Are you contemplating appointing apprentices for the first time, or broadening your use of apprentices? What can you learn from firms already on the journey? Diana Bentley reports
It’s just over three years since the launch of legal apprenticeships in England for solicitors, paralegals, probate technicians and chartered legal executives. To attract talent into the profession from more diverse backgrounds, the the Trailblazer Committee – a group of law firms and other organisations – set new legal standards for apprentices. The scheme was launched in September 2016, as a new and fresh attempt to broaden entry into the profession by enabling people to earn while they learned, and especially those wanting to become solicitors by gaining a law degree while they work.
Then, in May 2017, came the introduction of the apprenticeship levy of 0.5% of a business’s payroll imposed on businesses with a wage bill over £3m. By appointing apprentices, law firms could then not only help those from poorer backgrounds into the profession, but also utilise the levy they were obliged to pay. This presented an attractive double incentive, and one many firms have acted upon.
So what can firms learn now from the experiences of those which have already taken on apprentices?
When the new legal apprenticeships were announced in 2015, Stephensons Solicitors, which has six offices across the north-west and in London, responded with enthusiasm, and established a focus group to plan its involvement. “In 2012, we’d helped develop the Apprenticeship Framework for paralegals through the Chamber of Commerce Employer Ownership Scheme, so we were already a big fan of apprenticeships. In 2013, we appointed two paralegal apprentices and one IT support apprentice, and we’d had great success with them, so we knew we wanted to do something more,” reports Ann Harrison, chair of the Law Management Section and chairwoman of Stephensons. “Social mobility in the profession is a big issue for us especially, being in the north-west. It’s good to see someone training as a solicitor who may not otherwise have gone to university.”
The focus group, comprised of senior department managers, determined how the firm could best recruit apprentices and set procedures to manage them. “The procedures it established are now followed by our HR department, which also manages the use of the apprenticeship levy,” Harrison explains. She advises others who want to appoint apprentices to similarly plan well ahead. Stephensons now has two solicitor apprentices, four paralegals (see the case study below), three apprentices in business administration, three chartered legal executives, three apprentices in IT, and one in human resources.
Case study: Carley Raikes, paralegal apprentice, Stephensons Solicitors
“I became a mother at a young age and worked in McDonald’s for several years before becoming a staff trainer for the company. My mother worked in conveyancing at Stephensons, and I learned about the firm’s apprenticeship scheme through her and the firm’s website. I wanted to make a big change in my career, so I applied for a paralegal apprentice position and started in February 2019.
“Working in the clinical negligence department, I support its nine solicitors and am supervised by the department head and mentored by another member of the department. All three of us meet monthly. I undertake my studies through Damar Training, and I’m doing further courses in maths and English to upgrade my knowledge of these subjects. The firm ensures that I’m not interrupted during my study time. I work in one of our meeting rooms where I have my webinars, but sometimes I take work home too, and I have study leave for my exams. Since I was an older apprentice, I had to take a drop in salary, but I have the support of a working partner. I’d definitely recommend a legal apprenticeship to others, and may think about a solicitor apprenticeship in the future.”
Global firm Dentons, which has six UK offices, spent a year developing its solicitor apprenticeship programme. Like others, the firm’s interest was prompted by its commitment to social mobility. “We knew that many young people have the interest and drive to get into the legal profession but not the opportunity, so we got involved with the Trailblazer Committee in 2014,” says Jo Wilson, Dentons’ diversity and inclusion manager. “Our focus was on the solicitor apprenticeship programme, rather than the paralegal programme, as we wanted to fully commit to this exciting six-year programme.” There are now nine solicitor apprentices in Dentons’ London office. “An important part of the planning involved establishing a training provider, as the solicitor apprentices study for their LLB (Hons) in Legal Practice, and prepare for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam,” Wilson says.
Taking on apprentices is a good way to develop people and to keep good, skilled people with us – it fosters loyalty
Ann Harrison, Stephensons
Dentons selected BPP for its apprentice training. BPP was instrumental in helping the firm establish its programme, Wilson reports, so firms should assess the support such training providers can deliver. BPP runs paralegal and solicitor apprenticeships programmes, mostly for school leavers, and currently has 400 in training, along with a recruitment service. It willingly provides such assistance, says BPP’s Bruce Humphrey, head of programmes (legal apprenticeships). “Apprenticeships are heavily regulated, so employers may need guidance. We have years of experience of running apprenticeship programmes in other sectors, as well as law, so we can help them through every step of the process.”
The Law Society’s website and the government apprenticeship website are also valuable ports of call. “Many larger firms have apprenticeship programmes, but we’re seeing solicitor apprenticeships becoming more appealing to smaller firms, which often need further information before taking on an apprentice,” says Aidan Flegg, policy adviser – education and training in the regulatory affairs team at the Law Society. The Society’s website and brochure provide information on how to establish an apprenticeship programme, training providers, the use of the apprenticeship levy and case studies from current solicitor apprentices. “The key things for firms to consider are which training provider to use, how to recruit, and how to ensure apprentices are included in their work,” Flegg advises. Materials on other forms of apprenticeships and for apprentices – who automatically become members of the Junior Lawyers Division – are also available. It’s important to remember, Flegg notes, that firms not paying the levy have access to government funding, too.
For its recruitment drive, Dentons created a brochure, a website and marketing material for schools. “We approached hundreds of schools, used job boards such as ‘Not Going to Uni’ and Milkround, and the government apprenticeship website to get the word out. We had over 200 applications in our first year,” Wilson explains. The firm’s application period lasts from October until January, and its apprenticeship competencies – including analytical and organisational skills – are matched with those of its trainees. “Our assessment process includes an online application form, self-video interview, critical thinking exercise and an assessment centre. As part of the process, we invite candidates to an Insight Day to ensure they have a chance to ask lots of questions and get a feel for what it might be like to work at a law firm. A six-year programme is a big commitment, and it is important that candidates know what a legal career is about.” Three apprentices were recruited in 2017, two in 2018 (see the case study below) and four in 2019.
Case study: George Williamson, solicitor apprentice, Dentons
“Since studying law at A-Level, I’ve been fascinated by the way law encompasses everything we do in our lives, so I decided I wanted to pursue a career in law. I came across the Trailblazer solicitor apprenticeship for Dentons via a website called allaboutschoolleavers.co.uk and used Dentons’ website to find out more about the programme. I was excited about the prospect of studying towards a degree whilst having a practical working experience.
“The work I’ve been involved in has surpassed my expectations. I’ve completed one year in Dentons’ corporate team, which pushed me outside my comfort zone but gave me confidence. Initially, I undertook tasks like administration and proof-reading. By the end of my first year, I was doing legal research, drafting corporate documents and project-managing aspects of cross-border transactions. In my current department, people, reward and mobility, I’m helping draft and prepare court and Employment Tribunal documents. Luckily, over my six-year apprenticeship, I’ll gain experience in eight different departments.
“In the beginning, I was nervous about talking to people more senior than me (everyone), about making mistakes and what people thought of a teenager coming straight from school. That quickly disappeared thanks to the friendliness of everyone in the firm and their willingness to invest in my development by being patient and giving me more complex work to ensure I progress. I study with BPP University in Holborn, and Dentons is very understanding of the challenges of combining work and study. What I’ve learnt through being in the workplace while I study has been valuable for my development. I’ll be forever grateful to Dentons for this opportunity and know this has been the right decision for me.”
Stephensons has had success with finding apprentices among its existing employees who want to enhance their skills. “One of our paralegals and one solicitor apprentice were already here: at these levels, it’s useful to know them before making that commitment,” says Harrison. The firm has also found apprentices through links with educational institutions including Wigan and Leigh College, Damar Training, CILEx and the University of Law in Manchester. “It’s vital to ensure not only that you get the right people, but also that they have the right course and effective training,” cautions Harrison. “Early on, we worked with some trainers who weren’t up to scratch, so we found others. The quality of the apprentice’s education is important.”
When it first contemplated creating a solicitor apprenticeship, Muckle LLP of Newcastle upon Tyne already had apprentices in its IT and business administration departments. “I spoke with some accountants first, as the accounting profession has had school-leaver apprentices for some time,” says managing partner, Jason Wainwright.
A solicitor apprenticeship is much more than a part-time law degree, and requires a genuine commitment to developing each apprentice
Bruce Humphrey, BPP
Muckle first advertised for solicitor apprenticeships in 2016, and received a lot of interest. “We could only take on one or two, so we contacted other firms in the region to see if they wanted to recruit solicitor apprentices, too. About eight firms were interested, so we formed the North East Solicitor Apprenticeship consortium (NESA).” The group runs a joint application process, open day and selection day. Firms then select their shortlist for final interviews and then individual offers are made at an agreed time. “Muckle has recruited in every year of the scheme, but other firms come and go depending on their resource requirements. For students applying to the scheme, it’s like a university application,” Wainwright says. The numbers of applicants has nearly doubled in four years, with last year yielding 180 applications for nine places. NESA benefits everyone, says Wainwright. “You get more candidates, so you have a bigger pool to choose from. Apprentices meet during the application process, so when they start their LLB (Hons) in Legal Practice together at Northumbria University, they form friendships and have mutual support. Everyone in the scheme collaborates well. No one has been overly competitive about securing the right candidates, and it is hugely beneficial for the legal profession here,” he reports.
Wainwright advises firms recruiting school-leavers to adjust their interview techniques. “You must be more flexible: you need to look behind the façade, as they’re younger and naturally less polished than law degree graduates might be.”
Management and support
Apprentices – especially school-leavers – need more support than trainees. Primary responsibility for looking after apprentices usually rests with their department head, but often the HR department has a watching brief too, and some firms also provide apprentices with a personal ‘mentor’. Dentons’ apprentices are supervised by a partner or a senior associate in the department they work in, and have a ‘buddy’ who is a trainee, and a support manager at BPP for their academic work. The HR department fully supports them throughout the programme. “Our solicitor apprentices have an induction both with BPP Law School and Dentons when they start the programme. They also have a comprehensive training and development programme throughout the six years to equip them with both the legal and non-legal skills they require to be successful,” says Wilson. Wainwright agrees that school-leavers may need a longer settling-in period than trainees. “They have no idea of what a law firm will be like. At first, they may not be as confident as graduates and not as worldly-wise. But we’ve found that after about three months, they’re adapting to life at a busy law firm.”
A major consideration is that 20% of the apprentice’s working week must be devoted to study and coursework, which can involve webinars, face-to-face or video meetings with teachers, and attending classes at their training institution. Firms often nominate one day a week as the appointed ‘study day’.
Apprentices offer a different perspective … 18-year-olds see the world differently and challenge how you do thingsI’d definitely recommend a legal apprenticeship to others, and may think about a solicitor apprenticeship in the future
Jason Wainwright, Muckle LLP
Close working between supervisors and apprentices has clear benefits to the firm as well as the individual, says Humphrey. “There’s a genuine symbiosis between formal learning and workplace experience. Lessons learned in the classroom can be applied in the workplace the very next day, with apprentices bringing those experiences back into the classroom the following week. This helps embed that learning at a deeper level.”
Firms should approach an apprenticeship as a three-way partnership between the apprentice, the employer and the training provider, says Humphrey. “A solicitor apprenticeship is much more than a part-time law degree, and requires a genuine commitment to developing each apprentice.” BPP ensures that all apprentice supervisors in firms have a dedicated point of contact at BPP, and in review meetings between each apprentice, their supervisor and the BPP contact, how the apprentice is applying their learning in the workplace is discussed.
The contribution and the future
Apprenticeships do more than promote diversity in their organisations, it appears. “In the north-west, we compete for talented people. We’ve found that taking on apprentices is a good way to develop people and to keep good, skilled people with us – it fosters loyalty,” says Harrison. Apprentices, and particularly younger ones, are a breath of fresh air, the firms say. “They offer a different perspective,” comments Wainwright. “18-year-olds see the world differently and challenge how you do things. Some of that is lost in ‘group think’ when people are taught for years at university by former lawyers before they start working. Our apprentices have learned some very good technical skills quickly, too.” And Wainwright says Muckle is impressed by how motivated its apprentices are and how quickly they mature. “Apprentices can put what they learn into practice immediately. We try to rotate their seats so that they’re working in the areas of law they’re studying.”
The Law Society has had positive feedback from firms using apprentices, as has BPP. “Employers tell us about apprentices who are already working at an equivalent level to a trainee solicitor, despite only being part way through the apprenticeship programme,” says Humphreys. The retention rates of the schemes are high. “The paralegal programme had an achievement rate of 88%, which compares with the national apprenticeship average of 67.3%. Fewer than 4% of solicitor apprentices have dropped out since 2016.” Humphreys also predicts that many paralegal apprentices will progress on to solicitor apprenticeships. Over the next two years, BPP will be offering apprentice-based alternatives to the traditional training contract for law graduates. “This will be a new opportunity for those employers looking to recruit at graduate level, and a new way to fund that training,” he says.
Despite the success of legal apprenticeships, the Law Society would like to see them more widely embraced. “Presently, we don’t know how many solicitor apprentices there are, or where they’re working – something we’ll possibly consider with the Solicitors Regulation Authority,” says Flegg. The government’s policy on apprenticeships is malleable too, Chenab Mangat, deputy head of the regulatory affairs unit at the Law Society, points out. “We’ve seen this in the positive development in the use of the levy. Firms that can’t use some or all of it can now pass it on to others which they’re working with downstream, to help the latter recruit candidates they may not otherwise have had an opportunity to.”
The Trailblazer Committee is also consulting with government. “The committee is reviewing the market, looking to add new standards that reflect the changes within the legal sector,” says Jaya Louvre, head of talent acquisition & diversity at Withers LLP, a committee member. Firms with apprentices will welcome further developments. As Wainwright says: “If it wasn’t for apprenticeships, these talented people would be lost to the profession.”