Degree apprenticeships: bridging the legal sector skills gap
Apprenticeships have provided an effective way to meet the needs of the non-lawyer staff base in the delivery of legal services, says Jacqueline Panter
Ongoing changes to the current training regulations in the legal sector are fundamentally altering the routes to qualifying as a solicitor. An apprenticeship is one alternative route to the traditional graduate route to qualification. After passing the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) at the end of an apprenticeship, it will be possible to qualify as a solicitor. The standards expected of apprentice solicitors will be the same as those expected of anyone being licensed as a solicitor, with rigorous assessments before they are admitted to the profession. However, the number of law firms employing solicitor apprentices is small compared to those taking the traditional route to qualification. This is because of the uncertainty about the details of the SQE which are still emerging – not least in relation to the cost. That said, the number of firms taking on solicitor apprentices is growing. Apprenticeships offer a valued workforce beyond the lawyers. They have provided an effective way to meet the needs of the non-lawyer staff base in the delivery of legal services. From administration to finance, marketing and communications – these staff roles and their skills are vital to the success of modernday law firms. There are far greater numbers of paralegal apprentices and apprentices in a range of other business areas within law firms.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
With the range of law firm roles and evolving recruitment practices and strategies for employing apprentices, education providers are continually transforming their programmes to address the needs of businesses; and those needs go far beyond legal knowledge and skills. At Manchester Metropolitan University, we have consulted with employers about the knowledge, skills and attributes that they need in their graduates. We are now seeing a continual increase in demand for skills including digital literacy, legal technology and project management. As a consequence, further and higher education programmes are being transformed to address those needs. Education and training for tomorrow’s workforce in a range of areas goes beyond traditional legal knowledge and skills. A major success story in bridging these skills gaps across a range of industries is in the delivery of degree apprenticeships. These practice-focused apprenticeship programmes allow participants to achieve a full degree and drive the development of specialist workplace skills and behaviours demanded by Britain’s business community.
BRIDGING THE SKILLS GAP
Degree apprenticeship programmes are designed to address the skills gaps in digital, technology and managerial skills. It means that the opportunity is there for law firms to take advantage of partnerships with education providers and to capitalise on a fully-funded and aspirational route to qualification. Degree apprenticeships are a fantastic way to inject new energy and ideas into a business and build the talent base needed for sustainable growth and success. There are many reasons to hire an apprentice or to enrol existing employees. From increasing diversity to continuity planning, degree apprenticeships offer a huge range of business benefits that can be advantageous to the legal sector. Given that they are employed, full-time members of staff – degree apprentices are able to develop the skills and knowledge that are directly relevant to the business. What’s more, 75 per cent of employers with apprentices have reported an improvement in productivity since the government launched the apprenticeship programme back in 2015. This alternative route to qualification can also help law firms recruit new talent by offering a package of study and work that attracts enthusiastic and talented employees – often in areas of strategic skills shortages. Working together, education providers and law firms can also tailor the businessfocused programmes with a sharp focus on the skills required of the business, informed by advisory boards of leading regional and national employers.
A COST-EFFICIENT TOOL FOR FIRMS
An apprenticeship route for recruiting and training non-lawyer staff and solicitors represents great value for law firms because it offers an opportunity to offset the cost of the apprenticeship levy. The levy, which was introduced in May 2017, is regarded as something of an additional tax by some employers. Under the apprenticeship scheme, a business can receive financial help from the government to pay for its apprenticeship training. The amount of funding for which an employer is eligible is determined according to the number of people it employs, the annual payroll and the age of the learner. The government pays 95 per cent of the tuition fees of all apprentices, whatever their age, for firms with a wage bill of up to £3m and which are not paying the apprenticeship levy. Firms with a wage bill above £3m are able to use their apprenticeship levy contributions to pay for the cost of tuition. Employers who do not have sufficient levy payments to cover the full cost of tuition fees are also eligible for the 95 per cent government funding. Unlike the standard apprenticeship route, degree apprentices will benefit from being part of a community; joining a network of university students studying and benefitting from all of the support and facilities available through a higher education institution.
NEXT STEPS IN RECRUITMENT
The opportunity for progression is a key factor for employees in the legal sector and for law firms considering degree apprenticeships. A degree, combined with the knowledge, skills and attributes that the learner has developed over the period of the apprenticeship, puts them in the best position for personal, professional and career development. It drives the career development of a firm’s highest performing employees – legal or otherwise – increasing retention and rewarding achievements. To balance the needs of law firms, universities offering degree apprenticeships can bring employers together to determine the most important learning outcomes for their organisations and for their employees. Apprenticeships are designed for law firms to inspire and challenge; and requires education providers to innovate and deliver an academically robust education, with embedded employability capabilities. Universities are here to support law firms in identifying the most suitable candidates for their roles; individuals who can rapidly progress within a business as they develop the new capabilities that result from studying an apprenticeship. For example, at Manchester Metropolitan University we work closely with our employer partners to help broaden the diversity of their applicants. Apprenticeship roles are often advertised by law firms and follow the same recruitment processes and channels as any other vacancy. In addition, universities can offer extensive databases of potential apprentice candidates each year, and these individuals are alerted about degree apprenticeship vacancies in the legal sector. Universities can also facilitate assessment centres where law firms can observe and interact with a pool of candidates while they complete task-based activities – both individually and in groups.
LAW FIRMS AND ACADEMIA COMING TOGETHER
The success of degree apprenticeships not only rests with the apprentices themselves; but also in the relationship between the education provider and the employer. There is a growing demand for a wider range of skills and a high competency in the nonlegal roles within law firms. Now is the perfect time for employers to identify the knowledge and skills they are seeking; and to work with universities or training providers and collaborate to create solutions that meet their business needs