The shadow attorney general has given her backing to a new alternative route to qualifying as a solicitor. 

Speaking at the launch of the University of Law’s articled apprenticeships at the House of Commons yesterday, Emily Thornberry said she and the Labour party were in support of the scheme.

Thornberry (pictured), who went to a secondary modern school, said social mobility was grinding to a halt, and the legal profession was ‘wasting a huge amount of talent by not being able to bring [in] people from a wider range of backgrounds’.

According to social mobility thinktank the Sutton Trust, 82% of barristers, 78% of judges and 53% of magic circle solicitors went to Oxbridge.

Aspiring solicitors face up to £27,000 in tuition fees alone for a three-year law degree and a further £11,000 to do the legal practice course (LPC).

Thornberry said: ‘You have to be really committed, really confident and probably come from a background where the family are not freaked out by you getting £40,000 into debt before you even get going as a solicitor.’

Thornberry studied law at the University of Kent and was called to the bar in 1983. She said: ‘When I first qualified in the dim, distant past it used to be that you could qualify as a solicitor without a degree. That was phased out. Perhaps that was a mistake.’

From 2015, school leavers who may not want to commit to full-time study or are unable to finance a degree and further study in order to enter the profession could become fully qualified solicitors within six years.

Articled apprentices will receive a salary from their law firm allowing them to cover their living costs and at least some of the tuition fees.

At the end of the six years, the articled apprentice will have an LLB degree, a postgraduate qualification (LPC), and will have gained ‘a period of recognised training’ working for a law firm, enabling them to qualify as a solicitor.

Those who join a law firm on the articled apprenticeship scheme also have the opportunity to become a chartered legal executive or paralegal instead of a solicitor.

John Latham, the University of Law's chief executive, said the university wanted to bring another option to the table for students and law firms – one, he said, that brought a very different risk and return balance in terms of debt (‘low debt or no debt’) and less detriment on time.

North-west firm Hillyer McKeown has already committed to starting with the scheme.

But Latham stressed that the university was still dedicated and committed to the standard route of becoming a solicitor – full-time undergraduate degree, full-time LPC and then joining a firm for a two-year traineeship.

‘That’s been part of our story for over 100 years. We hope it continues in the future,’ he said.