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The legal profession has long been criticised for its lack of social mobility and its deployment of traditional recruitment methods.
Many trainees at top law firms are drawn from a narrow slice of universities: a recent survey into social mobility at law firms by Byfield Consultancy found that more than 80 per cent of legal trainees at the top 50 firms were from the Russell Group of top UK universities.
In the Russell Group, private school pupils are over-represented: they form 25 per cent of students, when only 6.5 per cent of schoolchildren attend private schools.
But there is a growing number of alternative routes into law. One recent initiative to help promote diversity in the profession has been apprenticeships for would-be paralegals and solicitors. This year Eversheds, the law firm, introduced an apprenticeship aimed at those with A-levels, the school-leavers’ exams taken by English pupils at age 18, which allows them to qualify as a solicitor after six years.
“It means you can come out debt-free and qualify as a solicitor and get a degree whilst you earn,” says Catherine Knight, graduate recruitment manager at Eversheds. “Many of the apprentices had excellent A-levels with As and A*s and could have gone to university but chose to do this instead.”
Starting on a salary of up to £17,200, the apprentices work full-time and study part-time, eventually gaining an LLB (bachelor of laws) degree as well as work experience — a big plus for those worried about racking up student debts. The first eight apprentices who started in September were selected from hundreds of applications.
The apprenticeship route is being championed by the government. In September, Lord Chancellor Liz Truss was asked about how she would ensure a more diverse legal profession given the costs of a degree. She replied that she was a “huge fan of apprenticeships” and the government’s plan to create 3m apprenticeships “brings a big opportunity for some of our large legal services firms”.
Law firms like Horwich Farrelly and even elite Magic Circle firm Freshfields have been among those which have taken on apprentice paralegals from school. Freshfields is partnering with the University of Law to launch a new paralegal apprenticeship scheme in its legal services centre in Manchester. Olivia Balson, head of the legal services centre at Freshfields, says the scheme ensures that the firm “has access to as wide a talent pool as possible”.
A related, but more radical, change is that the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the legal regulator, is now allowing individuals to be admitted as solicitors under its “equivalent means” system, provided that they have the right quality and quantity of experience.
In 2015 Robert Houchill became the first paralegal to be admitted as a solicitor without doing a training contract after working for a number of years and demonstrating “a considerable amount of evidence” of his standard, according to Bates Wells Braithwaite, his employer at the time.
By contrast, the more traditional route to becoming a solicitor in England and Wales is largely academic, involving a three-year law degree, followed by a year’s Legal Practice Course and then two years’ in-house training.
This can be expensive and the Legal Practice Course alone can cost more than £15,000. Trainee solicitors are signed off as competent to practise at the end of their training contracts by one of about 2,000 law firms but there is no mechanism for firms to compare standards.
The SRA is now looking at overhauling legal training by creating a new Solicitors Qualifying Examination — a final two-part exam. This would also make it easier for training providers to develop flexible courses — including non-degree or work-based routes — to widen access.
Crispin Passmore, executive director of policy at the SRA, says the creation of one two-part exam would improve diversity by giving confidence that all new solicitors have reached the same standard. This is hard to assess while 100 universities offer law degrees and thousands of law firms offer training contracts.
The new exam would also allow able students who had not attended an elite university or who had come up through a work-based route to shine, says Mr Passmore.
“If you are the first in your family to go to university and go to a modern university, then if your marks on the SQE show off your skills you will be able to show that around potential employers.”