You're hired by Edward O'Rourke, Ashtons Legal

This article was originally featured as a column in the July issue of LPM. To read the issue in full, download LPM.

Many established law firms are making gradual ongoing changes to their staff structures in the interests of efficiency and profitability. But new entrants to the market are setting up with entirely different people structures – and many are building their businesses with the hard work of apprentices.

The opportunities to hire and develop apprentices in law firms are now better than ever before – primarily because of the new apprenticeship levy introduced in April 2017. Any employer with a pay bill over £3m a year is required to pay the levy monthly – so many mediumsized and large law firms have already made their first payment and, as costs are often firms’ largest overhead, smaller firms may also be hit. The aim of this new ‘tax’, of course, is to encourage more apprenticeships – as levypaying employers can now create an account to fund apprenticeships.

Within the modern law firm there are many areas where employing apprentices may be appropriate. In my own firm, for example, we have apprentices in legal teams and in support functions. The most appropriate type of apprenticeship will depend on the individual circumstances.

However, one form of apprenticeship that has recently been gaining publicity is the trailblazer apprenticeship for solicitors. This provides a route to qualification as a solicitor within the same six-year timescale as the traditional degree route, but allow an income to be earned while learning. The learning is blended with one day a month of tuition, one day a week (including the tuition day each month) studying, and work the rest of the time. The entry requirements are a minimum three Cs at A-level.

The push by the government to see more employers offering apprenticeships, coupled with rising costs of higher education, may lead to a shift in the route to entry in the profession. While I don’t anticipate an end to law firms recruiting trainees from universities, it may not be long before future solicitors in a law firm will be a blend of apprentices and trainees. Making use of the apprenticeship fund is an incentive for the law firm, and the ability to become a solicitor while earning will be an incentive for bright A-level students who are unwilling or unable to commit to the high fees and career uncertainty of the degree route.

Overall participation in higher education has increased from 3.4% in 1950 to 38% in 2016. This rise in the number of students moving into higher education has led to supply of graduates outstripping the positions available. The more recent trend of rising tuition fees may be the beginning of the reversal of this trend. Those students now deciding to look at alternative routes into the profession aren’t any less intelligent or able than their predecessors who may have seen university as a more automatic choice. More and more firms are looking to train their solicitors in their own way – there’s been a rise in tailored LPC courses to facilitate this – and the apprenticeship route enables this to happen in an environment embedded within the firm and over a six-year period.

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