Solicitor Apprentices: investing in the future

The solicitor apprenticeship scheme is fast becoming mainstream in the legal sector and for good reason. The apprenticeship route is an earn-as-you-learn route for potential solicitors, facilitating greater diversity in the workforce, improving social mobility and giving law firms comparative flexibility in how they train their future solicitors.

For the apprentice, the scheme enables the solicitor-in-training to skip A’levels, avoid the high financial costs of university and offers a flexible route into the profession for individuals who have difficult or challenging personal circumstances at a time when the scramble for training contracts is greater than ever.

Individuals who aspire to a legal career but who are less academic or have no burning desire to go university, and want to learn in a highly practical way, now have a viable option.

What is the solicitor apprenticeship scheme?
For those still unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of the solicitor apprentice pathway, it presents an alternative route into the profession which can greatly benefit firms. Those who already have solicitor apprentices are reporting great success so far and say they are able to recruit from a more diverse pool of talent than they might not otherwise be able to.

There are different options, mainly the six-year ‘trailblazer’ apprenticeship scheme and the paralegal apprenticeship. The solicitor-apprenticeship scheme is a level 7 apprenticeship (equivalent to a master’s degree) and approved by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills). It enables someone to qualify as a solicitor after five or six years and then be admitted by the SRA. It involves passing a two-stage examination, the forthcoming (and much maligned) Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) (part two is to be completed during the last six months of the apprenticeship).

Apprentices must also successfully complete the Professional Skills Course and firms are expected by the SRA to pay the fees and related expenses, at least for the trainee's first attempt.

Entry requirements are down to individual firms but at least five good GCSEs and three A’levels are typically required. Without A’levels, the individual would need to embark on the paralegal apprenticeship scheme first.

The apprenticeship standard is based on the SRA-approved competence statement for solicitors which describes the skill, knowledge and behaviours required of apprentices before they can qualify as a solicitor.

Apart from satisfying this standard, law firms are able to decide how they train their apprentices with not a lot of regulatory oversight. A training principal must be appointed and, while there are regular meeting between firms - as the training provider - and the SRA, firms are relatively autonomous. This means firms have a fair amount of flexibility in training and can, for example, make the most of the individual’s unique skills and interests to their mutual advantage.

Under the paralegal apprenticeship scheme, apprentices undertake a two-year paralegal apprenticeship scheme and can then join the solicitor apprenticeship scheme if they decide. This route also takes six years, but a benefit is the apprentice can make an informed decision at the end of two years whether or not to continue.

Note that the SRA expects solicitor apprentices to complete a portfolio of work and, at the end of the apprenticeship, the apprentice will then apply to the SRA to be admitted to the roll.

Once authorised by the SRA, the firm can employ as many trainees as it feels appropriate, providing it can meet the regulatory requirements. Training firms may also be monitored by the SRA to ensure the training given is of an appropriate quality and standard.

Investing in the future
It is vital for firms considering taking on apprentices to appreciate what is involved and what to expect. Firms, training and supervision managers in particular, need to appreciate their apprentices will be younger than the typical trainee solicitor under a training contract. Apprentices will typically be late teens and it may well be their first foray into the workplace. They will be joining a fast-paced and pressured working environment as your youngest and most inexperienced members of staff.

Choose apprentices wisely (are they a good fit for the firm?); structure the training programme (and review constantly); nurture and support them as they grow in maturity, professionalism and legal knowledge and technical skills.

A firm approach
There’s also the issue of education to consider. Apprentice solicitors will be studying externally alongside working – they could be studying for up to 15 hours each week. The individual (remember, they will typically be very young) will be under a lot of pressure as they combine the work and study. They also have a private life.

This means it is vital to recognise the necessity for the individual apprentice to have regular space away from the office to attend classes or for study. This requires a top-down approach: the whole team needs to appreciate that the solicitor apprentice will not always be available to work on a case or matter and should not be expected to be.

Wellbeing has become one of the most used words in the context of the legal profession and mental health. As the youngest members of your firm, their wellbeing must be protected.

Given they are likely to be unwilling, reluctant or unsure about raising a problem themselves, firms should consider ensuring there is an open line of communication with a specific individual within the firm (a mentor or the firm’s ‘mental health ambassador’, for instance). A regular meeting between the apprentice and that individual can go a long way to avoid difficulties and stress escalating. In short: look after your young apprentices. Help them to manage their time effectively and equip them with the confidence to speak up.

Firms taking on solicitor apprentices are investing in the future of the firm and the next generation of solicitors. For these reasons, consider talking to firms who already have apprentices and learn from them before taking on your first cohort of apprentices.

The Law Society’s website offers useful information for firms about the apprenticeship route. On it, you will find a useful article by Chester-based firm, Hillyer McKeown, busting three myths it has identified about solicitor apprentices.

The Society has also published new case studies about apprenticeships in the legal sector, from the perspective of the firms and apprentices themselves.

 

 

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