The Guardian homeBy Alex Aldridge, Will school-leavers taking the apprenticeship route outstrip traditional law graduates?
Five years from now, when the line between solicitors, legal executives and paralegals has blurred sufficiently to create a single class of "legal professional", Katie Westley may look back rather happily on her decision to enter the law via the school leaver apprenticeship route. Indeed, as the accomplished Westley of 2017 sends her debt-saddled law graduate peers on trainee tea-making errands, she may even permit herself an occasional moment of smugness. Westley is a 19 year-old litigation executive at MJP Law Solicitors, who is training to become a lawyer via the on-the-job Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (Cilex) route. Of course, it's also possible that the old hierarchies will prove more durable than many predict, leaving Westley looking on wistfully as her university-educated pals leapfrog her professionally.
Which is the most likely of these scenarios? Well, no one seems to know, with even the experienced Bob Labadie, boss of fast-growing Co-operative Legal Services, admitting that to make such a call is "crystal ball gazing". Labadie, however, made it clear that his organisation – which is likely to be influential in shaping the new legal landscape emerging as a result of deregulation brought about by the Legal Services Act (LSA) – has little time for professional title-based snobbery. For Westley, who could have gone to a top university, the decision to join a law firm straight from school came down to wanting "a way stand out from the crowd, gain experience in a recession and take advantage of the rise in status of legal executives." She adds:
"After all, it is not as if going to uni guarantees you a job anymore, or even a paralegal position, which is what I effectively hold now."
Amid all the unknowns, there is one certainty: after last month's announcement that the government is set to provide £1m in funding to create 750 higher legal apprenticeships, a good deal more people are going to be following Westley's route into law – currently only available to those who either pick up the tab for the training themselves or get their firms to shoulder the burden. And that may only be just the beginning. The coalition is said to be keen to make further investments to support an annual flow of legal apprentices. If this first phase of the scheme is a hit, the legal profession could be on the brink of a major change to the way it recruits its young.
Not that widespread school-leaver entry into law is a new phenomenon. Going back 50 years or so, qualifying as a solicitor via the non-graduate clerk route was very common. As Labadie recalls: "I entered the profession in the early 1980s when a lot of senior partners had no law degree."
Since then, though, the legal world has changed dramatically – most notably through the emergence of a series of global super firms which trade, to a large extent, on the academic credentials of their employees. So don't expect to see apprenticeships embraced at the magic circle quartet of Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Freshfields and Allen & Overy. However, outside the top tier there has been strong interest in school leaver schemes, with large outfits like DWF, Kennedys and Gordons all launching their own firm-funded apprenticeship programmes over the last couple of years. The difference between these firms and the aforementioned crème de la crème is, according to Kennedys HR advisor Emma Phipps, the fact that firms like hers do much more basic claims work – which, she adds, "lends itself better to employees who go in at a low level".
The obvious risk is that apprentices – who will begin as paralegals earning as little as £2.60 per hour (the national apprentice minimum wage), then have the option of qualifying as legal executives, but would only be able to qualify as solicitors by undergoing fairly lengthy additional training – get stuck doing low-value work their entire careers. Having said that, the current anti-snobbery mood running through the legal profession in the wake of the LSA (which, among other things, will allow non-lawyers, including paralegals, to become partners in law firms) is such that that the hard-working and intelligent apprentices of the future will surely be allowed to progress to an ever greater extent – even if nobody is quite sure how far.
Certainly, it's difficult to argue with the logic of James O'Connell, the head of the Institute of Paralegals, who reckons that having non-lawyers involved in the running of firms will bring about a change in culture that "gets rid of some of the old prejudices against non-solicitors".
As paralegals now form the vast majority of those providing legal services (there are around 300,000 of them in the UK versus approximately 125,000 solicitors and 12,000 barristers), O'Connell believes there is going to be a growing incentive to reward "those who can serve clients to the highest standard at the cheapest cost".
When you look at it this way, it's possible that the focus of the legal apprenticeship debate may shift pretty quickly from whether or not skipping university is a good idea to which legal services providers should get first dibs on the funding (which sees the government shoulder the full cost of training for apprentices who start the scheme aged under 19, and half of the costs for those aged 19-24).
At Wednesday's formal launch of the scheme, held at the central London headquarters of programme partner Pearson in Practice, Holly Padfield-Paine of the Law Centres Federation raised an interesting issue when she asked how her organisation could get its hands on some of the apprenticeship money. "This seems to be very focused on the commercial sector, but we're very interested in the scheme because, to be frank, we have no money left," she said. Meanwhile, legal aid firms, many of which are unable to afford to fund trainees, are also said to be keen to get their share of the government's apprenticeship grant.
With larger commercial law firms privately indicating that they will not hold back in pitching against smaller rivals for the cash, we could be in for a scrap.
Alex Aldridge is the editor of
Legal Cheek.