Denise Wright outlines the growth of legal apprenticeships in the legal sector and shares the experience in her firm

Denise Wright headshot

There has been a massive rise in the popularity of legal apprenticeships over recent years and with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), CILEX Professional Qualification (CPQ) and new apprenticeship standards, it is not unusual for the early careers team at Weightmans LLP to be contacted by students, and even teachers or parents, who feel overwhelmed or confused by the variety of pathways now available.

An apprenticeship allows learners to combine part-time academic study with paid work and training. Although this is not a new training model, it has really only taken hold in the legal sector over the last decade. Legal apprenticeship programmes are designed to develop practical knowledge and support the development of wrap around professional skills for people doing legal work. Programmes include recognised qualifications, which take the apprentices to the same career destination but without the associated high fees and possible debt.

The funding model

Employers with an annual pay bill of over £3m per year contribute the equivalent of 0.5% of this payroll cost into the apprenticeship levy each year, and the government then adds a grant of an additional 10%. These funds can then be accessed by the employer to pay apprenticeship providers. For those with less than £3m on their annual payroll, the government will co-fund apprenticeship training, with the employer covering 5% of the cost and the government funding 95%. Since the levy was introduced in 2016, education and training organisations have been quick to lead on the development of standards in the professional services sector, providing alternatives to traditional pathways to qualification. 

Currently, the most popular legal apprenticeships lead to three careers – paralegal, legal executive and solicitor (there are also programmes available covering conveyancing and probate). These standards have been developed by employers, education providers and key stakeholders to create practical programmes which reflect the reality of working within legal services. 

Paralegal apprenticeship

This two-year programme is taught at level three, equivalent to A-level, and assessed by CILEX. Apprentices cover the English legal system, legal research, client care and professional practice skills. They also select electives in two areas of law and one area of legal practice, which are chosen to complement their area of work. Through building a portfolio of work-based tasks, and the development of skills and behaviours, they will gain a good understanding of what is required of them in the role of a paralegal.

This five-year programme is taught to level six, which is the equivalent to degree level, and covers all the subjects and portfolio requirements to qualify as a chartered legal executive. In 2021, CILEX introduced their new levels of membership and alongside this the CILEX Professional Qualification (CPQ). This standard is under review and will be updated to develop apprentices to the new role of CILEX lawyer.



Solicitor apprenticeship

This six-year programme is taught to level seven, equivalent to Masters level, and apprentices will complete the SQE, and gain a qualifying law degree (LLB), in addition to the solicitor apprenticeship award. It is designed for those who have not previously studied law above level three (A-level). Apprentices are also required to build a portfolio to demonstrate experience and development of skills in a variety of work.

Graduate solicitor apprenticeship

This programme covers the final 32 months of the solicitor apprenticeship standard; it includes SQE 1 & 2 preparatory curriculum and examinations, alongside work experience in the business. The programme has been designed for those who have already gained a qualifying law degree or completed a non-law degree and Post Graduate Degree in Law (PGDL). Chartered legal executives can also follow this pathway if they have completed the additional subjects required at level six.

Weightmans programme

In September 2021, our first cohort of 13 solicitor apprentices joined Weightmans with a contagious level of enthusiasm. With most of the cohort joining straight from school, it was a priority to create an environment where they could bond as a group. We brought them together for an induction week in Liverpool at the start of their programme and followed this with regular group training and meetings to help develop a high level of peer support, which has in turn helped them adjust to working life. They have all been eager to become involved with firm-wide projects including: leading on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, acting as apprenticeship ambassadors for their local region’s apprenticeship hubs, completing an innovation programme and becoming involved in the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee. 

As a firm, we want to develop our future talent, and we have identified that the ‘lawyer of the future’ is much more than a legal advisor. Our clients expect our solicitors to have an understanding and appreciation of their business, their sector and the wider economy. Our lawyers need good people skills as well as a strong understanding of legal tech in order to offer innovative solutions in a fast-changing legal landscape. The solicitor apprenticeship pathway offers us the opportunity to train people within the business earlier and to develop their understanding of the firm and our clients. We can also provide them with training and experience outside the legal sphere which will widen their viewpoint and understanding of not just our business, but also our clients’. Therefore, within the six-year programme we plan to offer further training and incorporate placements within non-legal teams, such as innovation and marketing. 

There is a clear advantage to learning the law while working within a firm and witnessing the practical application daily, and our apprentice solicitors will have a minimum of six years of work experience when they become qualified solicitors. Graduates who join us as trainees from September 2022 will have the opportunity to complete the 32-month graduate solicitor apprenticeship completing the SQE 1 & 2 while working within the business.

Key points to consider

Apprenticeships which are co-funded, or paid for with levy funds, are classed as government-funded through the Education, Skills and Funding Agency (ESFA) and therefore do bring some conditions. The requirement which carries the most impact is that apprentices must be allocated a minimum of 20% of their contracted hours to study, and this loss of time on the role can deter some employers. However, if the goal is to offer excellent training, the long-term benefits are worth it. Apprenticeships are demanding programmes, even with the study time, and learners must be dedicated to achieving the qualification and learn how to balance work with study quickly, to ensure that they can perform in both areas. 

Case study

Charity Lockie is a current first year solicitor apprentice with Weightmans: “I am 20 years old, and I studied History, politics and Spanish at A-level prior to taking a gap year and then moving to Liverpool to embark on my solicitor degree apprenticeship. For my first seat, I reside in the motor fraud team, one of three teams that make up the overarching motor department. As an apprentice, my team get me involved in as much as they can, from assisting my supervisor with drafting documents, reviewing medical records, and sitting in on court hearings, to getting involved in the exciting world of intelligence searches with the fraud Intelligence team.

As for my university studies, I am now onto my second modules which are contract law and legal research and I have just received my first set of exam results. I look forward to in-person BPP events with other legal apprentices to share our experiences and expand my professional network. Excitingly, this term we are starting to build our portfolio, which allows us to showcase how our work-based learning and experiences are shaping us into the skilful lawyers we aspire to be in six years! Looking to the future, I am excited to not only study different areas of law at BPP University, but to also work in teams of different law as we rotate departments, and to continue being an Ambassador for Apprenticeships in the region.” 

There are some common myths concerning the eligibility of candidates. There are no age restrictions to apprenticeships, and many career changers apply for the programmes. However, you may not enrol an apprentice unless they require significant new skills and knowledge in the role; for example, if you have an existing well-experienced paralegal, the paralegal apprenticeship would not be a suitable choice. Also, the apprentice cannot repeat content at the same level. Therefore, somebody with a law degree would not be eligible to complete a paralegal, chartered legal executive or solicitor apprenticeship, as this would include repetition of content. They could, however, complete a graduate solicitor apprenticeship.

The programmes are still relatively new to the legal sector, and you should be prepared to provide potential apprentices with a lot of information and guidance through the application process, especially when recruiting school leavers. Colleges and schools are generally well experienced with UCAS applications but professional apprenticeships are unchartered territory for many, and they are usually unfamiliar with employers’ application processes. 

A good apprenticeship provider can help you navigate the options, help with your recruitment campaigns, give you advice on the programmes and advise on implementation within your organisation. Therefore, spend some time speaking to different providers; the ‘register of apprentice training providers’ on is a great tool. A good partnership can boost the success of your programmes and ensure that your future lawyers are ready for the modern legal world.