Solicitor apprenticeships, graduate solicitor apprenticeships and training contracts: what’s the difference?

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By Legal Cheek on

Legal Cheek explains…

With more avenues opening up into a career in the legal industry, questions likely abound about the various options available to gain Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) and what they mean. So, here’s a comprehensive overview of all things training contract and apprenticeship to help clear things up a bit.

Solicitor apprenticeships

Solicitor apprenticeships provide aspiring solicitors with an ‘earn as you learn’ route to qualification, as an alternative to the traditional path through university. These programmes are usually five or six years long and are aimed at post A-Level students, with each employer usually having their own entry requirements to assess candidates. The costs of training and assessments over the course of the apprenticeship are not borne by the students, but rather, are paid for by the apprenticeship levy fund. This fund is paid into by businesses with an annual pay bill exceeding £3 million, and those providing apprenticeship-level training are able to recoup their contribution.

Those completing a solicitor apprenticeship are required to spend 80% of their time receiving on-the-job training, and 20% on off-the-job training. The former typically entails rotations through the various departments of the firm, like that of a traditional training contract. What the latter means in practice is that solicitor apprentices typically spend four days a week working with one day allocated as a ‘study day’, during which they first complete an LLB, and subsequently study for and take the SQE1 exams. Additionally, they also take the SQE2 exams towards the end of their apprenticeship. Upon completing the apprenticeship and passing both SQE1&2, candidates are ready to qualify as a solicitor.

NEW: The 2024 Legal Cheek Solicitor Apprenticeships Most List

Solicitor apprenticeships have been gaining significant traction in recent times, with Magic Circle firms, global and national players offering this alternative route to qualification. Check out the newly-launched Legal Cheek 2024 Solicitor Apprenticeships Most List for valuable insights on what life as an apprentice is actually like at over 30 law firms.

Also read about Holly Moore’s experience of starting out her career at ITV as the UK’s first in-house solicitor apprentice, her motivations for pursuing this route and how she balanced work and study.

Graduate solicitor apprenticeships

This is a newer route to qualification and sits somewhere between the solicitor apprenticeship and training contract options. It allows candidates to start gaining on-the-job experience and earning a salary straight after their law degree or conversion course, and usually lasts between two and three years. During this period, they complete the SQE1&2 and their QWE simultaneously.

As with the solicitor apprenticeship route, those seeking to qualify through this path gain on-the-job and off-the-job experience through an 80-20 split, usually spending four days a week working, and one day a week studying for the SQE. The training and assessments for the SQE are paid for by the firm using some or all of their contributions to the apprenticeship levy, as appropriate.

Emily Ross, a graduate solicitor apprentice at Astra Zeneca spoke to Legal Cheek in autumn 2023 about her experience of studying for the SQE1&2 alongside completing QWE.

Training contracts

This is the traditional, long-established route to qualifying as a solicitor. Candidates typically apply for vacation schemes in the penultimate year of their law degree, or in the final year of their non-law degree, and if successful, get offered a training contract after completing a short placement (the vacation scheme) at their chosen law firm. Alternatively, some firms allow candidates to apply for a direct training contract and there is also the option of completing a training contract in-house.

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The firm pays the course and exam fees for its future trainees’ SQE1&2, and upon completing these assessments, candidates begin their two years of QWE at their chosen firm. Candidates are also often paid a maintenance grant by the firm to assist with living and other costs during the period of SQE study.

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