The Solicitor Apprenticeship Scheme and SQE
Combining the acquisition of theoretical knowledge with on-the-job practical experience, apprenticeships have long been a popular alternative to further full-time study leading to a degree or employment without additional training.
In previous decades, apprenticeships have been largely confined to manual trades, with professional workers still only able to access their chosen career through the completion of a relevant diploma, degree course, or professional qualification, which needed to be successfully obtained prior to taking up employment.
Renewed enthusiasm for apprenticeships in recent years has led to an increase in the range of occupations offering apprenticeships, but these still tend to be for non-graduate jobs. This situation is set to change significantly with the introduction of the Government’s Trail Blazer Initiative.
What is the Trail Blazer Initiative?
In order to devise apprenticeships which provide a viable alternative to higher education for more skilled jobs and professions, the government has asked groups of relevant employers to work in partnership to develop and produce suitable standards for apprenticeships in new employment areas.
By being employer led, it is hoped that these new apprenticeships will result in apprentices who acquire the skills and abilities employers need. Employers are expected to work in partnership with universities, FE colleges, professional bodies and other relevant parties to devise a clear set of proposals for apprenticeships which, if appropriate, allow apprentices to complete a degree level qualification at the same time as working.
The government wants to see an additional three million apprenticeship opportunities, across a broad spectrum of occupations, available to school leavers.
There are already a good number of apprenticeships available in the legal sector, typically enabling apprentices to qualify as paralegals or chartered legal executives following a number of years of “earning and learning” through an apprenticeship scheme. The launch of the University of Law’s articled solicitor apprenticeship scheme in 2014 meant that apprentices had the opportunity to become fully qualified solicitors without needing to go to university full-time.
This opportunity has been enhanced by the dissemination of new standards and assessment criteria for solicitor apprenticeships by BIS (the department for business, innovation and skills) in 2014. There is now growing impetus within the legal sector to provide more apprenticeships, particularly those aimed at the higher levels of legal professionals.
What are the Duties and Roles of an Apprentice with a Law Firm?
Apprentices are employed by legal firms, usually in a paralegal role. They are expected to spend most of their time at work, with time off to learn, usually at a local education institution. The exact nature of the job will vary from firm to firm and will also depend on the individual apprentice and the type of qualification being undertaken.
For example, apprentices undertaking one of the higher level apprenticeships are likely to have a more specialist range of duties than someone participating in one of the lower level apprenticeship opportunities. A number of leading law firms offer apprenticeships, providing an appealing environment for school-leavers to gain experience of working life in a dynamic, thriving practice.
Apprentices can Now Qualify as Solicitors!
One of the most exciting innovations of the Government’s Trailblazer initiative is the introduction of the solicitor apprenticeship, offering an opportunity for apprentices to qualify as solicitors through the SQE, without needing to undertake a university degree. While the university was (and is still) the major route to a professional qualification for solicitors, solicitors, in fact, have never been required to hold a degree as a condition to practise law.
The law apprenticeship route combines a paid job with a law firm, while studying for formal qualifications, typically funded by the employer and the government. Many law firms employ apprentices in various capacities, providing an appealing environment for school-leavers to gain experience of working life in a dynamic, thriving practice while earning an apprenticeship that could be degree-equivalent and meets the requirements to fully qualify as a solicitor via the SQE.
Chartered legal executives (professionals who are qualified to the same level as solicitors in one area of law only) have been able to qualify through alternative routes for some years, by taking the LPC and, depending on whether or not they are a CILEX Fellow, completing a training contract.
With the standards and assessment criteria for solicitor apprenticeships recently approved by the government, school-leavers now have a real opportunity to undertake high calibre, professional training without needing to go down the university route.
As the standards have been formalised, it is expected that a growing number of law firms will adopt them and start offering apprenticeships which are geared towards high achieving school-leavers, as well as continuing to provide paralegal training and qualification opportunities.
The Advantages of a Legal Apprenticeship
Compared with more traditional routes, apprenticeships can give a number of benefits; these include:
- No student debt – although solicitor apprenticeship wages aren’t high, it does mean that apprentices can still pursue their studies without having to borrow student loans for tuition and living expenses
- Practical experience of work – legal apprentices have the opportunity to learn the transferable skills which are essential to successful working
- Commence a career immediately – many able school-leavers are clear about what they want to do and are already committed to a legal career. An apprenticeship enables them to harness their enthusiasm and start proving themselves, while at the same time providing an employer with a willing, dedicated employee.
The Disadvantages of a Legal Apprenticeship
Despite the benefits of going down the solicitor apprenticeship route, there are still some potential drawbacks which need to be considered:
- There aren’t that many legal apprenticeships out there – although numbers have grown, many firms still don’t offer apprenticeships, particularly at a higher level. It may be that none of your preferred firms have a suitable opening for you. Solicitor apprenticeships are still relatively new – this may mean that, even if you obtain your qualifications via the apprenticeship route, if you apply to work elsewhere, another legal firm may prefer a university-trained applicant.
- A received lack of prestige associated with having a JD could narrow the scope of job opportunities.
- Apprenticeship pay isn’t high – although the cost of student loans needs to be offset against future salary, a legal graduate commencing work as a solicitor will almost invariably earn significantly more than an apprentice.
- A notable lack of direct access to peer support communities is typically found through connections made with alumni organisations.
- A solicitor apprenticeship is less transferable than a degree – a legal degree enables graduates to pursue legal careers as well as those jobs for which a non-specific degree is required. Legal apprentices have more limited opportunities to transfer their learning elsewhere.
- A full working week in addition to studying is a tough option to commit to, requiring considerable dedication.
For more information on the different types of law apprenticeships available, watch this video.
The Assessment Framework of Solicitor Apprenticeship
In order to become a solicitor, apprentices will need to take the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) administered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The SQE is a centralised assessment, which all intending solicitors, including apprentices, must pass to qualify as solicitors.
The SQE includes two stages: SQE1, which comprises two functioning knowledge assessments, and SQE2, a practical legal skills assessment. The SQE1 exam will test the candidate’s ability to draw on sufficient knowledge to practise effectively and will assess the application of knowledge and legal processes specified in various areas of law. SQE1 is a computer-based exam, allowing it to be easily administered in almost any location.
The SQE2 exam involves a practical exam, which will assess the candidate’s ability to fulfil a number of different criteria. It will assess the application of knowledge, skills, and behaviours in the following six skills: interviewing and advising; advocacy; case and matter analysis; legal writing; legal drafting; and legal research.
The skills will be tested in the context of five different practice areas: dispute resolution; criminal litigation; property law and practice, wills and the administration of estates, and business law and practice.
The Statement of Solicitor Competence set forth by the SRA, is the solicitor apprenticeship standard that must be completed and passed as part of the two-part SQE examination. The second part of the exam must be completed within the last six months of the apprenticeship.
The skill areas of interviewing and advocacy will be assessed through practical role-plays in legal environments known as ‘stations’, marked and moderated by the assessment organisation to ensure consistency of standards. The skill areas of legal writing, legal drafting, legal research, and case and matter analysis will be assessed through online case studies in which examinees must respond to legal scenarios and complete the specified task or tasks.
Passing the SQE on completion of the solicitor apprenticeship is a pre-requisite of becoming a practising solicitor in the UK. The SQE exams will be conducted by an independent assessment organisation, Kaplan, and will take place in timed conditions in assessment centres, away from the workplace. Legal apprentices, like other examinees, have a maximum of three attempts each to pass the SQE1 or SQE2 exams, in a six-year period.
The SQE exam format has already been successfully tested through its use as part of the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS). The QLTS is a fast track route which enables professionals with pre-existing legal qualifications, mostly from abroad, to qualify as English solicitor, without undertaking an internship or fulfilling any experience requirement.
The SQE will assess all aspiring solicitors, regardless of the pathway they have followed. It will provide a common assessment for individuals who have a law degree, are being taught through an apprenticeship or are overseas qualified lawyers.
What do the New Legal Apprenticeships Mean for the Profession?
With legal apprenticeships which can lead to qualification as a solicitor still relatively new, it’s difficult to know what the impact of this alternative route to qualification might be.
For legal firms, there’s the opportunity to recruit high calibre school-leavers, lining up talent for the future.
For school-leavers, entry into the workplace providers job security and is an attractive way of avoiding the debts incurred by a university education. Many school-leavers also like the idea of working and being independent.
Equally, some people might feel that they are missing out on going to university and might also worry that their solicitor apprenticeship may be viewed as a second class route into the legal profession.
This fear appears ungrounded, however, as all solicitors may eventually need to prepare and pass the SQE exams, which is designed to assure consistently high standards in order to ensure credibility in the solicitor title is maintained and the consumer interest is protected, regardless of the pathway chosen for qualification.