Late last year the Legal Services Board (LSB) made the decision to approve a new way to qualify in the form of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The first students will begin taking their exams under SQE in November.
There is a period of transition but firms have to plan for a future without the LPC and traditional training contract. And so, if they were not already, firms across the country are now preparing to replace the training contract with a new model that fits with the SQE.
The SQE provides a great opportunity for firms to come up with unique models of training. There is a chance to run apprenticeships, together with paralegals self-qualifying, and to think about how that fills the gap alongside traditional ‘trainees’.
We are already hearing about innovative new models from the likes of Reed Smith and I am excited to be working with my own firm on creating something new and different from the ground up.
Unfortunately, however, such examples seem to be few and far between. Instead, the more commonly publicised approach is a restating of the training contract, putting candidates through prep-courses (replicating the LPC) to pass SQE 1 and SQE 2, and then on to two years of qualifying work experience at the firm. Such candidates are being treated as apprentices in order to take advantage of the apprenticeship levy to fund the training.
Setting aside my disappointment that these firms are not taking the chance to move towards a more innovative model, a greater concern is that this approach is a misuse of the apprenticeship levy with respect to its original purpose.
At Womble Bond Dickinson we currently have 12 solicitor apprentices. The apprenticeship takes six years to complete and consists of four years studying towards a law degree run by regional law schools. While being employed by the firm on a full-time basis, the apprentices complete distance learning, with study days spent at the law school. For the final two years the apprentices join the graduate rotation and newly qualified solicitor process.
This approach is a ‘proper’ apprenticeship. It allows access to the profession for those who cannot or do not want to go to university full-time. It gives those on that route a chance to work, study, and attain a level of experience that, at the point of qualifying, is arguably fuller than the traditional trainees. In my opinion, that is what the government was hoping for when it introduced the concept (not just for law, but across all industries).
That is not to say that there is not a place for the graduate apprenticeship model. For those firms that previously could not fund training or had to cap the number of trainees because of the financial risk of taking on a trainee, the apprenticeship levy coupled with SQE provides a real opportunity to give training to more candidates. It can allow firms of all sizes to develop talent from within and hopefully then retain that talent.
However, I do not think firms should be using it to cover training costs where they previously covered them themselves (that is, if they paid for the LPC before, the levy should not now be paying for the SQE on their behalf). The purpose of the levy is to broaden opportunities and increase social mobility. There is a real danger that the government will look twice at the ongoing use of the apprenticeship levy if it is not being used for its intended purpose.
Many concerns have already been raised, across industries, about the use of the levy to train those in senior management roles. There is a danger that the use by law firms to fund graduate training could be seen in the same way.
I appreciate that the apprenticeship levy is a tax that not all firms feel necessarily benefits them as fully as it could or should, but I would call for those firms to look for ways to use it that support social mobility, rather than in a way which I suspect was unanticipated.
Firms should look at transferring their unused levy to smaller firms that otherwise could not fund the training of solicitors. This could especially benefit the parts of the profession that are currently struggling, such as criminal justice. Similarly, firms should develop full apprenticeship programmes that allow those other than graduates to enter the profession. This does not just have to be solicitors. More than ever the role of law firms is changing and the development of project managers, ‘legal engineers’ and other technical roles could benefit from the apprenticeship route.
Ultimately it is down to firms to make the decision on training and how they fund it. I just hope that in doing so the bigger picture of social mobility and corporate social responsibility is assessed in using the apprenticeship levy. It should be used in a way that benefits the whole profession and not just a firm’s balance sheet.
James Kitching is a corporate solicitor at Womble Bond Dickinson and a Law Society Council member for solicitors 0-5 PQE