Live and learn
1 December 2011 | By Laura Manning
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Adapt or die. It was with this old adage that a radical new training model was born, anticipated to change the face of legal education as we know it.
But despite the escalating costs of legal education, it has taken almost nine years for the modern legal apprenticeship to make its first proper foray into the legal market.
With it, it has brought a mountain of concern. The profession’s flirtation with the idea has put its relationship with some legal educators on the rocks, as traditionalists claim it jeopardises the future of the legal market. Will the legal profession’s affair with this new model, coupled with the tuition fee hikes, dilute the appeal of the conventional route into law?
There is little doubt that the short cut is an attractive alternative for aspiring lawyers, giving school-leavers the opportunity to sidestep the hefty tuition fees and debt that are associated with the pursuit of a career in law. Pinsent Masons, for example, offers its apprentices a comfortable £19,000 salary while covering the costs of the necessary academic and practical training.
But there are doubts over whether the apprenticeship model actually broadens entry to the profession, and some believe
it is an insult to those candidates with prestigious degrees from top law schools.
Many of the rumblings come from would-be lawyers who believe the academic study of law cannot be replaced by on-the-job training.
“The time constraints and the emphasis placed upon on-the-job training will destroy any hope of a thorough understanding of the law,” claims final-year LLB student Daniel Reilly. “No amount of piecemeal, remote learning from various online resources can substitute for the superb full-time legal education offered by institutions.”
Many of the cynics assume that the theoretical side of the training will be seen as less important than the practical side, but the bulk of schemes rolled out over the last year have sought partnerships with the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex) to teach
the vital academic skills.
Law firms DWF, Gordons, Irwin Mitchell, Minster Law and Pinsent Masons have all chosen Ilex to support their individual schemes, indicating that it has a big role to play in the growth of legal apprenticeships.
But it could be the legal profession’s underlying prejudice towards the Ilex qualification that is to blame for the argument, with some labelling it “second rate” and “a Mickey Mouse route”.
Final-year law student Richard Ridyard believes Ilex does not provide the required or acceptable standard for a career in law. “The diversity of the law degree is necessary to becoming a well-rounded lawyer,” he says.
However, Reader in Law at Sunderland University Chris Ashford, who was responsible for introducing the concept of the modern legal apprenticeship at Irwin Mitchell in 2004, says that Ilex is only a small part of the legal apprenticeship model. “Ilex certainly has a role to play but law firms could look to use alternative routes to train the apprentices,” he asserts.
So how do legal apprenticeships sit within the current legal education framework? In truth, they don’t. After all, the conventional route to a career in law is embedded in tradition, with the law degree, Legal Practice Course and two-year training contract rooted firmly in
the profession’s foundations.
But the flaws in the current legal education system are forever being unearthed - even Ashford describes it as “a brilliantly evolving mess”. Next year the debate will culminate in a massive legal education and training review by the three biggest legal regulators, the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and the Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards.
Advocates for change want a more holistic approach to qualifying as a solicitor by blending the three elements of: the rules; followed by the skills; followed by the practical training.
The legal profession’s response to this demand so far has been to combine academic and vocational elements into some legal courses, such as Northumbria Law School’s five-year qualifying degree.
A place for legal apprenticeships has also been forged by the ratification of the Legal Services Act (LSA), which is anticipated to bring about the biggest shake-up of the profession for decades. The implementation of the LSA means that for the first time law firms are able to take investment from non-legal entities.
“The legal sector is in a period of change in terms of how flexible law firms are in the delivery of their services,” says Gordons managing partner Paul Ayre. “Firms will need to move with it or be left behind.”
A recent survey by Ucas shows a 5.2 per cent drop in university law course applications, so perhaps the model is attracting the attention of students as well, bringing with it the question of whether legal apprenticeships will eventually lead to the end of the traditional law degree.
“When I started talking about legal apprenticeships in 2004, it was seen as a potentially very exciting initiative, something that could change the landscape of legal education and see the end of law schools,” recalls Ashford. “But clearly it was not the end of law schools, and it’s not going to have a huge impact. It’s just another route.”
Ilex chief executive Diane Burleigh agrees with this, adding that it is not a question of apprenticeships versus the law degree. “I don’t think it’s an either-or situation,” she claims.
“I think there are more opportunities when studying the law degree to develop your academic thinking, which of course would be useful in a firm. But as would a person knowing a business or law firm inside out. I don’t think generalising it or seeing it as an either-or is the best way to look at it.”
Can both routes sit side-by-side? After all, as Ashford points out: “The comments [about Ilex] do smell of an underlying prejudice, which isn’t new to the profession.”
And do academic credentials carry such a premium that an apprentice lawyer will struggle to compete?
“People say [an apprenticeship] is the poor man’s route, but working your way up a business has several benefits compared to being parachuted in halfway,” argues Burleigh. “There’s enormous value in learning about a business from the bottom up.”
Ridyard disagrees with this, claiming it is not true for a career in law. “Whatever value would be added from working up from the bottom would be diluted by the lack of knowledge and foundation in other areas,”he claims.
He adds that a law degree is invaluable and legal apprenticeships will just not cut
it. ”Ultimately it’s the lack of foundation.
The formality of legal education is well-documented while for apprenticeships there isn’t a formal educational model in place.
It’s really just unknown territory,” he claims.
“A lawyer needs to have studied the law thoroughly and in depth, with all studies of law being equally valuable.”
Apprentices may have a tough time proving that they have the right skills. But why rate a degree more highly than an apprenticeship in a market that often rewards practical skills more highly? Indeed, law firm graduate recruiters are always stating that work experience and extracurricular activities are a necessity in differentiating between the stockpile of A* students.
“I don’t hold with the idea that to be a lawyer you have to have this or have to be that,” Ayre remarks. “You have to deliver good service to the client.”
Ashford admits it is too early to predict the future of legal apprentices. “You would need to look at retention; their place in the firm; what happens in terms of partnership; and whether there will be the opportunity to move across into a higher end of work,” he says.
These opportunities need to be open to all to ensure that the growth of legal apprenticeships does not spark two tiers
of lawyers within a law firm.
Reilly believes that clients differentiating between lawyers would damage public confidence in firms and in turn reflect poorly on those who have qualified via the traditional route.
Ridyard says: “How would clients who have confidence in a law firm feel about paying fees to someone who doesn’t have a degree?
And if they charge lower fees, is that not an admission that [the legal executive lawyer] is not as well-qualified?”
Ayre disagrees. “I don’t think clients would be too bothered about who delivers their work,” he says. “It’s about how their work
Dubbing legal apprenticeships ’diversity initiatives’ has also been called into question by adversaries, who claim it will actually narrow access to the profession by giving candidates a ’second-class legal qualification’ that will restrict their progression to the top and encourage a two-tier legal system.
“If they were really opening up the profession, why don’t they just give them a training contract so that they’ll have the opportunity to become a proper lawyer?” commented one reader of Lawyer2b.com in response to Pinsent Masons’ legal apprenticeship scheme. “How exactly is it opening up the profession to say, ’you can’t have a training contract but you can go down the Mickey Mouse route?’. How many partners and associates do you see at top-class magic circle, silver circle, City and US firms who were Ilex-qualified?” (Lawyer2B.com, 27 September 2011).
Even Gordons promoted its scheme as a way of opening the gates to enthusiastic students who cannot afford university.
“We introduced our scheme for a number of reasons,” says Ayre. “One was that we didn’t like the idea that access to a profession like the law was becoming more difficult, particularly in light of the increased cost of further education. Another, however, was the appeal of training our own staff from a young age in light of the changes we envisage in the delivery of our services.”
Ashford believes it is not just a case of reaching out to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, claiming that the tuition fee hike will affect the “squeezed middle” more then the underprivileged.
“What you have to consider is that those from the poorest backgrounds will get [financial] support, so for them it will remain more affordable,” says Ashford. “Those from affluent backgrounds will continue to go to university. Then there is an awful lot of people in the middle - the squeezed middle - who will not be entitled to financial support packages or be able to breeze into the profession along with the more affluent.”
But if it is not a diversity initiative then why are law firms jumping on the legal apprenticeship bandwagon?
Money could be an incentive for smaller firms, with training an apprentice costing far less than bringing in a graduate via the traditional training contract route.
But most firms insist it is about utilising talent. And with fewer students opting for the university path, the chance to nab a couple of bright and ambitious A-Level students could be very appealing to many firms.
Whether you like poring over text books or getting stuck into work, as Ashford says: “Legal apprenticeships are going to happen.”
The best thing will be to embrace it.