Law firms working together: Solicitor apprenticeships
Jason Wainwright discusses the benefits of collaborating with other North East law firms on one of the UK's first solicitor apprenticeship schemes
The average student leaves university £44,000 in debt, according to the ‘Degrees of Debt’ study carried out by the Sutton Trust last year. This burden is likely to be even greater for law graduates with university costs and the prospect of the legal practice course to consider. It basically means that a career in law is becoming less and less of an option for many people, no matter how much they have to offer the profession. There is a risk that young talent will be lost to other sectors.
Fair and open access to the legal profession is something I have always felt passionately about. I was the first person in my extended family to go to university and grew up in an environment where post-16 education wasn’t valued or encouraged. With the current system of loans and debt, I am 100 per cent sure I would not have gone to university.
As part of the government’s drive to increase the number of apprentices, a group of law firms, CILEx Law School, the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and the Law Society have been working on alternative career paths in law – Trailblazers Apprenticeships. These include allowing school leavers to obtain a law degree and qualify as a solicitor while working, and we wanted to be at the forefront of that. We knew that a solicitor apprenticeship scheme could open the door for hundreds of young people who otherwise might be turned off the profession.
So how did we set up the scheme? The first step was to find the right provider to deliver the apprenticeship. We spoke to a number of local providers and some outside the region, but like most things that are new, it wasn’t easy to get off the ground. Then we spoke to CILEx Law School and City, University of London, who were happy to get involved, and together we contacted other law firms.
While we were prepared to pursue solicitor apprenticeships on our own, we knew that it would make more sense to collaborate with other North East law firms. Traditionally firms don’t work together – it’s a competitive environment. We knew, though, that since firms would only want one or two apprentices each, it made sense to pool resources for the recruitment process. We also hope to work together to provide additional training so that the apprentices can form a real cohort.
So far, Muckle, Bond Dickinson, McDaniel & Co Solicitors, QualitySolicitors Smith Roddam, and Sintons Law are the North East firms who have formed the consortium known as NESA – the North East Solicitor Apprenticeship programme. Working with law firms on a project like this may be unusual but the support, passion, and commitment of everyone involved has been amazing. As a result, the region will have at least seven solicitor apprenticeships starting in September 2017.
New route to the profession
The solicitor apprentice route is a six-year programme (equivalent to the period a traditional law graduate would undertake to qualify as solicitor) and a fantastic alternative to university. Apprentices can earn while they learn, achieve an LLB (Hons) in legal practice, and qualify as a solicitor, with no tuition fees to pay. They will gain not just the academic and technical skills but also the practical skills required to become a lawyer, and I’m really excited to see the advantages that extra experience brings.
We held an open day recently and the response was overwhelming. Over 50 students plus parents turned out and I got to meet so many talented potential apprentices. They were incredibly enthusiastic and I’d urge more regional firms to get involved in the scheme.
Unfortunately, there is still prejudice in the profession, even if it isn’t overt. For example, you are more likely to get work experience in a law firm, which is key for gaining a training contract, if you have good contacts.
That doesn’t fit with our values at Muckle. Our values and the basic principles that guide us are about fairness, justice, honesty, and transparency. It shouldn’t matter where you come from – you should still be able to become a lawyer if you have the ability, drive, and interest to do so. That’s why I’d love to see more schemes like this across the country.
For firms outside the region that are already considering this, here are my top three tips.
Identify suitable academic partners;
Speak to parents and students and understand their needs; and
Encourage local law firms to work together to deliver the scheme.
I’ve certainly been inspired by working with other firms on this project. While we may be competitors in business, together we have a greater opportunity to develop young talent.
Jason Wainwright is managing partner at Muckle