What is a legal apprenticeship?

There's no denying it - apprenticeships in the legal sector are gaining momentum. The traditional route to being a lawyer has been challenged by, among other things, the Legal Education and Training Review which reported in June 2013, the rise of legal executives, increasing paralegal numbers, and alternative business structures (ABS). Combine this with university tuition fee hikes, which further increase the appeal of starting a career in law without the need for an expensive degree, and it's plain to see that the legal landscape is in the grip of a massive shake-up.

Apprenticeships enable you to ‘earn while you learn’, gaining professional legal qualifications while working in paid employment at a law firm or in-house legal team. It is now possible to qualify as a solicitor through the apprenticeship route, meaning that this is a viable alternative to university and its associated tuition fees. 

Since 2011, an increasing number of firms have been pledging their support to external apprenticeship schemes or launching their own. Skills for Justice (SFJ) conducted a survey in 2012 of 51 firms and found that they are likely to increase the number of paralegals they employ by 18% over the next five years. More significantly, 83% of firms said they would be interested in taking on apprentices. We are in the middle of that predicted five-year period and take-up of apprenticeships is indeed increasing. The writing is on the wall; apprenticeships are here to stay.

Becoming an apprentice

In most cases, an apprentice is an individual who will join a law firm straight from school, rather than going to university, to work in a role similar to that of a paralegal. Apprenticeships are also open to university graduates who have not completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC),  Most apprentices will also receive on-the-job training that takes them towards a formal qualification, for example as a legal executive through the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx).

Each apprentice’s experience is unique and will reflect their prior qualifications, their own ambitions and their employer’s needs. After a period in which a variety of organisations began planning and launching their own apprenticeship programmes, legal apprenticeships have become standardised into three broad, employer-designed ‘Trailblazer’ pathways, which can be linked. 

Solicitor apprenticeship

A solicitor apprenticeship is a six to seven year programme for post-A level students leading to qualification as a solicitor (with a shorter period of study for graduates or apprentices progressing from the legal apprenticeships). The solicitor apprenticeship includes all of the main content in a law degree and the LPC, enabling apprentices to gain a law degree and LLM (master’s). Students also complete the SRA’s new centralised assessment. On completing the apprenticeship and passing the SRA’s character and suitability tests, an apprentice qualifies as a solicitor without the need for a two-year training contract.

Paralegal apprenticeship

The paralegal apprenticeship has replaced the Advanced Apprenticeship in Legal Services. Again through paid, on-the-job training combined with tuition, apprentices develop legal and business skills (including client care and legal research), and are eventually able to qualify as chartered legal executives.

Legal administrator/support apprenticeship

Legal administrators are staff who assist in the progression of cases, but bring administrative expertise rather than legal knowledge to the table. This pathway is ideal for school leavers who want to get straight into the world of work, rather than spend much time on further study.

The development of apprenticeships

Various schemes have been launched over the past couple of years, with many more in development. This is how apprenticeships have progressed in recent years – it’s interesting to see the organisations which are involved in this new area:

  • January 2012 - SFJ and the Crown Prosecution Service announce an advanced paralegal apprenticeship.
  • May 2012 - The London Apprenticeship Company announces that as of 2013, it will be offering additional formal apprenticeships intended for individuals working in paralegal roles.
  • June 2012 - The Co-op, an early adopter of the ABS model, announces that it will create 3,000 new jobs in the legal services sector, many of which will be apprenticeships. Peter Marks, chief executive of the Co-operative Group, said: "We are particularly keen to use our expansion as a way to offer opportunities to young people. Legal apprenticeships and opportunities for study leave will form an important part of this major employment opportunity."
  • June 2012 - The government gives nearly £1 million to the legal sector to create 750 apprenticeships by March 2015. The Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Services launched in March 2013, while Levels 2 and 3 were also rolled out over the following year to provide school leavers and existing paralegals with a clear, work-based, paid route to a formal qualification and the option to progress further to become a chartered legal executive. Pearson in Practice, CILEx and SFJ all played key roles in the development and ongoing running of the programme. Fiona McBride, chief executive of Pearson in Practice, said: "We welcome the government's continued emphasis on higher-level apprenticeships as a true and credible alternative to university education and are pleased to be able to bring this into the legal services sector. It reveals what we believe is a shift  in public opinion about the value of vocational learning and demonstrates a widespread understanding of the important role that apprenticeships play in setting young people on the path towards not just a job, but a sustainable and fulfilling career."
  • July 2013 - Cardiff-based Kaplan Altior launched its level 4 Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Services course, in partnership with apprenticeship specialists Acorn.
  • March 2014 - The government announces the new Trailblazer scheme, designed to standardise apprenticeships across the profession. The scheme is supported by various firms and providers, as well as CILEx and the SRA.
  • November 2014 - The University of Law launches its articled apprenticeship programme, allowing school leavers to become fully qualified solicitors (via apprenticeship) after six years on-the-job training.
  • August 2015 - The department for business, innovation and skills (BIS) publishes new assessment plans and standards for legal apprenticeships following ministerial approval, as part of the Trailblazer scheme (as above). Gun Judge, chair of the Trailblazers Legal Committee and resourcing manager at Addleshaw Goddard, said: "There has never been a better time to start a law apprenticeship. The Legal Trailblazer Scheme enhances the alternative to the traditional route into law - opening the doors to a more diverse talent stream entering the profession. Our apprentices create a huge contribution to the firm, and we will be looking to hire more." 

Clearly the emphasis here is on helping young people get into work, in combination with training them to continue their way up the career ladder. As McBride highlights, there is a noticeable shift in perception about vocational learning - a point made by Legal Cheek's Alex Aldridge in the Guardian in July 2012: "The current anti-snobbery mood running through the legal profession in the wake of the Legal Services Act (which, among other things, will allow non-lawyers, including paralegals, to become partners in law firms) is such that that the hard-working and intelligent apprentices of the future will surely be allowed to progress to an ever greater extent - even if nobody is quite sure how far."

Uptake by firms

Research by the National Apprenticeship Service shows that 77% of employers who already have apprentices believe they make them more competitive and 88% believe that they lead to a more motivated and satisfied workforce. Many firms will be hoping these statistics will also apply to them.

Again, the last couple of years has seen the number of apprentice schemes offered by law firms rise significantly. Here is a list of firms that offer apprenticeships (both in legal and support roles):

Case study

In July 2012 Browne Jacobson announced that it would be taking on six school leavers as part of an initiative set up in partnership with Vision West Nottinghamshire College and ILEX Tutorial College. They will have the opportunity to gain work while also gaining industry recognised qualifications. Susan Mabbott, partner at the firm, said: "We firmly believe that this new apprenticeship pathway, with its opportunity of immediate work and the chance to study towards a credible qualification without racking up a mountain of debt, will prove an attractive proposition to many young people". The first cohort of six apprentices joined in September 2012, with a further four in January 2013.

Sally Swift, legal services manager at the firm, explains why the firm has gone for an apprenticeship scheme and how she thinks it will benefit Browne Jacobson. "As a local employer, we have a commitment to invest in the future of the communities we serve," says Sally, "and we firmly believe this new apprenticeship pathway, with its opportunity of immediate work and the chance to study towards a qualification without racking up debt, will prove an attractive proposition to many young people."

The firm has also been working with SFJ on developing national apprenticeship standards and is keen to ensure a "steady supply of 'home-grown' legal talent which would complement both the government's focus on young people as well as the SRA's promotion of social mobility within the legal industry".

Sally is also keen to emphasise the benefits for individuals who seek to become apprentices, which include not paying for tuition fees and earning money. "Applications from UK students for university courses starting in Autumn 2012 have fallen by more than 8%, with rising tuition fees clearly making a lot of young people think twice before going into higher education," says Sally. "The Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Services will open up new opportunities for young people across the country. But, as a forward-thinking firm, we decided to develop an alternative route in the meantime."

This film looks at how Weightmans is benefitting from the Higher Apprenticeships in Legal Services scheme:

Legal apprenticeship vacancies

With ever more schemes and initiatives emerging from firms and other bodies, the rise of the apprentice is guaranteed. We will try to keep you updated with info on how to get an apprenticeship, including details on who can apply and where, on the Legal apprenticeships page.

The apprentice experience

Read more from those doing a legal apprenticeship with our LC.N Says blog series:

And you can also learn more from the people involved in delivering apprenticeships at their firms: