While the proportion of trainee solicitors choosing apprenticeships over degrees remains small, solicitor apprenticeships have been gaining momentum, with the Solicitors Regulation Authority recording a 42% surge in the number of apprentices in 2019/20.
The number of solicitor apprentices rose from 170 in 2018/19 to 242 in 2019/20, the SRA revealed in its annual report. Just 30 were undertaken in 2016/17, when the first solicitor apprenticeships began.
However, a period of recognised training followed by a legal practice course remains the most popular route to admission as a solicitor, according to the SRA. In the 12 months to the end of June 2021, 81% (5,657) of solicitors admitted to the roll qualified in this way, while others may have transferred to the profession from overseas or from working as a barrister.
Qualifying through a solicitor apprenticeship offers candidates an opportunity to learn on the job without the expense of going to university, as their training and assessments are paid for by firms and the apprenticeship levy.
By offering apprenticeships for solicitor positions, law firms can make the profession more accessible to people from all backgrounds.
The SRA developed a Trailblazer apprenticeship in law in partnership with numerous employers. It typically takes five to six years to qualify as a solicitor and the apprenticeship includes the SQE training and assessment, which from September 2021 all aspiring solicitors will need to pass.
Burges Salmon was one of the firms involved in the Trailblazer development and has offered apprenticeships since 2016. Its first apprentices are expected to qualify in September 2023.
Frances Bennett, the firm’s resourcing manager, said Burges Salmon has been able to attract candidates who may never have come to the firm through law degrees.
“It has opened up a route that may have made qualification as a solicitor a possibility when it wouldn’t have been previously – going to university isn’t seen as a possibility for all students. Some candidates learn better in a more practical environment and the apprenticeship offers hands on learning, while earning, from day one,” she said.
“Our apprentices will have six years of work experience behind them by the point of qualification and will have had the chance to meet many people from across the business.”
The firm has taken on four apprentices on average each year since 2016 and by 2024 it hopes to have 24 legal apprentices on board – accounting for a third of the legal emerging talent streams it runs.
Those who join Burges Salmon as an apprentice initially complete an enhanced version of its two-year paralegal apprenticeship. Successful candidates are invited to join the solicitor programme in the third year.
“Throughout both schemes, apprentices learn through a mix of on-the-job and classroom learning, which is mostly delivered online over one day each week,” said Bennett. “Apprentices cover all compulsory elements of a traditional law degree and are able to apply this learning directly in their role at the firm.”
Weightmans has recruited its first cohort of 13 apprentice solicitors this year, who are due to start their roles in September. A further 12 apprentices are set to join next year.
Denise Wright, graduate development adviser, said apprentices who join after completing their A-levels will complete a minimum of six placements across the business in different practice areas.
“This will give them a varied experience of work, teams and clients and also help them to identify where they will enjoy working when qualified as a solicitor,” said Wright.
Apprentices will spend a day per week studying, with learning content provided by BPP University Law School. They will gain a qualifying law degree and have the SQE assessment at the end of the six-year programme.
“We have also enhanced their learning by designing a bespoke business and personal skills development programme which will be delivered in-house, and we will look to develop their knowledge of how our business works, what is important to our clients and provide opportunities for personal growth. This will also include a unique opportunity to experience non-legal teams through placements in areas such a finance or innovation,” said Wright.
Apprenticeships at Weightmans are also available for candidates with law degrees. They will undertake a 32-month programme with five placements and one SQE study day per week.
“They are challenging programmes, and apprentices will need to develop strong organisational skills as they study alongside working. However, it is also a very rewarding pathway, and apprentices will develop a wide range of skills enabling them to provide an excellent service to our clients and contribute to the future success of the firm,” said Wright.