Dear Legal Profession – letter from a solicitor apprentice
Emily Shields is a third-year solicitor apprentice at Osborne Clarke in Bristol, having joined straight from sixth form as part of the firm's second ever intake of solicitor apprentices in 2019. She shares her experiences in an open letter to the profession
Dear Legal Profession, hope you're well. Thanks for investing in us and the future…
When I was in my second year of secondary school, I read To Kill a Mockingbird and immediately decided I was destined to become a modern Atticus Finch, defending the innocent and fighting the injustices of our modern society.
As time went on, my view of the role of a lawyer evolved into something more realistic, and finally resembled the image that is a 21st century commercial lawyer.
And four years later, while choosing my A-levels, I decided that this vision actually suited me better.
Under pressure at age 17
A-levels are an immensely overwhelming time.
You feel as if you have to make an enormous decision about what to do with the rest of your life, when your biggest priority is whether learning to drive in a Fiat 500 will affect your ability to perform in a driving test that's taking place in a Ford Fiesta.
Or worrying about careers that different degrees can lead to when all you can think about is how unfair it is that you don't turn 18 until May, so you'll miss your friend's 18th birthday drinks at Slug and Lettuce.
There's pressure from school, pressure from peers, pressure to work hard but also fit in – it's a lot.
Knowing what I wanted to do made it easier for me, and I was set on becoming a lawyer. However, I was always convinced that I would go to university and do it the 'traditional' way.
Both of my parents were fortunate enough to attend higher education and I come from an area where it is the norm to leave the small country town at 18 for the 'university life' in much larger and buzzier cities.
So that's where I thought I was headed – a big, exciting city where I would be sat in a library all night with my head stuck in books about land law principles and criminal cases.
I had never, up until my final years in sixth form, considered anything else.
I had always known that there were apprenticeships for careers like plumbing, hairdressing, even engineering – but an apprenticeship to become the modern Atticus Finch? Surely not.
When I began to hear about legal apprenticeships and alternative ways to qualify as a lawyer, I couldn't quite believe it, so I began my internet digging.
Too good to be true? Apprenticeship opportunities
I found that many firms had begun to offer 'trailblazer' apprenticeships in 2016, as part of the government's initiative to increase social mobility through the apprenticeship levy (although anyone could apply).
I was just shocked that no one was screaming and shouting about these amazing opportunities.
To me, qualifying as a lawyer whilst working in a firm alongside lawyers who were famous in their fields – incurring no student debt and earning a salary on top – seemed too good to be true.
When I came across Osborne Clarke's solicitor apprenticeship, I thought that there had to be a catch.
Of course, I had to be offered it first, but on paper it seemed so perfect that I couldn't believe my luck. Especially after reading up on the firm's website about its inclusive culture and progressive initiatives – I thought I'd hit the jackpot.
And so, I completed the online application process and attended an open evening at the Bristol office which, ironically, was the same day as one of my university open days.
My poor parents were bombarded with my conflicted ramblings as I fluctuated between “university, definitely” to “wait, no – the apprenticeship, of course!”, and so on.
I was then fortunate enough to be called to the assessment centre and, eventually, was offered a place at the firm as a solicitor apprentice.
From A-levels to corporate law
I am now almost three years into my apprenticeship and, I can say without any shadow of a doubt, this opportunity has been life-changing.
I sit in the tax team and am one of 11 solicitor apprentices across different areas of the firm.
It’s no easy feat to leave school at 18 and head straight into a large, commercial law firm, and I admit at first I found it extremely challenging to adjust to the corporate world.
I felt I had merely blinked, and was now expected to be a fully-formed professional dealing with transactions worth more money than I could fathom.
Just a month earlier, my biggest decision was whether I wanted to meet my friends for a summer BBQ while my weather app was forecasting light drizzle.
As an apprentice, people often don't know where to place you. Peers go off to university and can't comprehend the fact that you don't do jaeger bombs on a Wednesday.
My parents have also had their fair share of comments along the lines of “how disappointing it is that Emily didn't go to university,” and “what a waste of those great A-levels!” – not to mention the amount of backhanded compliments that I, and fellow apprentices, have received.
It's unfortunate there is stigma surrounding apprenticeships in many firms. But it could not be more wrongfully placed.
We recently tried to dispel some of the common myths around apprenticeships, like the fact that we're not just here to make tea and coffee…
But joking aside, since 2015, Osborne Clarke has taken on 24 solicitor and non-solicitor apprentices from a wide range of backgrounds and the resounding feedback is that apprentices are enthusiastic, produce high-quality work and deliver real value.
I can’t wait to see how the scheme continues to grow in the future.
A two-way system
From the outside looking in: law is a scary industry. From the outside looking in as an 18-year-old: it's even scarier.
From the inside looking out: it's just a group of people. People who are willing to support and nurture you, to help develop you, and educate you.
Equally, as young and innovative people, apprentices can offer the same to colleagues and the business itself.
Personally, I can vouch for the fact legal apprenticeships are a genuine blessing to young people from many different situations and backgrounds.
But I can likewise promise the legal industry itself that this talent and innovation will not go amiss.