With entry into the legal profession becoming harder than ever as training contracts drop to their lowest level since 1999, is it time for legal apprenticeships to move centre-stage? 

With entry into the legal profession becoming harder than ever as training contracts drop to their lowest level since 1999, is it time for legal apprenticeships to move centre-stage? Training provider BPP is champing at the bit to prepare a master’s level apprenticeship to provide a seamless route from school-leaver to qualified solicitor. Over a dozen firms, including magic and silver circle firms, want to be involved.

Their plans have been given a boost now the long-awaited Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) has been published. The LETR recommends the further development of higher-level apprenticeships as part of a potential move towards a regulatory environment where qualification is equally possible via academic and vocational routes. In the meantime, increasing demand for talented and qualified paralegals has prompted law firms to push ahead with their own apprenticeship schemes where the framework is already in place.

Pannone managing partner Emma Holt has been leading the Legal Sector Employer Skills Group in Manchester in developing a paralegal apprenticeship scheme starting in September (see case study, p21). The firm has offered places to four school-leavers under the scheme and hopes to take on another six. ‘We have to face up to the fact that the way legal work is being done is changing in every discipline,’ Holt says. ‘We have to manage the expectations of those seeking a career in law and make sure we prepare a workforce fit for how legal work will be done in the future.’

There are clearly significant changes in recruitment. The sector skills body Skills for Justice flagged up key points to the LETR. These included: growing the numbers of firms employing young people in technical roles; losing solicitors but retaining paralegals; and employing a greater proportion of paralegals than solicitors as new staff. In a recent survey, 83% of law firms told Skills for Justice they would be interested in taking on apprentices – one of the few areas which attracts government funding, including a £1,500 grant for small and medium-sized firms taking on their first apprentice.

How valuable can apprenticeships be in giving more status to the role of the career paralegal and in going that step further in providing an alternative route to the title of solicitor? A rough guide to the jargon-packed world of apprenticeships starts at Level 2 Apprenticeship in Legal Administration for those with GCSEs. The Level 3 Advanced Apprenticeship in Legal Services is for A-level students – in both cases, the training costs are met by the government until the apprentice is 19.

The new Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Services is equivalent to a first-year undergraduate course of study and is for paralegals who have completed levels 2 and 3. They will come out with a Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) qualification in litigation, debt recovery or personal injury. The government will pay half the training costs up to the age of 23, with the employer expected to meet the rest.

The final piece in the puzzle is an apprenticeship that will start at level 4 and have a progression route to a level 7 apprenticeship. It is aimed at law firms recruiting trainee solicitors – an approach which mirrors professional services apprenticeships in accountancy, audit and taxation.

Last month, the government and the Professional and Business Services Council launched a new industrial strategy which includes trebling the number of professional services apprenticeships to 10,000 over the next five years – with the council adding that its ‘vision’ is to have a higher apprenticeship route to becoming a solicitor which will have ‘parity of esteem’ to graduate entry.

There are already a whole range of apprenticeships on offer, including the Crown Prosecution Service’s new business-specific apprenticeship, developed for paralegal officers and assistants to achieve an extended qualification in criminal prosecution; Yorkshire firm Gordons’ apprenticeship scheme, which offers school-leavers the chance to become chartered legal executives; and Plexus Law, which recruited seven apprentices into its Leeds office last year and will take more this September for a two-year training programme, rotating around four teams within the business. The University of Law (ULaw) teamed up with CILEx last year to deliver training solutions for all levels of staff, including apprentices. Taking on inexperienced school leavers poses challenges for firms, and supervisors need training to ensure apprentices quickly find their feet. Tricia Chatterton, ULaw’s business development director, says firms interested in apprenticeships fall into three, sometimes overlapping, categories.

‘The first is those firms who have a vision of apprenticeships as an alternative route to qualification for people who will sit side by side with their graduate trainees,’ she says. ‘The second are the large, commoditised firms who see them as a way of taking on a lot of school-leavers, with the brightest and best going on to qualify and the rest staying as career paralegals. The third are the firms who look at them from a corporate social responsibility angle – they may not change their recruitment strategy hugely but this gives them the chance to widen access.’

At BPP, James Hammill, director of professional apprenticeships, says BPP is ‘very keen’ to start piloting a five-year route from A-levels to qualification as a solicitor, which will include all the learning outcomes in a law degree and LPC – as well as the training contract – wrapped under the apprenticeship banner. It will have four or five stop-off points so someone could decide to stay in a paralegal role. BPP is also looking at whether there should be an entry point at level 7 so someone with a degree could jump on there. Firms are looking to ‘blend’ their recruitment, Hammill says. But he stresses: ‘It is essential for BPP that the legal apprenticeship leads to qualification as a solicitor otherwise it won’t meet our criteria of being an aspirational apprenticeship that will allow firms to attract the best talent.’

The current enthusiasm for apprenticeships has the potential to be an important new business opportunity for law schools and training providers. While demand for law degrees went up by 5% in 2012 following the tuition fee rises, demand for the Legal Practice Course has dropped significantly because of graduate fears of building up more debt with limited hope of getting a training contract. Miceal Barden is head of Manchester Law School, which won the tender to provide the training side of the Manchester apprenticeship scheme. He says changes in the legal market mean it is no longer an appropriate business model simply to teach law degrees. ‘Like all law schools, we are seeing LPC numbers dropping,’ he says. ‘But this year we have seen a 40% rise in the number of applicants for law degrees and our intake is going up from 250 to 300 to reflect that very strong flight to vocational degrees.’

While it intends to remain a full-service law school teaching the Graduate Diploma in Law and LPC, apprenticeships are one of the new opportunities it has embraced. ‘These are A-level students with good grades who would get places at university law schools. What we are trying to do is combine the best of both worlds. Rather than mimic the workplace as in the LPC and then assess competency, we will be going into the workplace and assessing the apprentices there, as well as teaching them face to face at the law school.’

Both he and David Way, executive director of the National Apprenticeship Service, stress that qualifying through an apprenticeship route will not ‘dumb down’ the title of solicitor. ‘It is about opening up opportunities for talented people who don’t want to go to university,’ says Way. ‘These are people who have a hunger for learning and the potential to go higher – it is not about recruiting someone to stay at that level.’ He points to a study by ICM Research which found employers in England rated qualified apprentices as 15% more employable than their peers, with those that had completed higher, degree-level apprenticeships the most desirable. ‘I am not suggesting that one route is better than the other,’ Way says. ‘What is important is that it is not seen as second rate. The challenge is to design it so that someone qualifying this way is recognised as being the equal of someone who trained traditionally.’

Getting that recognition will be critical, agrees Emma Dickinson, a committee member of the Junior Lawyers Divisions (JLD). However, she says it is too early to say if this is achievable: ‘The Skills for Justice website says, "As yet, we are not 100% sure what form a Level 7 Higher Legal Service Apprenticeship would take, but it would certainly be a qualification equivalent in difficulty to the LPC." Unfortunately, just because something is equivalent in difficulty does not mean that it will be recognised by institutions or individuals as a directly equivalent qualification.’

She is also concerned that some apprenticeship routes will channel apprentices into distinct pathways very early on in their career track and their transferable skills may be limited. However, Barden argues that, while apprentices will specialise at an early stage, their training will still give them sufficient grounding to carry out the role of the modern solicitor.

Allan Carton, director of legal consultancy Inpractice UK, has been working with the Greater Manchester consortium and is helping more local legal practices – of all sizes and focus – to get involved in the initiative. ‘The world has changed,’ he says. ‘What firms need is a mix of skills, not just legal knowledge. But that doesn’t mean putting a ceiling on how high apprentices can go. My view is they will be more rounded because they will have developed with more work experience. Legal executives have already proved themselves to be some of the strongest components in a lot of law firms.’

What is worrying young lawyers is that apprentices may find themselves caught in a similar bottleneck to LPC graduates who are working in paralegal roles, unable to qualify because they cannot get a training contract. ‘In whatever route you choose to take, the "road block" to gaining qualifying experience could be moved to the earliest possible stage of a career,’ Dickinson says. ‘In the same way some employers currently take on paralegals but don’t want to offer them training contracts, we may find that employers are very keen to hire apprentices at a certain level but are unwilling or unable to pay for them to progress to the next stage.’

There is also the risk that, because the profession can only absorb a specific number of new solicitors each year, opening up new routes could create a new bottleneck as newly qualified solicitors compete for limited jobs. That raises the fundamental question: will apprenticeships improve diversity by opening up access to people from disadvantaged backgrounds?

While firms are offering starting salaries well over the minimum £2.65 an hour, JLD chair Heather Iqbal-Rayner says the JLD is concerned that if apprentices have to live on a low income for many years to qualify it will not be any more open to those from poor economic backgrounds than other routes. While Way stresses that apprenticeships offer a ‘fantastic opportunity’ to benefit from free training and build a career, Dickinson warns: ‘I don’t think you can ensure that this will not just become cheap labour. The opportunity to pay a very low salary will undoubtedly be an option used by some employers.’

She predicts the market will move towards a ‘two tier’ system. ‘Perceptions take a long time to change and it may be that certain types of roles only become accessible to those who have completed a certain type of training. If this happens, we may see a growth in the legal market of individuals at entry or partially qualified levels, but diversity at the most senior levels of the profession may remain as low as it ever did before.’

There is still a long way to go before apprenticeships lead to the title solicitor. ‘We have been here before,’ says ULaw’s Chatterton, ‘believing there is going to be large-scale change and it hasn’t happened, often for good reasons. There are already a lot of disruptions in the market and the SRA may think this is one too far.’

What is clear is that support for apprenticeships goes right to the top. The president of the Supreme Court Lord Neuberger made it clear last year that, while he did not think the case had been made for ‘root and branch’ reform of legal education and training, he did believe the profession’s regulators should ensure there was an effective, straightforward route to qualification for non-graduates.

Slowly, regulators are starting to respond to his challenge.

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist