University seems like a very distant memory to me. I left 12 years ago and have been working now as a recruiter for 10 years. Whilst the memories may have faded, a constant reminder of the good old days lives on in my monthly pay slip in the form of the Student Loan Contribution. I was sent my yearly statement recently and was absolutely astonished at the figure I still owed. Paying off student debts seems never ending! As a frivolous student, living life to the full, I was aware that I would be saddled with some debt, it’s inescapable, but I didn’t think for a second I would still be paying this off as I approach 40. The optimist in me will say, well at least I went to university back in the days when fees had recently been introduced and were considerably lower that the fees today’s students face. Looking at course fees now it sends shudders through me. It’s a huge commitment to go to university these days and I wonder if I would have signed up as readily today as I did in 2001? To have a career in law, the path seemed straightforward, A-levels, degree, post graduate course and then training contract. I didn’t give any consideration to any alternatives means to the same end – in truth I didn’t even know there were alternative ways of qualifying as a lawyer.
With today’s graduates leaving university with an average of £44K of debt, I think the prudent school leaver should be giving much stronger credence to alternative means of practicing law. The CILEx route to qualification which is quite lengthy and not completely straight forward has been around for over 50 years. But more recently I have been hearing more and more about legal apprenticeships and recently the introduction of the trailblazer scheme. This new phenomenon of “earn while you learn” has gained momentum both with “would be” lawyers and law firms alike. Essentially the schemes allow school leavers to enter straight into a legal career and gain valuable experience without having to pay expensive tuition fees. There are various levels of apprenticeship available, which include Legal Administrator Apprenticeships, Paralegal Apprenticeships and Solicitor Apprenticeships. I think the most revolutionary here is definitely the new Solicitor Apprenticeship. This is a real turning point for people looking to enter the profession without going to university. There are a few requirements that must be met, such as C’s or above at A-level and gaining 5 GCSE’s, but aside from this it seems accessible for all. It is a lengthy course of 6 years but if you add up the 3 years for a law degree, 1 year for LPC and 2 years on a training contract (assuming you walk straight into one, which in my experience is extremely rare) it’s not that different from the traditional route. The scheme began in 2015 and firms such as Addleshaw Goddard, Bond Dickinson, Clyde & Co and DWF are all involved in the scheme, as well as a variety of in-house legal teams and Councils.
The big question that only time can answer is how will Solicitors coming through the apprenticeship scheme be perceived after they qualify? Sceptics of the new scheme predict that perhaps a two tier system of Solicitors will emerge; those who came through the traditional route and those through an apprenticeship (second class Solicitors). Hopefully this is not how it will pan out. There has been several game changers for the legal industry over recent years, one most profound was initiated by the Legal Services Act, allowing non lawyers and paralegals now to become owners and partners in law firms. Shifts like these have really helped overhaul the image held by many that law is a stuffy, rigid and elitist profession. The industry’s perception won’t change overnight, but hopefully it will help shift the focus away from how and where you studied, to what you are able to do in practice and to rate a Solicitor purely based on their experience. I think in light of these welcome changes, the Solicitors who qualify via an apprenticeship will be welcomed by their peers. Unlike many NQ Solicitors recruited into firms following the completion of the traditional training contract, the Apprentice Solicitors will be known quantities, having worked their way through the firm for 6 years.
I’d like to think that if Solicitor apprenticeships were available when I was making the university decision that I would have thoroughly researched this as a viable option. I think it would have been a really tough decision. Do I study debt free, but working in a full time job and be totally committed to my career at 18? Or do I go off to University with my friends to gain valuable life experience, although at a fairly hefty financial price? In truth I can’t predict exactly what I would have done. It will be interesting to see the uptake of these Trailblazer apprenticeships. I think with the level of support from law firms of all sizes in all areas of the country, I think what is clear is that Solicitor Apprenticeships are here to stay.
Claire Watt is a very experienced legal recruiter focusing on the Paralegal market in the North and the Midlands. Please feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0161 828 5407.