Trailblazing for the future
The advantages of recruiting solicitor apprentices may be far greater than you think. Nicola Laver reports
Kurtis Windrow enjoys what he describes as a hybrid role at Eversheds Sutherland in Manchester. He’s both an apprentice solicitor and a legal technologist, helping the firm drive innovation through legal tech.
But let’s turn the clock back a few years. After a successful summer month’s work experience at a local law firm (he was just 16 years old at the time and hadn’t even received his GCSE results), the firm didn’t actually want him to leave.
Windrow was tasked with finding a solution to enable him to stay there – so up steps the apprenticeship scheme – and goodbye sixth form.
Windrow cottoned on that the training contract application process was becoming more competitive than ever, increasing the need to demonstrate attributes such as the amount of work experience you had done and your transferable skills. So, he concluded: “Why not flip that on its head? Get the experience first, you can always do your studies alongside.”
Apprenticeships presented the solution he was looking for.
Trailblazing the way
The solicitor apprenticeship need take no longer than the typical training contract. And as an earn-while-you-work route – skipping the A level years and avoiding the graduate debt burden to boot – it’s a no brainer for successful applicants.
It is a level 7 apprenticeship (approved by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) and enables someone to qualify as a solicitor after five or six years and then be admitted by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Level 7, for the uninitiated, is equivalent to a master’s degree.
Specific standards are developed by employer groups known as ‘trailblazers’ (law firm trailblazers who helped develop the trailblazer solicitor apprenticeship include the likes of Addleshaw Goddard, Clyde & Co, Pannone and Withers). The apprenticeship standard is based on the SRA-approved competence statement for solicitors which describes the skill, knowledge and behaviours required of the apprentice before they can qualify as a solicitor.
Apprentices must pass a two-stage examination, the forthcoming Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) set by the SRA (target launch date of autumn 2021). The second part must be completed during the last six months of the apprenticeship.
Unlike trainee solicitors, apprentices don’t need to register with the SRA or even notify it when they start their apprenticeship. They only register with the regulator when ready to apply for admission as a solicitor.
As Julie Brannan, the SRA’s director of education and training says, the route provides “a new way for school-leavers to benefit from education and training, to demonstrate they meet our high standards and to qualify as a solicitor”. School-leavers just like Windrow.
But for Windrow to clinch a solicitor apprentice position, he had to satisfy the entry requirements. Firms can decide their own entry criteria but typically, they will expect at least five good GCSEs and three A levels.
So where did that leave Windrow? Instead of A levels, he launched straight into the apprenticeship route – undertaking an intermediate and extended higher level apprenticeship at the local firm who was so keen to keep him beyond work experience.
This was followed by a stint as a paralegal at Addleshaw Goddard (a trailblazer firm) which ultimately prepared him for release and eventual enrolment on the solicitor apprenticeship scheme at Eversheds Sutherland (Manchester).
Windrow acknowledges his was an unorthodox journey, having been deterred from the traditional training pathway by the costs of going to university and his “observations of the market and the competition I would be up against to reaching qualification”.
But he acknowledges that the solicitor apprenticeship “is an extremely competitive process in its own right and will continue to be as the route becomes increasingly common over the coming years”.
Applying for a solicitor apprenticeship won’t be an easy option for aspiring solicitors in the immediate future.
So, what’s Windrow’s future looking like? He says his biggest opportunity thus far is his involvement in driving innovation at Eversheds Sutherland in the form of legal technology.
“The firm and the apprenticeship scheme have given me the opportunity to be at the forefront of this emerging market and provided a platform to really break new ground in my career”, he enthuses.
That Windrow is able to combine his ambition to qualify as a solicitor with a passion for legal technology is testament to the greater flexibility offered by the solicitor apprentice route compared to the traditional trainee solicitor model.
One aspect of the trailblazer apprentice scheme is the comparative lack of regulatory oversight of training by approved training providers during the apprenticeship.
Though it’s up to firms how they train apprentices that’s not to say they are autonomous or completely self-governing: there are regular meetings between training providers and the SRA; and training must of course satisfy the solicitor apprenticeship standard and the associated assessment plan which specify the expected outcomes.
But there is a welcome degree of flexibility which affords firms a measure of freedom to analyse what upskills an individual has; and to allow them to develop into their particular skills and passions. It appears to be a win-win for all.
A matter of diversity
Eversheds Sutherland launched its apprentice solicitor programme in September 2016 and, as partner Matthew Taylor says, “we never saw it as a replacement for trainees but rather another route into the profession which complements our graduate route”.
The firm wanted to broaden its available talent pool and offer a “genuine route to qualification for those that may not otherwise have access to it”.
He tells how the firm is “seeing an increasing number of students who either cannot or do not want to attend university and we recognise that by not offering apprenticeships, we would miss out on great future solicitors. It also broadens diversity and encourages a fresh perspective from people joining the business”.
The move is evidentally proving its worth. Taylor says Windrow “epitomises how valuable the solicitor apprenticeship scheme is to both the individual apprentices and the participating law firms”.
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP) in Manchester recruits both apprentices and trainees and, says apprenticeship manager Michelle Tunney, has streamlined its internal process to mirror that of the traditional trainee onboarding. In the final years of the apprenticeship, for instance, solicitor apprentices will join the trainee rotations.
She points out that this is assisted by the introduction of the SQE as it will ensure all solicitors qualify through the same route. Tunney credits current apprentice Megan Capper for setting the bar for solicitor apprentices and future members of the BCLP programme.
She is, says Tunney, “heavily involved in shaping the apprenticeship” with regular feedback on progress and training which is helping the firm to implement improvements to the programme.
Capper, who won the apprentice of the year award at 2019’s Made in Manchester Awards, chose the apprenticeship route because it “better suits her learning style and motivations”.
She explains: “After I completed my A levels, I was keen to learn about the legal industry and ensure it was best suited for me to pursue my career without the feeling the pressure of university and legal practice course debt resting on my shoulders”.
The apprenticeship gave her that opportunity and the ability to study while she earned. The benefits, both to herself and the firm, of working alongside studying are evident.
Capper says it’s enabled her “to strengthen my time management skills and the chance to be able to directly apply what I learn while studying to my job role”.
Moreover, she says the scheme has given her numerous opportunities she would not have received had she chosen full-time university, such as assisting associates on challenging transactions, networking with a wide range of professionals and managing her own caseload.
So what drives the success of BCLP’s solicitor apprentice scheme? “A clear understanding of the apprenticeship”, stresses Tunney.
A guide is shared between the teams which identifies a rotation plan, the technical framework and a study plan. The apprentices themselves circulate a biography before their seat rotation identifying their background, areas of the business where they’ve had exposure, and their completed and ongoing objectives.
The programme also involves “targeted presentations” providing an overview of the scheme and regular one-on-one sessions for regular development discussion and feedback.
When the apprentice solicitor is ready to apply to the SRA for admission to the roll, they must submit a portfolio of work to be presented to the regulator at the end of the scheme.
Firms need to prepare well in advance and, says Tunney, “to enable apprentices to complete their portfolio you need to identify the type of work that your apprentices will complete”.
She recommends firms review their internal processes to see whether there is any scope for work to be processed and streamlined.
“Ensuring the right work is carried out by the right person is key”, she adds. “You will need to identify the areas and levels of complexity and ensure the correct channels of supervision are in place.”
And BCLP Manchester, having done this, has been able to identify the work the apprentices will gain exposure to throughout their apprenticeship.
Solicitor apprentices are increasingly on the radar – you only have to google ‘solicitor apprentices’ to see that many of the higher profile law firms are actively training and recruiting apprentice solicitors.
Leigh Day, which has already recruited its next cohort of solicitor apprentices for September 2020, has been particularly high up in the search rankings following its recent call for six black students of Afro-Caribbean or African heritage.
The firm’s managing partner Frances Swaine swiftly dispelled the inevitable accusations of racism this attracted, telling the media that the firm is seeking to address under representation in the workplace.
Swaine says the firm is attempting to achieve a balance. She explains: “Several years ago, we recognised that despite efforts in trainee recruitment, we were not succeeding in recruiting black applicants, for what we identified as a number of obvious reasons and a number of unknowables.”
This has resulted in an internal solicitor profile that “nowhere near reflects the demographic of the Greater London population, and creates a much wider race pay gap than we would wish to see”.
She says the firm is also missing out on valuable contributions a more diverse population would bring to the practice. Swaine highlights the obvious financial advantages of solicitor apprenticeships to the individuals themselves.
The main benefit to the firm, she says, “is it enables us to take on a far more diverse group of students, by widening the applicant base to take in those who cannot afford the university experience”.
A firm approach
There are arguably more factors to consider in the context of recruiting and training solicitor apprentices and trainees. While trainee solicitors are, for the most part, trained internally – apprentices are also studying externally while working. That combination creates substantial pressures on young shoulders which firms must think about in the round.
Swaine advises firms who are considering recruiting apprentice solicitors: “Externally, it is important to have your education provider in place to enable the student to start from the first on their day release academic course.
Internally, you need partners ready and willing to sponsor the apprentices through the six-year programme; and senior solicitors happy to supervise and mentor at all times.”
Don’t underestimate the resources required in the recruitment of apprentices, warns Taylor, because it is very different to recruiting graduates.
He explains: “We spend a lot of time and resource speaking to as many schools and colleges as we can so that their students can make an informed choice about which route is for them. There is also a need to engage with the wider families of potential applicants – they will usually have as many questions as the students.”
Look after them
Firms must not forget the mental health of apprentices who will be undoubtedly the most junior members of a firm’s legal staff.
They need as much, if not more support and supervision than trainee solicitors as they adapt to a potentially stressful workplace within a busy profession – typically at a young age. They will also be studying alongside their workload.
Amy Clowrey is chair of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society (JLD) which, on 1 September this year, added solicitor apprentices to its membership.
She says the JLD welcomes any route into the profession which upholds a high standard of training and enables access from diverse backgrounds. But she expresses concern at the comparatively young age of solicitor apprentices.
She says: “One thing employers need to consider is that solicitor apprentices will usually be 18 or 19 years old with little or no prior experience of the workplace. They will be entering a demanding and sometimes fast-paced working environment straight from school.
“Employers need to have their eyes open to this and provide significant additional support to solicitor apprentices, particularly in the early part of their apprenticeship. Particular care needs to be taken in exposing such junior members to an alcohol culture within an organisation.”
Salaries should also reflect the living costs of an apprentice – Clowrey says the JLD knows of some aspiring solicitors relocating away from home in order to accept a position as a solicitor apprentice to pursue their career.
She also warns against the potential for others to view apprentices as junior secretaries or personal assistants given their age or experience. After all, they are expected to be exposed to proper legal work – “and increasingly so as their apprenticeship progresses”.
Taylor says support mechanisms should be put in place for apprentices from the start. “This includes the obvious (such as a line manager), but it should also provide them with other points of contact in case of queries or issues. Often, apprentices can be reluctant or unsure how to bring up a problem with a line manager and need support and guidance with this.”
He also warns firms not to overlook the amount of pressure on apprentices. “They are”, he comments, “balancing four days of work per week on top of around 12 to 15 hours of study; and it is equally important for them to have time for family, friends and hobbies.
Keeping a regular dialogue with them about how they are managing, particularly in the early stages, is key to picking up issues early and resolving them.”
At Eversheds Sutherland, Windrow is also involved with steering groups and project boards “to help explore new technologies” which could be brought into the business and “applied to help deliver legal services differently to our clients”.
Meanwhile, over at BCLP Capper wants to progress on qualification into a management or mentoring role, and work with underprivileged students “to promote accessibility to the legal profession via the non-traditional routes to qualification”. Both apprentices expect to qualify in 2023.
And the firms themselves? It could be that in 10 years or so, solicitor apprenticeships will be conspicuous by their absence – that it will be the norm to take on solicitor apprentices.
The evidence is that the advantages to both the apprentice solicitor and firms themselves perhaps exceed what might have been envisaged when the idea of solicitor apprentices was first mooted years ago.
Nicola Laver is editor of Solicitors Journal and a former solicitor