Back to overview


Legal apprenticeships: an alternative route to a legal career

updated on 15 March 2016

For many, rises in university tuition fees have created a financial barrier to law, but legal apprenticeships can make legal careers more accessible to those with motivation and talent, as well as diversify legal training to match the increasing liberalisation of legal services, most clearly evidenced by the ongoing rise of alternative business structures.

For many young people, the potential benefits of having a degree are now outweighed by the vast expense of going to university. The cost is even more prohibitive for aspiring solicitors and barristers, the majority of whom must, upon leaving university, cough up thousands of pounds more in postgraduate course fees before experiencing the dubious excitement of competing in an extremely competitive job market.

Back in late 2012, the president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, was firm in his defence of the traditional, university-based route into the legal profession, but had to admit that the eye-watering cost of this process (around £100,000 in all, he estimated) necessitates the proper implementation of viable alternatives. Legal apprenticeships provide such an alternative, enabling aspiring lawyers to bypass university on leaving school and embark on an earn-while-you-learn career pathway which affords the flexibility and skills base to progress into a fee-earning paralegal role, work as a chartered legal executive and even eventually qualify as a solicitor - a an attractive prospect when considering sky-high tuition fees and the fact that there are simply not enough training contracts available for all the LPC graduates out there.

Legal apprenticeships are therefore invaluable as a work-based route into the legal profession. Starting on a Level 2 Apprenticeship is currently free for people under 19, with the government also paying a proportion of fees for people who start apprenticeships aged 19-23.

Apprenticeships also reflect wider changes taking place in the legal profession. This essential alternative pathway has been a long time coming; the current emphasis on work-based, practical learning on postgraduate courses at many law schools  and the rise of alternative business structures (ABS) are clear indications that the ways in which UK legal services are organised and provided are changing. As legal services undergo this liberalisation, so too will the recruitment, training and progression opportunities for wannabe lawyers, with the traditional university route to qualification now joined by apprenticeships and the ‘equivalent means’ route, which allows paralegals to qualify as solicitors without completing a training contract, provided that they fulfil certain criteria.

Apprenticeships are free to all apprentices, who do not have to pay any course fees. The government pays all costs for apprentices under the age of 19, while people aged 19-23 are funded 50% by the government and 50% by the employer. Employers must pay the full cost of training apprentices who are over the age of 24.

Earn and learn

To become a legal apprentice, you must be 16 or over, not in full-time education and a UK citizen/someone who has right of residency in the United Kingdom. You must also not be a university graduate. As mentioned above, you don’t have to pay toward the cost of an apprenticeship yourself – you will be fully funded by the government if you are under 19, with your employer picking up a proportion of the cost after that. The minimum wage for a legal apprentice is £3.30 an hour for people aged under 19, as well as for people aged over 19 who are in the first year of their apprenticeship. All other apprentices over the age of 19 are entitled to the National Minimum Wage (currently £5.30 an hour for people under 20 and £6.70 an hour for people aged 21 and over). However, some employers may pay more than the minimum, while others raise apprenticeships’ pay incrementally as they progress. According to CILEx Law School, the average payment for apprentices overall is £170 a week.

To become a legal apprentice, you must be 16 or over, not in full-time education and a UK citizen/someone who has right of residency in the United Kingdom.

The different levels of legal apprenticeship accommodate those who are new to law as well as people currently working in the sector who wish to formalise and professionalise their skills further. CILEx has participated in the development and implementation of legal apprenticeships, which form a government-funded pathway to the option of becoming a chartered legal executive. There are currently three separate levels of legal apprenticeship, which develop different skills and knowledge, and cater for aspiring lawyers at different stages of their professional development:

Level 2 intermediate apprenticeship in legal administration

This apprenticeship is designed for school leavers and people working as administrators in the legal profession, taking a minimum of one year to complete. It includes teaching about the English legal system and skills-based practical training in workplace administration, such as administering a legal case file. For those who gained lower than a C in GCSE English, maths and ICT, the apprenticeship also includes teaching to ensure competence in these subjects. However, it is likely that most law firms will take on apprentices who already have five A*-C grades at GCSE.

Level 3 advanced apprenticeship in legal services

The Level 3 apprenticeship is the next step up from Level 2, making it equivalent to A level in standard. It is also suitable for high-performing school leavers seeking a non-graduate route to a legal career and those currently employed in the legal sector. The Level 3 qualification is comprised of three elements. The first is a knowledge-based technical certificate where apprentices have five practice areas to choose from: litigation; employment; family; property and private client. Apprentices choose one and then must complete four units to attain a CILEx Level 3 certificate in that practice area.

The remaining two elements are a competence-based qualification and a series of exams to ensure that apprentices have the necessary basic maths, English and ICT skills. Level 3 takes 18-24 months to complete.

Level 4 higher apprenticeship in legal services

Level 4 is suitable for apprentices who have already completed the CILEx Level 3 qualification or equivalent. As with the other apprenticeships, Level 4 combines a paid job with training, study and assessment. The apprenticeship consists of two elements. The first is a more advanced knowledge-based technical qualification which offers a choice of three specialised pathways (personal injury litigation, insolvency and commercial litigation) all leading to a CILEx Level 4 Diploma in that area. The second element of the apprenticeship is a competence-based qualification teaching apprentices how to perform the various aspects of the role.

For guidance on where the apprenticeship levels fit in with the other routes, take a look at our Legal career paths diagram.

Apprenticeships in action

Legal apprenticeships have already proven popular with the first intrepid wave of young people to take them up. Research from the office of the then skills minister, Matthew Hancock MP, indicated that apprenticeships constitute a valuable vehicle to promote access to opportunity, career fulfilment and social mobility. At the launch of the Level 4 apprenticeship in 2013, Hancock claimed that apprentice graduates will earn on average £150,000 more in their working lives than school leavers who do not take up an apprenticeship, which would make the benefits of an apprenticeship match those of having a university degree.

It's not just traditional law firms that are beginning to use legal apprenticeships. The Co-operative Legal Services has also taken up the scheme, as have local councils.

Increasing numbers of law firms have recognised the benefits of the programme. Among the forerunners has been DAC Beachcroft, where each apprentice is assigned a tutor who monitors and assesses his/her progress to keep him/her on the right track, while the mix of on-the-job-training, distance and E-learning has proven effective for both the apprentices and the lawyers supervising them.

Other firms deeply involved in the apprenticeship scene right now include Clyde & CoAddleshaw Goddard, Withers, Mayer Brown, Kennedys and Hill Dickinson - and there are many more out there too.

A genuine alternative

It's not just traditional law firms that are beginning to use legal apprenticeships. The Co-operative Legal Services has also taken up the scheme, as have local councils. This trend will surely continue as the profession diversifies further, with ABS and the increased adoption of in-house legal departments surely set to permanently change the ways that legal services are viewed, accessed and delivered. Predictions that the days of solicitors and barristers are coming to an end are unlikely to prove true, but regulators and reformers have long argued that the current, traditional system of legal recruitment and training is unfit for the changing landscape of modern legal services, in which ABSs look set to employ a wider range of specialist paralegals and legal secretaries to provide high-street legal services. Legal apprenticeships are as much a response to the changing needs of employers as to the spiralling costs of university education creating a serious barrier to the aspirations of many young people.

Over the coming years, apprenticeships look set to add much-needed accessibility and flexibility to a highly competitive job market that, in the majority of cases, is very expensive to break into. As apprenticeships become more established, the range of career options and specialisms available to aspiring lawyers should only increase, providing a compelling alternative to the process of completing a law degree and LPC before embarking on an uncertain search for a training contract.

If this interests you, make sure that you consult the LawCareers.Net apprenticeships board in your search for opportunities.