Kayleigh Leonie asks whether the offer of a cheaper route into the profession is too good to be true.

In September 2015, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published the assessment, terms, and standards for legal apprenticeships, which include solicitors, chartered legal executives, and paralegals. The government is committed to creating three million new apprenticeships by 2020.

In the legal profession, the proposed changes allow for an individual to qualify as a solicitor without undertaking a degree.

To qualify, a legal apprentice will need to meet standards that correspond to the SRA’s statement of competence. The intention is that by allowing individuals to qualify as solicitors through the apprenticeship route, access to the profession will be opened up and diversity increased. There has also been speculation that by allowing individuals to qualify as solicitors without obtaining a university degree, undertaking the legal practice course (LPC), and then completing a two-year training contract, the system is reverting back to the previous qualification system of articles.

The Junior Lawyers Division has always been concerned with the ever-increasing cost of qualifying as a solicitor. This includes the cost of funding a degree and potentially a graduate diploma in law, bearing the cost of the LPC, and then spending two years on a training contract, which can now be paid at the national minimum wage (NMW) (that is, if a firm does not adhere to the Law Society’s recommended minimum salary for trainee solicitors).

The apprenticeship scheme may provide a solution in terms of cost; however, there has been speculation that it will create a two-tier system, depending on how an individual has qualified as a solicitor. As we have seen with people qualifying through equivalent means, it could be said that a two-tier system already exists. There are also questions being raised regarding employability at the end of the apprenticeship.

Legal apprentices will need to be paid at the current NMW levels for apprentices. The rate of pay from April 2017 for those aged 16–18 or over 19 who are in the first year of their apprenticeship is £3.50 per hour.

For apprentices aged 19 or over who are not in their first year the rate of pay from April 2017 is £5.60 (this applies to those in the 18–20 age bracket) and £7.05 (for those in the 21 and over age bracket). The new apprenticeship scheme will allow students to undertake a five to six-year programme straight from school. The apprentices are therefore unlikely to be earning high salaries, but it will mean they do not end up in large amounts of debt from tuition fees.

Like the accountancy route of on-the-job training alongside a series of exams, if they choose to undertake an apprenticeship and train on the job rather than commencing a degree, an apprentice would be expected to work nine to five and study on top.

This route won’t be for everyone as it will require significant self-discipline to study in your own time, unlike the structure of undertaking a university degree.

The intention is that these legal apprenticeships will avoid law students having to do unpaid work experience and internships to gain practical, hands-on experience in the law.

The SRA is currently consulting on the new route to qualification through the creation of a solicitors qualifying exam (SQE). Guidance as to how this centralised exam will fit into the apprenticeship route has also been published.

This is an updated version of an article which was first posted on the JLD website in February 2016. It was also published on the Solicitor’s Journal on 26 January 2016 and is reproduced by kind permission.