Nick Read - Legal apprenticeships: earn and learn your way to becoming a lawyer
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Legal apprenticeships are on the rise. Since the inception of the formal legal apprenticeship just a few years ago, each year more and more A-level leavers are applying for - and accepting places at - firms offering the scheme. However, despite this growth, there are still a great number of students who remain unaware of what this alternate route into a legal career has to offer them.
As a current second-year legal apprentice at Kennedys, I often find myself being asked similar questions by those who have heard of the scheme, but know very few details about it. In this article I'd like to try and answer some of the questions that I hear most often and hopefully provide an insight into what it's like to be a legal apprentice.
Why choose a legal apprenticeship?
In August 2012 I turned down offers from two top 15 universities in order to accept a place as a legal apprentice at Kennedys. In doing so, I took a risk and placed a lot of trust in the firm in the belief that an apprenticeship would be the best option for my future. My reasons for doing so were simple.
Towards the end of my A levels, I was beginning to have real doubts as to whether university was the right option for me. The vast rise in tuition fees, combined with an increasingly competitive job market, had caused serious concerns that I would embark upon an expensive law degree - estimated last year by Lord Neuberger to cost almost £100,000 - with no real guarantee of employment at the end. I was very aware of the great number of LPC graduate paralegals struggling to find training contracts and was determined not to become one of them.
For me, a legal apprenticeship was not just a great ‘foot in the door'; it was also an invaluable opportunity to learn from experienced partners, solicitors and legal executives while developing my own experience, and a chance to grow into a role within the firm that was training me.
What does being a legal apprentice involve?
One of the things that has surprised me most about being a legal apprentice has been the quality of work that I have received. Going into the apprenticeship, I was expecting a lot of admin work with maybe the occasional legal research task. What I have received has been almost entirely the opposite.
In my first year at Kennedys I worked within an internal professional negligence team and dealt with complaints and claims against the firm which often required large amounts of legal research. During my time in this seat, I drafted numerous reports to our insurers and, on multiple occasions, drafted entire letters of response to claimants. I was also involved in the preparatory work for Kennedys' recent mergers.
I'm now working in a client-facing professional negligence team and am finding that I'm treated no differently to the trainee solicitors within the team. In my first few weeks in this department, I have drafted a pre-action protocol letter of response to a claimant, drafted reports to insurer clients, prepared several bundles for court and have been invited to attend a hearing in the near future. I have even been invited for drinks with a client of the firm.
Additionally, I've found that there is a very strong social aspect to working as a legal apprentice. One of the questions that I was asked during my interview for this role was whether I thought I'd miss the social side that comes with going to university. A year later, I'm able to honestly say that the answer to that question is no. At Kennedys there is always a great deal to get involved in. We have several trainee-run sports teams that anyone can join, as well as monthly staff drinks with food and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks supplied by the firm. I'm also fortunate enough to work in London - where there's always something going on of an evening - and have the benefit of having the money to enjoy it.
What progression routes are there for a legal apprentice?
People whom I have spoken to are often worried about how they would fare in the future without a law degree and how far they would actually be able to take their apprenticeship. Indeed, this was one of my main questions during my application.
As things currently stand, completing an apprenticeship on its own will not be enough to enable you to become a lawyer, just like completing a law degree alone will not be enough. Once you have completed your apprenticeship you will be able to continue studying with CILEx to become a chartered legal executive lawyer. Legal executives are increasingly being seen as on a par with solicitors and are able to further progress to become partners and judges or to cross-qualify as solicitors if they wish. This pathway takes just one or two years longer than the university route, but allows you to develop considerable experience while earning money.
Notably, there have also been recent discussions on the potential for a ‘straight to solicitor' apprenticeship route and, given the current enthusiasm for legal apprenticeships, this will definitely be a development to watch for in the future.
My advice to anyone considering applying
For anyone considering taking this route into a legal career, I would offer two key pieces of advice that you should consider before making an application.
First of all, before applying to a firm you should ask yourself whether it is a suitable match for you. As the route grows in popularity and more firms start offering apprenticeships, it's going to become more and more important to shop around. Questions you need to ask yourself are whether it will challenge you and whether the culture of the firm will be right for you. Prior to applying, learn as much as possible about the firm and the type of work it does, learn its culture and values and be sure to ask during the application process what your prospective employers see the job as involving. Remember that it's not just about whether you are right for the firm; it's also about whether the firm is right for you.
Second, you should ask yourself whether the apprenticeship pathway is the right route for you. You should bear in mind that it's a very challenging route which will require you to balance work, education and a social life all at once. However, at the same time it's also an exceptionally rewarding pathway with a great number of benefits, such as the ability to earn while learning, the numerous friends and contacts that you will make within the industry and the invaluable experience of working at a law firm that university just cannot provide.
Legal apprenticeships may still be in their early stages, but in the few years that the pathway has been available, it has already grown into a viable alternative to a degree. With the continued support and enthusiasm of the legal industry, the scheme will only develop further and, as a current apprentice, I'm happy to say from experience that the future looks very bright for this route.
For all those considering it, my final words of advice would be to simply go for it. Legal apprenticeships provide a unique opportunity to learn your profession from within the firms shaping the legal environment - not an opportunity to miss out on.