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What’s the difference between a solicitor and graduate apprenticeship?

updated on 05 February 2024

Reading time: six minutes

What do you know about entering the legal profession via an apprenticeship? While the concept of an apprenticeship isn’t new, there are a few misconceptions and some confusion that surround them. So, this article aims to:

  • demystify the apprenticeship route to qualifying as a solicitor;
  • explain how the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is involved;
  • outline the difference between a solicitor apprenticeship and a graduate solicitor apprenticeship; and
  • explore what firms are doing in this regard.

Firstly, all legal apprentices that wish to qualify as a solicitor must complete the SQE. That means:

  • passing both stages (ie, SQE1 and SQE2);
  • having a university degree or equivalent (ie, an apprenticeship);
  • passing the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) character and suitability assessment; and
  • having two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE), which will be built up over the course of the apprenticeship.

What’s a solicitor apprenticeship?

The solicitor apprenticeship, aimed at post-A-level students, is a fantastic alternative route into the profession that involves on-the-job training, enables aspiring solicitors to earn a salary from day one and takes six years to complete. However, if prospective apprentices have had previous legal training, this six-year timeframe could be reduced.

As well as earning on the job, apprentices won’t be required to pay for their training and assessments; instead, these fees will be covered by the apprenticeship levy fund. The apprentice will spend 20% of their time studying and preparing for the SQE assessments, and 80% working/training on the job. They’ll then need to pass the SQE1 and SQE2 assessments before they’re required to:

  • register their QWE with the SRA, which must be confirmed by a solicitor or compliance officer for legal practice (ie, someone the SRA regulates);
  • pass the SRA’s character and suitability assessment; and
  • apply for admission to the roll of solicitors.

Once these requirements have been met, the apprentice will be qualified as a solicitor.

Entry requirements

While there are recommended minimum entry requirements, according to the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education “individual employers will identify any relevant entry requirements in terms of previous qualifications or other criteria”. The recommended entry requirements are:

  • five GCSEs, including maths and English – grade C or above (or equivalent); and
  • three A levels (or equivalent) – minimum grade C.

What’s a graduate solicitor apprenticeship?

The graduate solicitor apprenticeship is a fairly new addition to the growing ways in which you can qualify as a solicitor. It’s been designed to offer an alternative route for individuals who have a degree (or equivalent qualification) and can take between two to three years to complete. As such, it works in a very similar way to the traditional training contract, but means that firms can make use of the apprenticeship levy to fund the training and assessments.

Much like the solicitor apprenticeship, the graduate apprenticeship involves on-the-job training and preparation for the SQE assessments. Graduate apprentices will earn a salary with firms using “some or all of their contributions to the apprenticeship levy” to fund the apprentices’ SQE training and assessments. There’s more on the salary expected below.

The structure will remain similar to the solicitor apprenticeship – in that 20% of the time might be spent studying and preparing for the SQE and the rest of the time will involve on-the-job learning/training. It's important to note that the structure of the graduate solicitor apprenticeship is likely to vary firm to firm. For example, some firms might require their apprentices to spend the first couple of years preparing for SQE1 before joining them for on-the-job training, while others will follow the traditional apprenticeship structure (ie, one day off a week for studying). So, as ever, it’s worth thoroughly researching your shortlisted firms to find out how they plan to run their individual programmes before applying.

As with anyone wanting to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales, graduate apprentices must meet the requirements of the SQE with firms appointing their preferred education providers to offer the learning and preparation to apprentices.

What’s the difference?

It’s a fairly simple distinction – solicitor apprenticeships are aimed at school leavers, while graduate solicitor apprenticeships are designed for degree holders.

The salary earned may also be a differing factor.

Salary – solicitor apprenticeship

While this will vary between firms, there’s a minimum apprentice salary that applies across all industries. The current minimum apprentice wage is £5.28 per hour. This goes up when you’re over 18 years old or have completed the first year of your apprenticeship. You’re then entitled to receive the national minimum wage for your age range. That said, most law firms pay their solicitor apprentices much higher than the minimum wage.

If your apprenticeship is based in London, it’s likely you’ll receive a higher salary than your peers who are completing apprenticeships at regional firms. It’s definitely worth looking at what specific firms offer – for example, Mayer Brown International LLP,  Charles Russell Speechlys LLP and Simmons & Simmons LLP each offer their London-based solicitor apprentices a salary of £25,000 in the first year. Meanwhile, Charles Russell Speechlys offers its Guildford-based apprentices a starting salary of £23,000, and Simmons & Simmons offers its first-year solicitor apprentices in Bristol £22,000. Simmons & Simmons also provides a starting bonus of £1,500.

We spoke to two apprentices about their experience on Mayer Brown’s solicitor apprenticeship programme – read their insights.

Salary – graduate solicitor apprenticeship

Again, the graduate solicitor apprenticeship salary will vary from firm to firm and location. As an example, graduate solicitor apprentices at Weightmans LLP will receive £27,000 for the first year (outside London), which will increase to £29,000. If you’re a London-based apprentice at Weightmans, the salary is higher at £34,000 for the first year before going up to £36,000.

While salary might not be the deciding factor, it naturally plays an important role in the decision-making process for aspiring solicitors. Apprenticeship salary, for both solicitor apprentices and graduate solicitor apprentices, in some cases aren’t too dissimilar to training contract salaries at some firms. However, that being said, some firms offer their trainees upwards of £55,000 in London. So, do your research and identify which route – whether that’s a solicitor apprenticeship, graduate apprenticeship, training contract or other form of QWE – best suits you.

What are firms doing?

With legal apprenticeships increasing in popularity, it’s no surprise that a number of firms have introduced their own solicitor and graduate solicitor apprenticeships into the mix in recent years.

For example, recently,  Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP became the third magic circle firm to announce that it’ll be taking on up to six solicitor apprentices in its London headquarters from September 2025. The firm will also be working with CityCentury, an initiative comprised of 50 London law firms that aims to increase the number of apprentices in the legal profession. Other firms also offering the solicitor apprenticeship route include Ashfords LLPLinklaters LLP, Norton Rose FulbrightAllen & Overy LLP and DLA Piper UK LLP.

In terms of the graduate solicitor apprenticeship, in 2020 global law firm Kennedys launched a 30-month graduate solicitor apprenticeship, alongside its existing training contract and paralegal apprenticeship.

Meanwhile, Hill Dickinson LLP replaced its training contract with a new graduate solicitor apprenticeship. The firm’s future generations of junior lawyers will join a graduate solicitor apprenticeship programme to prepare for the SQE at The University of Law, before joining the firm as solicitor apprentices. First, they’ll prepare for and sit SQE1 alongside completing a tailored Hill Dickinson Plus programme. They’ll then join the firm to prepare for and sit SQE2 as they build up their QWE.

Are apprenticeships valued the same as training contracts?

As ever, with significant change, comes important questions. The introduction of the SQE brought with it concerns regarding how firms will value candidates completing training contracts compared with those qualifying via alternative pathways (eg, an apprenticeship or QWE built up over various experiences).

However, in what’s been described as a “powerful statement”, at least 17 firms have agreed to a Legal Apprenticeship Pledge to demonstrate to aspiring solicitors “that the legal apprenticeship route is no less valuable than a traditional route to qualification”. Among the participating firms are:

The flexibility offered by the QWE should widen access to the profession for aspiring solicitors. Firms recognise that these various routes are available and it makes sense that they’ll want to hire the best talent. So, as with any decision you make, take some time to research your options and choose the pathway that suits you and your circumstances – by staying true to your needs, you’ll not only perform better, but you’ll also have a much more enjoyable experience as you work your way towards qualification.

You can visit LawCareers.Net’s Apprenticeship hub for more information about this route.