Back to overview

Features

Law apprenticeships: the ‘earn while you learn’ route to becoming a solicitor or paralegal

updated on 05 March 2019

A legal apprenticeship is a route to becoming a lawyer that combines a paid job at a law firm with studying for formal qualifications, paid for by the government and your employer. It is an alternative to the traditional route of going to university and training to be a lawyer afterwards.

For more information about the different types of law apprenticeship and your career possibilities as an apprentice, go to The Law Apprenticeships Guide 2019.

Law apprenticeships are designed for people who prefer to get straight into the world of work upon finishing school. Apprenticeships also offer a route to a professional career and a degree to those who want to go to university, but are put off by the costs – this is an era of sky-high tuition fees and rising living costs, after all. Instead of paying fees, apprentices begin their careers and are paid at least the apprenticeship national minimum wage.

A range of legal apprenticeships have been introduced in the United Kingdom, providing qualifications for various positions, such as paralegal and legal assistant roles, as well as a six-year programme ending in qualification as a solicitor. Below you can find information about each apprenticeship Samantha Lee is head of recruitment at full-service national firm Womble Bond Dickinson, which has run an apprenticeship programme since 2014 – she outlines the benefits of apprenticeships for firms and apprentices. “At the point at which we launched, it was a relatively new concept in the legal sector, but we had a solid business case,” she explains. “We had a strong desire to do the right thing for our profession and embrace alternative routes to a career in law and qualifications. It was important to us that we were able to give access to those who might not ordinarily have thought a career in law was available to them, or who wanted to get on the career ladder sooner rather than later. University isn't for everyone but that shouldn't be a barrier to those who want, and are able, to pursue a career in law.” 

Who is eligible?

Legal apprenticeships are aimed at people who leave school after completing their A levels or GCSEs, as well as people already working in paralegal and legal support roles.

Apprenticeships are not open to university graduates.

CILEx Law School has created a useful legal apprenticeship eligibility checker that shows you which apprenticeship pathways are open to you.

Below set out each type of legal apprenticeship and what they involve, as well as the eligibility criteria and the options available once that apprenticeship has been completed.

Solicitor Apprenticeship

This apprenticeship is a six-year programme which integrates studying for a law degree with on-the-job training at a law firm, ending in qualification as a solicitor – a role which was previously reserved for those who took the traditional university route.

Am I eligible?

The entry requirements are three A levels graded B or above (although some law schools accept C or above), as well as five GCSEs (or equivalent qualifications) graded A* - C, including maths and English essential.

Hayley Halvatzis, human resources adviser at top commercial firm Charles Russell Speechlys, shares what she and her colleagues are looking for in new apprentices: “We want to recruit people who are serious about a career as a solicitor and this programme – six years is a long process, so it’s a big commitment. It is also going to be hard work, as apprentices will be working and studying at the same time, so commitment really is important – and is something we believe will be matched by the rewards and benefits of this career path.”

What does it involve?

Solicitor apprentices are trained on the job at a law firm, while the academic side of training is delivered by law schools such as CILEx Law School and The University of Law, among others. “For the first four years apprentices will work toward their law degrees, while the final two years are likely to be the equivalent of the Legal Practice Course,” explains Hayley. “However, of course we are waiting for the SRA to announce its final decision on the introduction of a Solicitors Qualifying Examination, and our apprenticeship arrangements will fall in line with that decision.”

A solicitor apprentice can expect to be doing a range of tasks that utilise the full range of essential legal skills while working at her or his law firm day to day. Tasks will likely include working to help progress transactions and/or cases, using legal knowledge and commercial judgement to find solutions for clients’ needs, interacting with clients and other solicitors, and processing, reviewing and sending important documents.

From 2021, solicitor apprentices will have to pass the Solicitors Qualifying Examination as the final hurdle before qualifying.

What qualification do I gain?

Solicitor apprentices gain a law degree and ultimately qualify as solicitors, with potentially very interesting, fulfilling and well-paid careers ahead. “Apprenticeships such as the solicitor apprenticeship are an exciting new way of recruiting young people into the business,” adds Hayley. “Apprenticeships enable us to identify and then really nurture talent at an early stage. I’m looking forward to seeing our apprentices develop and grow into qualified solicitors over the six-year process, at which point I hope they will have built strong relationships across the firm and its clients, and will stay on with us as their careers progress further.”

What is the next step after completing the apprenticeship?

In terms of education and training, there is no next step – you are now a fully qualified solicitor. Newly qualified solicitors should have an exciting career path ahead of them, with the option to pursue the popular long-term ambition of becoming a partner in a law firm, and lots of opportunities for further professional development and training.

Intermediate Apprenticeship

The Intermediate Apprenticeship provides training in a legal administrative role, meaning that apprentices learn how to work as legal support staff. Such roles involve helping lawyers to progress cases by performing key administrative tasks such as research, receiving calls and dealing with confidential information.

Am I eligible?  

To be eligible for an  Intermediate Apprenticeship, you need five GCSEs (or equivalent qualifications) graded A* - C, including maths and English. Some employers may also require three A levels

What does it involve?

There are two options within the Intermediate Apprenticeship – legal administration or business administration, which take 21-24 months to complete. The business administration option is a pathway to becoming a HR or other support professional, such as a receptionist or someone who manages data input. However, our main focus is the legal administration path.

Training on the legal administration pathway involves several compulsory modules. As well as essentials such as health and safety, and employee rights, they include:

  • communication in a business environment;
  • legal text and audio processing; and
  • learning about the wider legal profession.

Apprentices complete 12-14 units from a whole range of options, with unit choices relevant to the employer’s business and the apprentice’s job role

Assessments take place within the law firm, taking the form of multiple choice exams, practical skills assessments and written assignments, depending on the units chosen.

What qualification do I gain?

Intermediate apprentices gain a CILEx Level 2 Diploma in Legal Administration (or the same in business administration). This is a professional qualification which is also equivalent to A levels – it forms a foundation from which to gain further in-work qualifications.

What is the next step after completing the apprenticeship?

People who complete the Intermediate Apprenticeship may progress onto the Paralegal Apprenticeship (detailed below), or cross over onto the CILEx Level 3 Certificate in Law and Practice, which is a first step on the path to qualifying as a chartered legal executive. There is a also a host of non-legal apprenticeship options.

Paralegal Apprenticeship

The Paralegal Apprenticeship trains apprentices in the skills needed to practice in a certain legal practice area – paralegals work alongside solicitors on legal matters, often performing many of the same tasks and responsibilities. The practice area that the apprentice moves into will be determined by their law firm (ie, what the law firm does and what its business needs are). The apprenticeship lasts 24 months.

Sam describes the impact of Womble Bond Dickinson’s Paralegal Apprenticeship programme: “We faced some retention challenges within our paralegal team and we saw the Paralegal Apprenticeship as a way of addressing that. Over time, it's certainly delivered and we've seen our turnover reduce significantly and our average length of service increase. Not everyone has aspirations to qualify as a solicitor and that will allow us to build a continued pipeline of talented paralegal candidates, who want to build a career with us following our structure paralegal career path. As far as the apprentices are concerned, we're giving them access to great quality work, legal education and qualifications, development opportunities internally, and a good salary from the off. Our apprentices are fully supported by their supervisors and mentors. They're stretched outside of their comfort zones at times, but always in an environment that encourages them to succeed. The work that they're undertaking increases in complexity as they develop, and very quickly they'll be undertaking the same work as our graduate paralegals.  Our apprenticeship programme has been a huge success story for the business, delivering on the original objectives built into our business case and then some. We now see our apprenticeship programmes as a core part of our recruitment strategy and the success that we've had with our legal apprenticeship scheme has allowed us to move into other areas in the business, including HR, facilities services, IT and secretarial.”  

Am I eligible?

The entry requirements are three A levels graded C or above and five GCSEs (or equivalent qualifications) graded A* - C, including maths and English. This means that you can start the Paralegal Apprenticeship immediately after leaving school, although you will still be eligible if you wait for a while before applying for a place.

What does it involve?

Paralegal apprentices gain legal knowledge relevant to their specific role and practice area, while also developing a core set of knowledge and skills which make up the compulsory aspects of the apprenticeship, regardless of which firm the apprentice joins or the area of law they work in. The knowledge aspect of the apprenticeship consists of three CILEx Level 3 modules:

  • introduction to law and practice (with module choices such as employment law, tort and property);
  • client care skills; and
  • legal research.

In addition, apprentices gain knowledge of law and practice appropriate to their role and the pathway selected.

The skills component of the apprenticeship is larger. Apprentices cover the following 10 mandatory areas:

  • business structures, regulatory requirements and ethics;
  • communication and confidentiality;
  • drafting legal documents;
  • managing legal files;
  • planning and managing the apprentice’s own workload;
  • legal research;
  • processing clients’ instructions;
  • costs and billing;
  • contributing effectively to team work; and
  • maintaining and developing knowledge and skills.

In terms of how this translates into actual legal work, paralegal apprentices can expect to work with solicitors and clients on various aspects of transactions, prepare written correspondence, field and make calls, oversee filing, and take responsibility for ensuring that confidentiality is maintained across all written communications.

Assessment takes two forms – a portfolio and two supervised ‘scenario’ tests. The portfolio is a collection of evidence detailing all the things the apprentice has experienced to meet the competency requirements, while scenario tests pose questions to test the apprentice’s problem solving and drafting skills. 

What qualification do I gain?

Paralegal apprentices gain two qualifications – a CILEx Level 3 Certificate in Law and Practice and a CILEx Level 3 Diploma in Providing Legal Services. Both qualifications act simultaneously as foundational qualifications which enable the apprentice to commence a career in the legal profession from an entry-level role, while also being the first steps on the path to qualifying as a chartered legal executive – a role similar to that of a solicitor.

What is the next step after completing the apprenticeship?

Completing the Paralegal Apprenticeship grants eligibility to progress onto the CILEx Level 3 Diploma in Law and Practice (with exemptions), the first stage of academic training to become a chartered legal executive. Further training is likely to take the form of a Chartered Legal Executive Apprenticeship, in which apprentices complete the above mentioned diploma, plus a second stage of training to ultimately qualify as legal executives.

It is also possible to progress onto the Solicitor Apprenticeship – and the Paralegal Apprenticeship may count toward part of the next stage.

Chartered Legal Executive Apprenticeship

The Chartered Legal Executive Apprenticeship is a (usually five-year) programme ending in qualification as a chartered legal executive, a lawyer whose role is similar to that of a solicitor. One important difference between training as a legal executive and training as a solicitor is the flexibility afforded on the legal executive route, where candidates may spread the overall period of study over a long time in order to keep up with other commitments and responsibilities.

Am I eligible?

The Chartered Legal Executive Apprenticeship is not designed for new apprentices – it is aimed at those who have already completed the Paralegal Apprenticeship. This means that once again, candidates must have five GCSEs (or equivalent) graded A* - C, including maths and English, as well as three A levels graded C or above. Completion of the Paralegal Apprenticeship also grants some exemptions for units you would otherwise be covering twice on the Chartered Legal Executive Apprenticeship.

What does it involve?

Training as a chartered legal executive involves two distinct stages for non-university graduates – the CILEx Level 3 Professional Diploma in Law and Practice and the CILEx Level 6 Professional Higher Diploma in Law and Practice. The first stage, Level 3, should take around two years to complete full time and involves the following seven compulsory units:

  • introduction to law and practice;
  • contract law;
  • criminal law;
  • land law;
  • tort;
  • client care skills; and
  • legal research skills.

Apprentices then choose another three units to complete for a total of 10; at least two of these must be practice units (eg, the practice of family law and criminal litigation), while one may be from a straight law unit if the apprentice chooses (eg, employment law).

Level 3 assessments involve multiple choice tests, exams on each unit and practical assessments.

After completing Level 3, candidates move onto the CILEx Level 6 Professional Higher Diploma in Law and Practice. Apprentices study six units in total, consisting of one legal practice unit (ie, your chosen practice area) and its associated law unit (eg, civil litigation as the practice unit and contract law as the law unit), plus two other law units from the range of available practice areas, making a total of four. The remaining two units are mandatory – legal research skills and client care skills.

What qualification do I gain?

Completion of the Chartered Legal Executive Apprenticeship results in a Chartered Legal Executive Fellowship, which means that you are no longer an apprentice but a qualified chartered legal executive.

What is the next step after completing the apprenticeship?

None, in terms of further academic study or training – you are now a practising lawyer.

An alternative to full-time study

Legal apprenticeships offer a vital option for people who are interested in a career in law, but don’t want to go through the traditional university route for reasons such as financial circumstances, or not feeling that they would enjoy a purely academic environment. However, embarking on a legal apprenticeship is a big commitment in terms of time and effort, so it is important to give real thought to what you want from your future career before applying for an apprenticeship place. In relation to this, an apprenticeship can also limit your options more than the traditional university route, where various degree subjects provide scope to enter a range of careers after graduating, and the lifestyle can offer a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pursue new ideas and interests, and have a lot of fun while doing so.

Josh Richman is the senior editor of LawCareers.Net.