Reformed apprenticeship route could profoundly shake up traditional legal education models — and be trouble for legal executives
School-leavers could qualify as solicitors in as little as five years without crossing the threshold of a university or doing a training contract, apprenticeship plans unveiled yesterday revealed.
In the latest move that will dramatically alter the delivery of legal education — and potentially shake to the core the business models of vocational training providers — the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, yesterday published assessment plans and standards for apprenticeships in the legal profession.
The recommended minimum entry requirements for the scheme suggest that as long as school children don’t spend too much time smoking behind the bike sheds and can then talk a law firm into giving them an apprenticeship, they will be able to qualify.
According to the statement yesterday from the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) — the organisation overseeing the process — all that will be required are: five GCSEs, including mathematics and English at grade C or above (or equivalent), and three A-levels (or equivalent) at a minimum of grade C.
As if that were not simple enough, an alternative route involves what the scheme’s developers describe as “relevant employer-led work experience”; a level 3 advanced apprenticeship or level 4 higher apprenticeship in a relevant occupation, such as business administration, financial services, or even legal services; a paralegal or legal executive apprenticeship.
The final alternative — which will provide some relief to those in higher and vocational education — will be via a law degree, the Graduate Diploma in Law, and the Legal Practice Course.
However, it would seem unrealistic to expect students to go through the traditional higher education route to qualify for an apprenticeship when all they need is three mediocre A-levels.
Existing vocational education providers will take some solace from the fact that the apprenticeship scheme will still require some level of structured training and ultimately formal assessment. Yesterday’s government statement said:
Qualification as a solicitor through the apprenticeship standard route will require satisfactory completion of the new centralised assessment provided by one or more independent assessment organisations, appointed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority … Candidates will be unable to complete the apprenticeship, or be admitted as a solicitor, until they have satisfactorily met this requirement.
In the statement, CILEx chief executive Mandie Lavin praised the reforms:
These new, employer-led standards ensure the qualifications will be market driven and fit for purpose and we look forward to working with both legal businesses and learners on delivering these apprenticeships and continuing to encourage a more diverse profession.
A Solicitors Regulation Authority spokeswoman yesterday confirmed to Legal Cheek that once the proposal receives final approval from the regulator’s board, the streamlined process would be on track for implementation next year.
She also confirmed that the process would effectively mean that as long as a school-leaver can convince a law firm to lay on an apprenticeship, qualification could await six years down the road through mostly work-related experience.
That could have a devastating impact on the business models of universities providing law degrees and vocational courses. They are already under pressure as a result of the high cost of legal education; students often finish the process tens of thousands of pounds in debt.
But the reforms could also have an existential impact on CILEx. If the route from school to qualification as a solicitor were streamlined down to six years — while the apprentice route for legal executives is five years — why would students bother with the latter?
Nonetheless, Vicky Purtill, head of qualifications at CILEx, remained confident, telling Legal Cheek:
Law firms may … prefer to train chartered legal executives rather than solicitors, based on the job roles they have available once the apprentice is qualified.
Having worked alongside some of the UK’s leading legal sector employers, we are confident that the chartered legal executive pathway will be accepted by the sector. CILEx already has a clear advantage; we have been successfully delivering apprenticeships alongside the CILEx lawyer qualifications for a number of years and now have more than 360 legal apprentices working at over 100 businesses in England and Wales.
Purtill went on to say:
CILEx has also been delivering the chartered legal executive qualification pathway for more than 50 years, albeit not in a formal apprenticeship capacity.
The qualification process shake-up was formed in consultation with a group of top law firms and employers of in-house lawyers. Law firms included: Addleshaw Goddard, Browne Jacobson, Burges Salmon, Clyde & Co, DAC Beachcroft, Dentons, DWF, Eversheds, Gateley LLP, Kennedys Law, Lewis Silkin, Mayer Brown, Olswang, Pannone, Simmons & Simmons, Stephenson Harwood, Thomas Eggar and Withers.