‘You’re hired’: educational innovation, apprenticeships and new career paths into the legal sector

Legal learning and graduate recruitment experts Nigel Spencer, Lucy Crittenden and Chloe Muir, all of global law firm Reed Smith, discuss the legal sector’s recent changes in educational policy and learning models, assessing the combined impact on pathways and recruitment into the legal profession.

The legal sector may not rank highly in your answer to the question, ‘Which business sectors are undergoing the highest levels of disruptive change?’ However, over the last five to seven years, law firms have been feeling the effects of significant upheavals. The sector’s evolving marketplace has been disrupted by lower barriers to entry, opening up greater competitive forces. In addition, significant shifts in client demands have accompanied a number of regulatory reforms (including in educational policy). 

All of these changes are impacting upon firms’ approaches to recruitment and the career pathways from higher and tertiary education to the world of work. The changes offer opportunities for firms to be innovative and to differentiate themselves from their competitors. 

One increasingly loud request from clients over the last five to seven years has been for lawyers to deliver more commercial advice, which led to some innovative firms changing the educational inputs at the graduate stage of their lawyers’ career paths. Full-year MBAs or business master’s programmes were introduced and our firm led the way in pioneering some of these programmes to enhance commercial capability in our junior lawyers.  

One important learning point from our innovations, which links to a key theme in the recent educational policy proposals, was the importance of experiential ‘learning by doing’. For example, we noted a capability shift in young lawyers by creating placements at clients as part of these master’s programmes. The placements meant that, at an early career stage, our graduates had the practical experience of leading a client-facing project, managing the client stakeholders, project deadlines and relationships, often ending the placement with a high-profile board presentation.

Building on these initial innovations, we recently created more opportunities for ‘learning by doing’, this time at undergraduate level, by devising the first practice-focused law degree at a Russell Group university, with Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). This law degree, in effect a ‘degree with apprenticeship combined’, allows students at QMUL to gain a full year of ‘learning by doing’ work experience in Reed Smith in year three, returning to QMUL to complete their degree in year four.

This issue of practical ‘workplace learning’ in the legal sector is topical because of the debates which have opened as the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) evolves its education policy. The pathway into legal education for solicitors was historically largely through university, with three core stages:

  • a law degree or non-law degree plus GDL;
  • a mandated graduate qualification, the LPC; and  
  • two years of work-based learning (WBL) as a trainee solicitor in a law firm before qualification as a solicitor.

The two years of ‘learning by doing’ in the WBL phase were seen as a key element of the learning experience, with young lawyers often sitting with senior mentors to learn in a true apprentice-style environment. Yet these three stages on the path are now being revised by the SRA, as it puts less structure around the ‘pathway’ requirements. Instead, the SRA is continuing its regulatory and policy focus on outcomes, rather than educational inputs. For purposes of qualifying as a solicitor, this means that the SRA will prescribe less of the educational structure required at the current three stages, relying instead on a new final examination to test a young solicitor’s competence, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).

In summary, the key changes are that:

  • degree or equivalent qualifications/experience (i.e. Level 6 in the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications) will be required to qualify as a solicitor, but there will be no specific requirement for students to have completed a qualifying law degree or graduate diploma in law;
  • the LPC will no longer be required;
  • two years of WBL will still be required, although this experience could have been gained either during a placement year or in another type of work placement as well as in the more common ‘trainee’-type period; and
  • a new SQE will be introduced.

Education providers (both universities and private sector providers such as BPP and the University of Law), law firms and other employers and still working through potential models for how these proposals can be turned into courses and qualifications providing the learning which students wishing to qualify as solicitors will require.

For example, the proposed SQE will have two parts – a first knowledge-focused examination (‘SQE1’) and a second examination with a skills focus (‘SQE2’).  Some universities are considering whether to run a SQE1 module as part of their undergraduate offering  SQE2 will probably be modelled on the types of examination in other sectors such as the medical profession and include role-plays of client situations to test the client-service elements of a young solicitor’s skill-set in practice. 

In the consultation which has led to the SRA’s proposals, respondents emphasised the value which they attached to the period of WBL, and so the SRA has retained a similar length of WBL amongst the new requirement for qualification as a solicitor. As noted above, however, the emphasis is on flexibility: the new rules will enable periods of WBL gained in placement years at university to count as part of this two years of required experience (such as the placement in our degree created with Queen Mary University of London). 

Retaining this practical element on the qualification path aligns well with another recent UK government educational policy announcement to encourage employers to be more supportive of apprenticeships. The launch of Trailblazer apprenticeships for the legal sector, which now provide a full route to qualification without attending university, was followed by the chancellor’s autumn statement announcement that from 2017 an ‘apprentice levy’ of 0.5% of UK payroll will be paid by employers above a certain size, redeemable only against the costs of training apprentices whom they employ. In other words, the government’s message to law firms, along with all other large employers, is that they should consider how best to deploy apprentices to maximise the benefits they derive from the levy’s funds.

The government’s recent support for apprentice careers, the classic ‘learning by doing’ model, is interesting given the backdrop and long debate in the United Kingdom over the last 20 years about the undervaluing of practical education streams and the preference for more academic routes.

Tony Blair’s government came to power in 1997 emphasising that its priorities were ‘education, education, education’. The message seemed to be, however, that university was the preferred route, with an aspirational target set at 50% of our talent pool to attend tertiary institutions. Other major policy proposals which argued for more emphasis on practical education received less support, such as the imaginative and well-considered 2004 Tomlinson Report (welcomed by schools, universities and employers) which proposed to replace GCSEs and A levels with a more inclusive four-level diploma and thereby establish greater parity between practical and academic qualifications.  Recently, however, the very public debate on tuition fees and the potential skills gap caused by Brexit has returned the need to develop practical skills to the centre of the educational policy debate. There have been calls for ‘learning by doing’ to be valued more highly and increased support for initiatives such as Lord Baker’s ‘University Technical Colleges’ for 14–19 year olds and the proposed technical qualifications of ‘T-Levels’ for 16-19 year olds.There are many potential implications of all these policy changes for the legal sector, of which we highlight two.

First, engulfed by the ‘perfect storm’ of market disruption and changing client demands we mentioned at the beginning of the article, law firms have increasingly moved away from a recruitment model which focuses solely on sourcing graduate trainee lawyers. Firms have looked at the skill sets and levels of experience required from their more junior team members by clients and concluded that having a more varied blend of trainees, paralegals, and now apprentices, is a good way to approach their resourcing needs. The regulatory/governmental move to enable more plural educational paths into the profession is therefore timely to fit with this market need, and we anticipate that this trend will continue, and even increase, opening up more opportunities.

Second, the legal sector’s drive for greater diversity and broader access to the profession will be linked inextricably with the implementation of the educational policy changes; in particular in the ability to reduce the costs of qualification along the new educational pathways which the SRA and the government are defining.

To date, law firms have looked at their recruitment methods in order to achieve the diversity of successful applicants. For example, socio-economic contextual data has been utilised to understand better an applicant’s school results and their level of attainment. Our own firm, Reed Smith, was the first law firm to move to strengths-based recruitment processes, another change which has been proven to enable candidates from broader socio-economic groups to be successful. 

Other professional service firms have taken a different approach, stating that they will consider neither A-level grades nor degree results in their recruitment processes – their sole determining factor will be the scores in their application procedure. In spirit, therefore, this last approach follows the SRA’s proposed approach exactly, saying, ‘we don’t care along which educational path you travelled, provided that you can reach the attainment level of our test’.

It promises to be an interesting two or three years in the legal sector.

Nigel Spencer, Lucy Crittenden and Chloe Muir are, respectively, the global director of learning & development, graduate recruitment manager and graduate recruitment coordinator at Reed Smith. This article first appeared in the Association of Graduate Recruiters’ (AGR) bimonthly magazine, Graduate Recruiter, in February 2016.

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