Small but growing: why more firms might take on solicitor apprentices
Once uncertainties about the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination are finally lifted and a clear path is set, solicitor apprenticeships could become a lot more attractive to both law firms and prospective solicitors, says Jackie Panter
Changes to the current training regulations are fundamentally altering the routes to qualify as a solicitor. The changes mean that soon, to qualify as a solicitor, you must successfully pass the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). There will be two pathways to do this: 1 A graduate must successfully pass the SQE and complete a period of qualifying work experience. This aligns, in very broad terms with the university route to becoming qualified. 2 Complete a solicitor apprenticeship and successfully pass the SQE at the end of that apprenticeship. The commonality for both routes is the new SQE, which is the final end-point assessment that must be successfully passed by a qualifying solicitor. Although the final exam experience will be the same, the different routes leading to that assessment will be very different for solicitors who qualify through the two routes. The advantages and consequences of the two options will have an impact on law firms through their recruitment strategies, budgets and workforce.
WHAT IS THE SOLICITOR APPRENTICESHIP
The Solicitor Apprenticeship Standard, supported by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, was approved by the Department of Business in 2015. The Standard sets out the skills, knowledge and behaviours required to qualify as a solicitor. Apprentices – usually aged 18 to 19 – are full-time employees in a firm. The apprenticeship is the five to six year contract of employment, which is a combination of paid work and training in a law firm with part-time study. Most solicitor apprenticeships include a law degree but it is not a prescribed element of the programme. Whether a law degree is included in the programme of learning within the apprenticeship will be decided by each individual law firm. It is not a requirement. However, it could assist with the recruitment of good talent. Soon-to-be apprentices need to consider if a law degree is an important feature in their decision about accepting an apprenticeship and their longer term professional development aspirations.
IMPACT ON LAW FIRMS
The apprenticeship route has some significant advantages over the traditional route to supporting an employee through to qualification. Apprentices are a valuable resource in a business, carrying out key roles in the workplace while developing skills and relevant legal knowledge. It is an opportunity to instil your own business culture and working style from an early stage. What may also be a key driver for law firms is that this is also 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. The number of people a firm employs, the annual payroll and the age of the learner determine the funding that businesses are eligible for. For firms with a wage bill below £3m, who are not paying the apprenticeship levy, the government pays 95 per cent of the tuition fees for apprentices of any age. Firms with a wage bill above £3m are able to use their apprenticeship levy contributions to pay for the cost of tuition fees. 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. There are other resource implications with the apprenticeship route. The employer is embarking on a five to six year apprenticeship contract while revising strategies to suit a recruitment process for, potentially, 18-19 year olds who have completed their studies in further education and who may not have had permanent full-time jobs. The potential apprentices may not have a deep pool of experience to test for the skills and attributes that are being sought and policies and strategies will need to be revised. The recommended minimum academic qualification are five GCSEs, including mathematics and English and 3 A-levels (or equivalent) with a minimum grade C. However, law firms can set their own entry requirements. Firms need to have this on their radar, as there is a need to revise their recruitment strategies for this route. In addition, the apprentices are juggling a full-time professional role with part time study in academia, so firms need to consider training support for apprentices over the lengthy apprenticeship.
THE NEXT GENERATION OF STUDENTS
The recently published Auger Report has made a series of recommendations about the funding of further and higher education. If implemented, this will directly impact anyone considering study at university. The headlines have been about the reduction in tuition fees from £9,500 to £7,250. This would suggest a saving for graduates, however there is an aligned extension to the period of repayment from 30 years to 40 years. This will not impact lower paid graduates or very highly paid graduates. The potential changes to tuition fees and repayment of those fees throws into very sharp focus the options for young people and which route to choose to achieve their career goals. A solicitor apprenticeship is a route to qualification without the graduate repayment of university fees. Risk-averse learners could be attracted by the certainty of an income and development of direct professional experience leading to qualification that is offered by the apprenticeship route. And, although it is a government requirement that employers pay apprentices the national minimum wage, most law firms are paying more than the minimum wage, with salaries increasing as the apprentices develop their knowledge, skills and experience with increasing benefit to the firm.
SMALL BUT GROWING
The number of law firms employing solicitor apprenticeships is small compared to those taking the traditional route to qualification. There are much greater numbers of paralegal apprentices and apprentices in a range of other business areas within law firms. Firms such as Eversheds Sutherland and Addleshaw Goddard have employed solicitor apprentices. The number of firms employing solicitor apprentices remains small but it is growing. This is because of the uncertainty about the SQE with details still emerging about this assessment not least that the cost of the SQE, which is part of the apprenticeship is still unclear. The experiences of apprentices and law firms to date is very positive. It will be fascinating to evaluate the experiences of both learners and law firms when the first solicitor apprentices qualify through this route in two years’ time. We will then have a period when solicitors will be qualifying under the current LPC/training contract route, at the same time as some graduates qualifying through the SQE qualification and others through the apprenticeship route. Young people are already making career choices. Law firms have their budget and recruitment strategies.