To mark National Apprenticeship Week, Eduardo Reyes spoke to some of the young pioneers who are following the ‘Trailblazer’ track to qualification.
Solicitors pessimistic about the future of the profession could do worse than call by the Law Society on one of the 28 days in the year when there is an admissions ceremony. The pride and smiles are genuine as newly minted solicitors take it in turns to pose by some identifiable symbol of the profession – flanked by the golden lions at the main entrance on Chancery Lane, or part way up the stairs to the library. Few opt to stand in front of the portrait of David Lloyd George, but it does happen.
Entry to the profession is a significant moment and goes some way to explaining the strength of feeling on show whenever changes to qualification and admission are discussed. Judging by the Gazette’s online comments, this issue matters as much to retired solicitors as it does to students.
A current flashpoint is the apprenticeship route to qualification. This is not as controversial as the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, but it does prompt heated debate. When change is proposed, its justification can be read as an implied criticism of the standard that went before.
There are three legal apprenticeship routes, leading to qualification as a paralegal, a chartered legal executive or a solicitor. The solicitor route comes under a category known as ‘Trailblazer’.
The first Trailblazer apprentices started in September 2016 at both law firms and in-house legal departments.
At six years, it is not a quick route to qualification. But as school-leavers will be employed while working towards it, many note that the apprenticeship route opens up a legal career to those deterred by the cost of university and law school – especially given that both can represent an uncertain investment because of an apparent over-supply of would-be lawyers. The A-level (or equivalent) requirements are no lower than for graduates seeking a training contract and some will complete a law degree as part of their apprenticeship.
‘You’re looking for candidates who could, but don’t, go to university,’ explains Sam Lee, head of recruitment at Bond Dickinson. The firm, which won a Newcomer Large Employer of the Year award at the National Apprenticeship Awards, is one of the first cohort of firms to offer Trailblazer apprenticeships, following a beneficial experience of paralegal and CILEx apprenticeships.
Sophie Fisher, an apprentice at Kennedys who completed a two-year diploma on the CILEx route, is now on the Trailblazer track. ‘I had applied to university to do a law degree and got all my offers,’ she recalls, ‘but I thought this was a better way. They pay for my exams, they pay me, I get an allowance… it definitely seemed like the better option, especially when you consider how many law students don’t go on to get a job in law.’
That is an issue ITV legal director Barry Matthews recognises: ‘It is certainly true that the spectre of debt attached to the current postgraduate element of legal training is removed. For some time this has deterred those from low-income backgrounds who are not one of the fortunate few to have their LPC fees paid for by a law firm.’
Danielle White, graduate recruitment manager at Mayer Brown, says: ‘Many bright, talented people from under-represented groups are often dissuaded from a career in law. The traditional route to qualification as a solicitor compounds this for those put off by the burdens of full-time study.’
Fear of debt should not be the only consideration, Matthews notes, citing other benefits of the apprentice route. ‘If anything, an apprentice on qualification at ITV will be at a distinct advantage,’ he says. ‘Unlike any solicitor currently in the business they will have worked in every divisional legal team and in turn will be able to identify improvements regarding how we all work together.’
Supporters of the apprenticeship route must, however, confront a number of key concerns. Most importantly, there is an argument that an apprenticeship might set an able professional on a route they later discover has not equipped them for all the opportunities they are capable of taking.
David Howarth is a senior University of Cambridge law academic and author of Law as Engineering. He notes: ‘Apprenticeship, of course, is not one thing. If it means learning by “sitting next to Nellie” it is not a great way to proceed. The limitations of the teacher are passed wholesale on to the pupil. That risk might be mitigated in big firms, in which apprentices might come across a range of instructors, but in small firms it is a very great risk.’
He warns that a significant pitfall is turning legal practice, ‘which should be a process of imaginative problem-solving’, into a process ‘of asking which conventional solution fits the client’s problem’.
Blazing a trail
‘Apprenticeships cover employment and commercial aspects of the BBC group’s work. The apprentices will work under the supervision of qualified personnel in the employment and commercial teams to begin with, and we expect them to start making a real contribution to the department’s work as they progress through their apprenticeships.
‘We’re looking for potential not pre-existing achievement; we know that some young people have not always had the chance to shine before they come to us.
‘Academic qualifications are not factored in until the end of the process and we’re not totally rigid about what we need. Softer “employability” skills are very important – our selection process has several stages, including an assessment day and interview.’
Sarah Jones, general counsel
‘An apprenticeship appealed because I would be learning not only about law, but about how law works within a business. It also appealed because I initially applied for a two-year apprenticeship – it would give me enough time to figure out if I really did like law.’
Emma Stokes, Trailblazer apprentice
‘We were very conscious that with changes to university fees and with different routes to qualification becoming possible, we didn’t want to miss out on the talent pool of those that weren’t considering university. We knew we could bring them into the business earlier and work with them sooner.
‘I think their nervousness is around the recruitment of such young people. We had to make sure that any apprentice recruitment process would be rigorous. As a commercial business we need to minimise the risk that we invest in somebody and a year or two into their training they change their mind and decide law isn’t for them.’
Sally Swift, head of legal support services
‘Generally, our view is that apprentices will be in a much stronger position than a traditional trainee. They’re learning how to act in a business, making contacts from when they’re 18.’
Stephanie Challinger, graduate recruitment adviser
‘My parents were pretty surprised at first, because I’d been so set on studying law at university, and they were a bit apprehensive about an apprenticeship. Now my mum boasts about it to everyone!’
Sophie Fisher, Trailblazer apprentice
‘We do look for certain grade criteria because it is quite tough balancing work alongside study, and we want to make sure we’re selecting candidates who will be able to cope with those demands. We look for predicted A-level grades of BBB.
‘It is quite a lengthy process, but we’ve found that by doing it that way, we have a lower drop-out rate over the course of the apprenticeship than we did when all we required was an online application form and an interview.’
Nicola Standley, HR adviser
‘My favourite thing about it all is that I’m already meeting people and making contacts. I’m getting off on a really good footing… it’s a really good opportunity, especially in a profession like law which is so competitive.’
Ella Pearson, Trailblazer apprentice
‘We are doing a lot of work on our internal apprenticeships model about how many rotations apprentices will do, and how long they’ll stay in each one… the work in some departments lends itself better to apprentices.
‘It’s important to allow plenty of time for recruitment. In our most recent round, we opened applications in November – at the same time as we opened our grad season – did telephone interviews, held the assessment centre in April, and then we made offers.’
Jaya Louvre, recruitment manager
‘It was definitely a shift, settling in as an apprentice. It was my first full-time, permanent job and, on top of that, you’ve got part-time study as well. It was intense.
‘It was hard to manage in the first few months – you have work deadlines and study deadlines. It was a learning curve of how to balance the study and work commitments. But the hard work paid off.’
Halima Khanum, legal executive apprentice
Source: The Law Society
If firms and departments that offer apprenticeships go down such a route, says Howarth: ‘Not only is that a bad thing in itself – it’s not good service – it doesn’t have much of a future’. Forced choice classification and producing boilerplate clauses are the kinds of thing computers do better than people, he notes: ‘That’s not what lawyers are going to do in the future. They will be the people who design those solutions, not those who supervise printing them. “Sitting next to Nellie” is not enough to become a designer and so not enough to become a lawyer.’
The challenge, then, is for apprenticeship providers to make sure they are not simply training lawyers who excel at completing tasks that will soon be rendered obsolete.
From an in-house perspective, Matthews looks to high-end firms to help provide the necessary breadth required. ‘I see firms and their clients working in partnership to deliver apprenticeships,’ he says. ‘We at ITV have engaged with Slaughter and May and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer to provide real estate and litigation seats for our apprentice scheme.’
The Trailblazer apprenticeship does not require a degree, but although there are other options, many opt to build a law degree into the route. For Eversheds Sutherland apprentice Ella Pearson, that is important: ‘I feel that if it didn’t have that element, there could always be a bit of a divide between those who qualified in the traditional way, and those who were apprentices. This way, there will be more parity between the two.’
Pearson adds that, as an apprentice, she’s ‘had loads of support from people who I probably would never have met – from solicitors and partners and those really high up’.
Just do it?
For law firms and legal departments contemplating an apprenticeship route, there is important groundwork to be laid internally. Bond Dickinson’s Lee recalls the buildup to the firm’s first apprentices starting in 2014 (before the Trailblazer track was available in 2016): ‘It took me 12 months of pushing – changing mindsets internally.’
For all routes, she notes, taking on school-leavers, rather than graduates, is a step change: ‘They [seem] very young – once you’ve got someone in front of you who is that age.’ Those interviewing, she says, ‘learn to put people at ease – there is a little bit of leading them’.
That does not make it a ‘soft’ process though. Emma Stokes, an apprentice at the BBC who is now on the Trailblazer route, says: ‘It was the first proper interview that I’d ever had, but I’d prepared so I felt calm. Everyone was really welcoming.’
Lee recommends that interviews take place at the end of work placements, which Bond Dickinson does. This ‘mitigates against drop-outs’ and means those applying have an insight into the atmosphere and demands of the workplace.
The scale of ambition in the government’s apprenticeship policy, which has a target of 3 million apprentices by 2020, makes it a target for criticism. In the context of growing concerns around workplace exploitation – ‘interns’ who are in fact just underpaid employees – apprenticeships are subject to plenty of scrutiny.
As Lee notes: ‘I’m always disappointed to see the negativity around [apprenticeships]. Lots of businesses take them seriously and are raising standards.’ Backing up Lee’s enthusiasm is the fact that no law firm that has offered apprenticeships has dropped them. Indeed, the number that commit to continuing the Trailblazer route has increased.
For existing and future providers, Howarth has advice about the education element of solicitor apprenticeships – advice that also applies to more traditional education and training routes. ‘Just because education is a good thing doesn’t mean that academic legal education is currently in a good place,’ he cautions. ‘It too often downplays the creative problem-solving nature of the law in practice, especially as it will soon become. A broad legal education, even if it is to some degree abstract, should in principle help to clear students’ minds of preconceptions and enable them to search more effectively for solutions to their clients’ problems.’
He adds: ‘A deep understanding of the genesis and development of legal rules should help to generate advice that remains sound over long periods, not just short-term tactics that collapse at the first hint of pressure. But I’m far from sure that the way we teach now is well-adapted to produce these results. We seem to expect students to pick up the relevance to future practice of what they are taught entirely by themselves. I doubt whether that works well.’
Howarth urges some reference to students’ future lives, ‘which in the elite law schools realistically means life in a big firm or, increasingly, in a technologically sophisticated specialist boutique firm… That means, for example, deals courses, drafting courses, law and technology courses, and relevant legal ethics courses’.
Done right, apprenticeships can play a role in providing balanced preparation for life as a lawyer – becoming, in White’s words, ‘a cornerstone to progression within a hard-to-access profession’.
Growing interest in in-house careers represents a sustained shift in lawyer ambition, which Matthews notes augments the importance of the in-house apprenticeships available. ‘We believe that the apprenticeship route is geared towards a career in-house,’ he concludes. ‘A truly good in-house lawyer will possess an equal command of the law and an organisation’s business drivers. Hence, what could be better than learning both in parallel?’
Looking forward, Howarth concludes: ‘Overall, I would like to see convergence between any apprenticeship route and the academic route. The former should become more academic and the latter more connected to practice – and that means the practice of the future not the practice of the past.’
For more information on apprenticeships, see the Law Society website