Legal apprenticeship schemes — cheap labour for law firms?

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By Judge John Hack on

Some apprentices are paid less than half the salary of their trainee counterparts — raising suggestions that the role could revolutionise legal profession training

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Confusion and a lack of transparency bedevil nascent solicitors’ profession apprenticeship schemes — amid growing evidence that the qualification route could be cheaper for students and law firms alike.

A Legal Cheek survey of five high-profile law firms offering apprenticeships has uncovered a variety of approaches, as well as multiple levels of pay.

But figures from firms divulging apprenticeship remuneration show a yawning gap between those rates and starting pay for first-year trainees.

While those differentials can be justified by the fact that trainees are graduates and apprentices generally school-leavers, there remain suggestions that the new route could be another factor in the ultimate demise of solicitor training contracts.

The starkest difference is at Liverpool-based international firm Hill Dickinson. The firm is currently advertising a two-year apprenticeship programme with individuals paid annual salaries of £12,000. In contrast, starting training contract salaries at the firm are £32,000.

Likewise, 38-office City global firm Clyde & Co has just recruited a first batch of nine apprentices in its Manchester office. They will earn annual salaries of £14,000 for a two-year fixed term contract. Starting training contract salaries at the firm are pegged at £36,000.

London-based international private client specialist firm Withers started offering two-year apprenticeships earlier this year and currently has one slot filled on a salary of £17,000. The firm pays its first-year trainees £34,000.

Two other firms — City-based insurance specialists Kennedys and Square Mile global player Addleshaw Goddard — responded to the Legal Cheek survey but declined to provide apprenticeship salary details. The firms offer £34,000 and £37,000, respectively, to their first-year trainees.

The trick for law firms will be how quickly they can train their apprentices for fee-earning roles. A generation or two ago, it was not uncommon for school-leavers to qualify as solicitors via what was known as the “six-year route”.

That path obviated the need for university study, with apprentices joining as articled clerks at the age of 16 or 17, slaving away at everything from tea-making to drafting, until they qualified in their mid-twenties.

Whether the economics of the modern six-year route – which involves qualification first as a legal executive and a possible exemption from the LPC when transferring to the solicitor side of the profession — will work for law firms is a hugely important question for the future of legal training. Ridding themselves of the high cost of trainee Legal Practice Course fees and living subsidies — as well as two years of higher salaries — could be very attractive, provided they can turn green teenage apprentices into fee-earning machines fairly quickly.

For that evolution to take place, there needs to be much greater clarity over the schemes. Kennedys claims to be the first law firm to announce a legal apprenticeship back in 2012, and it currently employs 20 apprentices at various levels across the firm.

That practice, along with Hill Dickinson, Withers and Clyde & Co, is offering the two-year scheme described as a “level three advanced apprenticeship in legal services”.

However, Addleshaw Goddard, has positioned itself at the forefront of the “Trailblazers scheme”, which is not launching until 2017. That programme is billed as providing a “structured way from school-leaver right up to qualification as a solicitor”, involving qualification first as a legal executive.

Addleshaw says it is aiming to launch an apprentice recruitment campaign in January to fill another dozen places at the firm’s Leeds and Manchester offices.

From a school-leaver’s point of view — not to mention a journalist’s — the different ways the various schemes are branded must be rather confusing. And in comparison to the highly structured training contract route it all looks rather ad hoc. But it is, of course, still early days for legal apprenticeships.