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The take-up of apprenticeships in law firms has been cautious, but the concept is now starting to gain traction. Grania Langdon-Down speaks to firms about the practicalities, benefits and challenges of taking on apprentices.
Dozens of law firms, local authorities and in-house legal teams are gearing up to offer both business services apprenticeships and the new legal apprenticeships that provide an alternative route to becoming a lawyer without going to university.
However, consultant professor Nigel Savage, former CEO of the University of Law (ULaw), who is advising the Law Society on the development of an education, training and learning strategy, is characteristically blunt in his assessment of the profession’s overall response.
He says: ‘All the evidence from other sectors is that apprenticeships promote social mobility; lower employee turnover; increase employee engagement; reduce cost; increase productivity, and thereby profitability. They are a game-changer, yet law firms in general are not taking a strategic view of them as part of an overall talent management strategy. They also need to align them with their business strategy, whether they are small or global.’
With ‘notable exceptions’, Savage says firms with growing in-shoring capacity in the regions are ‘really missing a trick’ – for example, in not developing a broad range of apprenticeship pathways in core business services areas.
‘They are being held back,’ he says, ‘by largely inherent cultural issues arising from business models and an obsession with
the division between fee-earners and non-fee-earners, when they should be investing in those employees who deliver value / productivity improvements, and hence profitability to the business.’
But that reticence may be about to change, with the introduction of two key catalysts: new funding arrangements, including the apprenticeship levy, and the lifting of previous restrictions on apprenticeships, so they are now open to new and existing staff of any age and at all levels up to MBAs.
Since May, law firms with payroll bills greater than £3m – an estimated 234 firms – have been paying 0.5 per cent of their paybill, per month, into their apprenticeship levy pot, which they can draw on to cover external training and assessment costs. In-house legal teams in levy-paying companies and local authorities will also be able to benefit from the funding.
But there is a ‘use it or lose’ stick alongside the carrot – any funds left in the levy pot after 24 months go back to the government.
While non-levy paying employers have to pay 10 per cent of apprentice training costs, with the government meeting the remaining 90 per cent, they will also benefit from the wider range of apprenticeships on offer.
To date, it is the shorter apprenticeships, lasting up to two years, which have been the most popular. These can range from a paralegal programme to business services apprenticeships in marketing, IT, business development, HR, finance, team leadership and risk and compliance.
Pinsent Masons announced in September that it is taking on 20 paralegal apprentices in November and up to six finance apprentices. Its apprenticeship programmes are being delivered by ULaw, in partnership with apprenticeship specialist Damar Training, which has over 500 legal sector administration and paralegal apprentices on programmes under the old frameworks and the new standards.
However, the six-year, employer-led ‘trailblazer’ solicitor apprenticeships, which include a part-time law degree and postgraduate studies, are taking longer to gain traction.
Only a few employers, including ITV’s in-house legal team, introduced solicitor apprenticeships last year. This was partly due to the uncertainty around the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s plans to reform the qualifying process.
But the numbers are slowly rising, with Eversheds Sutherland adding 10 to the eight it took last year, Addleshaw Goddard (AG) taking on six, and Bond Dickinson three.
ULaw is running programmes for 20 firms, ranging from top-100 law firms to small partnerships, in-house teams and a local authority, with 30 solicitor apprentices between them.
BPP University Law School has 70 school-leavers on solicitor apprenticeships. Twenty started in 2016, while this year’s 50 school-leavers are spread across 24 law firms, in-house teams and a local authority.
Gun Judge, head of resourcing at AG and chair of the Trailblazers Legal Committee, helped develop the new apprenticeship standards which, for the first time, enable higher and degree apprenticeships to reach masters level.
‘We always knew this would be a slow burn,’ she says, ‘and I am gently encouraged by what we have seen. We want firms to go into this having thought out very clearly how they will make a six-year programme work.’
She is working with the Law Society to raise awareness among employers. ‘Over the last 12 months, the Law Society has been brilliant in helping me do roadshows in Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds and London, and we are gearing up for more events in London and regionally to keep that focus on the benefits of apprenticeships and provide very clear advice.’
Andrej Skulec, the Law Society’s policy adviser in education and training, says the initial take-up of the solicitor apprenticeships hasn’t been as strong as it hoped.
‘But I think we will reach a tipping point in the next couple of years,’ he says, ‘as there is a genuine appetite among employers to start these once they understand this is not just a cost to the business, but a bottom-line benefit.’
He says success stories can inspire others to buy into apprenticeships. As part of a raft of measures to boost confidence, the Law Society has published a booklet of case studies, as well as a free webinar on the levy and how it works, links to government information, a ‘funding calculator’ to estimate how much funding is available, and a tool to find apprenticeship training (tinyurl.com/TLS-apprenticeships).
While employers may be hesitant, Judge says there has been a huge change in the attitudes of students and parents towards legal apprenticeships, which is driving up the number of would-be candidates.
Eversheds Sutherland had 490 applications for each of its 10 solicitor apprenticeships, while Waltham Forest Council’s in-house legal team had 56 applications for its one place.
When Bond Dickinson first launched its paralegal apprenticeship programme, head of recruitment Sam Lee says: ‘We rather arrogantly, and somewhat naively, assumed that, since we are a big local law firm, schools would want to send their students to us.
‘But we did struggle. However, that has shifted over the last couple of years and schools are much more open to these opportunities, while students are pushing to find out more themselves.’
The firm’s scheme has since gone from strength to strength: it won Newcomer Large Employer at the National Apprenticeship Awards earlier this year.
Michael Burns, partner in Eversheds Sutherland’s human resources practice group, highlights the importance of getting the basics right. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 introduced for England and Wales the concept of the Apprenticeship Agreement, which is essentially a contract of employment.
The rules are slightly different now in England and in Wales, so care is needed, he says. ‘Clearly document your expectations of the apprentice: what you expect, when you expect it and what happens if those expectations are not met,’ he stresses, and have a ‘paper trail’ to justify any decisions, such as terminating an apprenticeship early.
Firms considering taking on apprentices should also build a relationship with a training provider, which can help with recruitment and provide a vital link between the apprentices’ work and study.
Jason O’Malley, ULaw’s director of apprenticeships, says the university offers an apprenticeship implementation service to help employers new to apprenticeships, including through recruitment support, and induction and training for apprentice supervisors and their mentors to ensure specific understanding of expectations and requirements.
James Wilson, Eversheds Sutherland’s emerging talent business partner, says the firm chose BPP University Law School as its apprenticeship training provider because it brings together all the legal apprentices in a particular area so they can support each other, as well as providing personal tutors and safeguarding teams.
How can you make a business case for taking on an apprentice?
Katherine Howells-Price, senior manager responsible for Lyons Davidson’s apprenticeships strategy, says an obvious benefit to focus on is the government funding for the training costs, particularly for levy payers. The firm has about 10 apprentices on its two-year paralegal programme, and one who has moved on to the chartered legal executive option. The firm also plans to take on a customer services apprentice in its Cardiff office.
However, she says that an equally important benefit of apprenticeships is as ‘a way to tap into a raft of savvy youngsters who could be brilliant assets but who might otherwise miss out’.
Apprentices can also quickly bring tangible returns on investment (ROI), she points out. ‘We have always employed unqualified junior staff and trained them up ourselves into fee-earning roles, as our systems are geared to high levels of supervision.
‘This means our apprentices can contribute significantly to the running of a case, and therefore to the income of the firm, from very early doors.’
Lee started thinking about the value of paralegal apprenticeships in 2012 as a way of creating more loyalty and a different career path.
‘We have a large team of paralegals in our Plymouth office, and turnover was high, as most were law or LPC graduates who were using the role to help them get a training contract,’ she explains. ‘This was creating a challenge around stability and consistency of service.’
She put together a business case around stabilising the team, improving retention and helping meet the firm’s diversity and inclusion objectives.
‘After a little bit of persuasion,’ she says, ‘the senior management team took the bait and we got it signed off.’
Then this year, the firm was asked to join the North East Solicitor Apprenticeship consortium, which includes Muckle and Sintons Law. Members share the costs of recruitment, and the induction programme and other aspects of training and development, and use the same provider – CILEx Law School partnered with City Law School (City, University of London), which will accredit the LLB. Solicitor apprenticeships were an ‘easier sell’ for the firm, Lee adds, because of the success of the paralegal apprentices.
When it comes to solicitor apprentices, buy-in from the top down is crucial, says Wilson. ‘Some partners were sceptical about how these apprentices might work in their teams in complex areas such as tax and banking,’ he notes.
‘So we created a team of stakeholders, including senior management, learning and development people and graduate partners, to see where the apprentices would fit best, how they would progress through the six years, and what support was needed.’
Kim Travis, head of litigation and public law at Waltham Forest Council, says that the senior management team saw solicitor apprenticeships as ‘a really good way of helping someone who may have been put off pursuing law as a career by university fees’. The in-house legal services team has taken on one apprentice, a school-leaver, who will receive her academic and competency training from City Law School and CILEx Law School, funded from the council’s levy pot.
When it comes to ROI, Travis says: ‘It is very different taking on a school-leaver, so we haven’t set the apprentice a chargeable hours’ target. But she will quickly progress to carrying out chargeable work for clients, and that will become incrementally larger over the six years.’
For Rita McGucken, director of learning and development (L&D) at insurance specialists Horwich Farrelly, the business drivers are widening the talent pool; better retention prospects; and being able to ‘mould the apprentices so they develop the skills base that is critical for our growth’. Her firm has taken on 46 apprentices on the level 3/4 legal services programme since 2013. A further six started this September on the new paralegal apprenticeship.
Kathy Szeputi, marketing manager at north-west business and personal services practice Hillyer McKeown, says there is a strong business case for attracting talented candidates from outside the firm. ‘We are proud that all those who have completed their apprenticeships have stayed, moving into different departments where they continue to make a valuable contribution.’ The firm offers up to four business administration apprenticeships each year.
With 10 offices and over 2,500 staff in the UK, Eversheds Sutherland’s levy will amount to about £400,000 a year.
The levy funds cannot be used for salaries, management time or in-house training. ‘The funding is just a fraction of the overall investment that an employer makes in training an apprentice into a qualified role,’ Wilson points out.
There is also a challenge in using up the funds within the timeframe. ‘We aren’t even close to using it all,’ he says. ‘The most expensive apprenticeship is the solicitor apprenticeship, at £27,000. But this is spread over six years, so you could recruit many more apprentices before touching the sides.’
One option for the firm could be becoming a training provider, as that allows more flexibility in how the levy pot can be used.
‘There is no reason why we couldn’t do that,’ Wilson remarks. ‘But you would be subject to audit by Ofsted, and probably that is a step too far. But it is something we are keeping on the radar as a possibility.’
Employers can also pass on up to 10 per cent of their annual levy pot to non-levy-paying employers. Wilson says their clients are likely to be levy-payers themselves, but they may be able to help the small companies they work with, such as caterers, or they could approach small employers local to their offices.
Bond Dickinson, which becomes Womble Bond Dickinson from November after a transatlantic merger, is a significant levy-paying firm, with just over 1,200 employees at eight locations. ‘Some have described the levy as a tax and are writing it off,’ says Lee. ‘That frustrates me so much. It’s not perfect but, for now, it is here to stay. So, at a time when your L&D budget might not be that big, why not think creatively about how you can upskill your staff?’
Wales treats the apprenticeship levy differently to England. This creates problems for employers if they have offices in both jurisdictions, points out Howells-Price. ‘For instance, can your payroll system easily divide your staff?’
Plus, while the levy for all their English offices goes into one voucher pot for the firm to draw on, she says that in Wales ‘you wave goodbye to the money, as it goes into a giant pot to be spent on the priorities the Welsh government has chosen.
‘That doesn’t mean you don’t get the benefit back – you can still work out how much you have put in and how many apprentices you would need to get your value back. And you aren’t capped at that – you can employ as many as you want within the criteria, and no one will ask you for an extra penny.’
However, the option to take on legal apprentices has stalled because of a lack of commitment across Wales for training providers to deliver either the Level 7 Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Practice (introduced in 2015), or the Level 3/4 paralegal apprenticeships.
She has brought together a group including Lowri Morgan, head of Law Society Wales, Lynn Squires, CILEx regional liaison officer for Wales, and Helena Williams, corporate development director of apprenticeship training provider Acorn, to run a consultation with Welsh firms to find out what level of legal apprenticeships they would use.
‘To make it viable, we need something that works whether you are a big firm in Cardiff or a high street practice in Welshpool,’ she says.
‘We are now waiting to hear from the Welsh Government about funding for the consultation because, ideally, I want a programme ready to go live in September 2018.’
With so much involved, what lessons have the early adopters learned?
Don’t underestimate the amount of support required, says Wilson. His team of three is overwhelmed by requests to go to apprenticeship fairs and careers evenings. ‘We target our efforts at recruiting trainees at about 15 to 20 universities, but in Leeds alone, there are 30-40 schools contacting us on a regular basis asking for advice on apprenticeships. We are also dealing with parents and tutors – you generally don’t get the mums of potential trainees ringing up!’
The key is to be open and flexible, says Sally Swift, legal services manager at defendant firm Browne Jacobson. ‘A school-leaver may have a very strong idea about what a specific role will involve, only to find six months in they have made a mistake,’ she remarks. ‘But try to identify any strengths and skills and see if an opportunity can be created in a different part of your business.’ The firm has provided 20 apprentices with roles across the firm, since it recruited its first cohort in 2012. It currently has seven apprentices on the chartered legal executive apprenticeship.
Other concerns are around recruitment techniques (given that many school-leavers will have had no work experience); getting the balance right between workloads and study time; and, in the longer term, balancing solicitor apprentice numbers with trainee numbers, so both have an equal chance to gain newly qualified roles.
The next step is to think creatively – moving existing staff into apprenticeships could free up L&D budgets for other opportunities, while senior lawyers on the partnership ladder could take management or leadership apprenticeships up to MBA level.
But that brings its own issues, points out Howells-Price. ‘Those “apprentices” would be required to spend 20 per cent of their time off the job studying which, at their level, would have a big impact on their department. It is not something we are doing this year, but we are definitely keeping it in mind.’
But for apprenticeships to really gain traction, Swift says the label needs a rebrand. Her firm calls its programmes ‘career start’ for school-leavers and ‘career boost’ for existing employees. ‘The word apprentice needs modernising, as it carries a legacy of outdated views, and we need to disrupt the snobbery,’ she says.
‘In the meantime, don’t be put off. Apprenticeships should be a high-quality and respected path to a successful career – we need to embrace them and be excited about how they can better shape our businesses.’
Having successfully graduated from her two-year level 3 advanced legal apprenticeship ahead of schedule this summer, Florence, 20, is now managing her own caseload as a commercial disputes paralegal.
She is applying for the next level of apprenticeship, to qualify as a chartered legal executive, and has been shortlisted by the National Apprenticeship Service for the Regional Advanced Apprentice of the Year Award 2017.
‘I completely stand by my decision,’ she says. ‘I have had the perfect opportunity to gain qualifications while working in the legal sector, which was always my ambition. I have friends who are studying law at university but are really worried they won’t be able to get a legal job.
‘It is reassuring that firms like mine want to invest in people. I have had great support and have always been made to feel part of the team. I never felt anyone was thinking “she’s just an apprentice so she can’t do certain types of work”.’
Sarah, 21, started her two-year legal apprenticeship in 2014, and is now a paralegal in the motor and casualty department, assisting on multi-track cases.
‘There were times when I felt I was missing out on some of the social aspects of student life,’ she says. ‘But friends are now graduating – many with a lot of student debt – and coming to me for advice about how to get a job or work experience, so I’m happy I made the right choice for me.’
The apprenticeship boosted her self-confidence and she is now studying for her law degree part-time at Manchester Metropolitan University, with support from Horwich Farrelly’s training bursary.
‘During term time, I work four days a week and study on my day off,’ she explains. ‘It’s not easy juggling everything, but my thinking is that, by the time I’m 24, I’ll have finished my degree and have six years’ practical experience. Not many graduates would be able to say the same.’