet to sign off the National Occupational Standards, which is the starting point for the project. However, we submit that this issue should be considered from the outset.
Without this data, the profession and academics will not be able to monitor the impact of apprenticeships and whether they do increase access to the profession, or rather lead to a reinforcement of white male middle-class dominance. Will it simply provide a way for partners of law firms to offer apprenticeships to their friends’ children, as often happens with work experience? Milburn noted that this was an existing problem when he condemned the ‘informal economy’ of internships and work experience placements, especially when these replace paid jobs or are an essential prerequisite to them. He called for employers to select interns transparently and pay them at least expenses and preferably a wage. For paralegal apprenticeships to truly open up the profession this trend must be guarded against from the outset.
Furthermore, given that apprentices will be recruited post A-levels, the JLD also raises the point that, in collecting data, there must be a distinction between grammar and comprehensive school leavers, as opposed to simply between fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools, to avoid masking a lack of social mobility. Factors such as those eligible for free school meals, for example, should be taken into consideration.
As Steven Vaughan, director of undergraduate studies at Cardiff Law School, has told us: ‘It would seem odd for the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) not to collect diversity data, given things such as the Milburn reviews on social mobility and, specifically in the legal sector context, the statutory obligation on the regulators to "encourage a strong, independent, diverse and effective legal profession".’
While this duty would not extend to the SFA, it would arguably set itself apart by not collecting the data. I realise there is an administrative burden in data collection (and an associated cost), but given there will be only 50 apprentices in the first round and only 750 thereafter (as I understand it), asking those apprentices to fill in a quick equality and diversity questionnaire does not seem unreasonable.
Paralegal apprenticeships could be an opportunity to be a model initiative by which to cast a wider net across potential legal talent, but also one in which an accurate assessment of its effectiveness in diversifying the profession can be measured.
However, the necessary aspects of this initiative must be put in place early to fulfil that aim.
The JLD therefore calls on Skills for Justice and the SFA to give this issue serious consideration and make paralegal apprenticeships accessible to students.
Camilla Graham Wood is a member of the JLD executive committee