Widening access to the profession will ensure high-calibre candidates from all backgrounds succeed.

Independent law firm Burges Salmon opened its application process to take on four legal apprentices last week. It will be one of the first firms in the country to take on apprentices using the new Trailblazer apprenticeship standards. Burges Salmon was part of the steering committee that helped to create the new standards for the legal sector.  

So far Level 3 Paralegal, Level 6 Chartered Legal Executive and Level 7 Solicitor apprenticeship standards have been approved and are ready for delivery. The solicitor apprenticeship is only one to two Level 7 Trailblazer standards across all professions ready for delivery putting the legal sector at the forefront of the new scheme.  

There are many factors that make an apprenticeship highly attractive to someone embarking on a career in law. Around 5,500 training contracts were registered in England and Wales in 2014/15, while over 10 times as many were enrolled on law degrees or the Graduate Diploma in Law. The number completing the Legal Practice Course still exceeds the number of training contracts available. With university course fees at an all-time high students have to think carefully before choosing to embark on the journey to become a solicitor.  

Trailblazers is a cross-party initiative designed to improve the quality and simplicity of apprenticeships and align them more closely to the needs of employers. It is hoped that three million new apprenticeships across all sectors will be created in England by 2020 using new standards developed by the employer-led Trailblazer groups.   

In the past the route to become a solicitor without attending university has been long and uncertain, and often offered long-term career opportunities in only in niche areas. The new Level 7 Solicitor apprenticeship, which has been ready for delivery since September 2015, offers individuals the chance to qualify as a solicitor in the same time frame as the traditional route via university, without many of the cost implications. With a range of large law firms involved in the design of the new apprenticeships there can be no question whether they will meet their business needs and create new career paths in a variety of practice areas.

Burges Salmon has opted to take on apprentices under the Level 3 Paralegal standard, with the intention that at the end of the two years they would be able to embark on the Level 7 apprenticeship to take them all the way to qualification as a solicitor. This enables candidates to establish whether a career as a solicitor is right for them before committing. From the candidate point of view, university is still a possibility, but in addition to two years of earnings behind them they will also have invaluable hands-on experience and a real understanding of what a law firm does – something that many university graduates do not always possess.  

From a business perspective, recruiting apprentices makes sense. Social mobility is a key factor. Higher-level apprenticeships in the legal sector opens up an exclusively graduate profession to a whole new pool of talent, including those who may not have been able to consider university. In addition to this apprenticeships will boost the skill set of the workforce, adding value from day one. New recruits will be learning practical skills as well as the academic basics from the start, meaning by the point of qualification they will have at least six years of real work experience behind them, while a current newly qualified solicitor may only have two.  

Higher-level apprenticeships in professional services are nothing new – accountants have been doing this for years with great success. There is no reason why it should not be as successful within the legal sphere and the idea is not that radical for us. You will see much resemblance between today’s apprenticeships and articled clerks.  

Finally, the apprenticeship levy needs to be considered. Its implementation will affect most law firms of a certain size. All businesses with a payroll bill in excess of £3m will be contributing to the levy from April 2017, regardless of whether they recruit apprentices or not. Companies of all sizes will be able to claim an allowance of £15,000 to be put towards apprenticeship training from a recognised provider. In creating a high-quality apprenticeship programme a firm could claim back more than they pay in. 

Apprenticeships have the potential to transform the way we recruit new talent into the profession and boost the skill set needed to succeed in the future. Widening access to the profession will ensure we remain able to recruit, retain and motivate the highest calibre of candidate from different backgrounds. With the added incentive of the apprenticeship levy it is hard to see what firms would have to lose.   

Frances Bennett, trainee solicitor resourcing at Burges Salmon