Careers

Womble Bond Dickinson - apprenticeship case study

Rationale behind the apprenticeship programme

We'd recognised the importance of creating alternative routes to the profession, not only to address social mobility in the profession, but also to give access to those who wanted to start their career sooner rather than later. University isn't for everyone but that shouldn't be a barrier to those who want, and are able, to pursue a career in law.

We also had some retention issues at the time within our paralegal team. We have up to 80 paralegals within this team, many of whom are graduates looking to gain experience to help support their applications for training contracts.

We were able to give them some fantastic experience, help develop the skills they need to be successful as lawyers and, inevitably, that meant that we lost many of them when their applications for training contracts are successful.

That was a big challenge for the business and we saw the apprenticeship scheme as a way of ensuring that we had continued pipeline of paralegals into this team.

Where we found useful information

We started to explore the possibility of introducing an apprenticeship programme in 2013. At the time, there were very few law firms running these schemes, the first legal apprenticeship had only been introduced that year.

We didn't have peers from who we could learn so we relied very heavily on the provider we had chosen to work with, CILEx. They were amazing, and we certainly couldn't have got our scheme up and running without the fantastic support and advice we got from them.

It's been one of our biggest lessons over the last few years; choosing a training provider who is credible, you can trust and will become a genuine partner in the development of your apprentices.

Did we experience any barriers?

Little hurdles perhaps and that was mostly down to fear of the unknown. We'd been running a very successful graduate process but apprenticeships were a whole different ball game. It took some time to convince people that apprentices would have a value to the business but once we did they've never looked back!

Preparatory work we had to undertake

This was a new venture for us so we took the time to get it right, 12 months in fact before our first apprentices joined the business. We wanted to make sure we had the structure and development programme firmly in place before we started our recruitment process. But before we even started to plan the programme, we needed to get buy-in, and that wasn't just from the leadership team.

It takes an enormous amount of support to make a success of this scheme. We have mentors, supervisors and a manager who dedicate a significant amount of time to working with our apprentices – the scheme wouldn't be the success that it is without everyone's involvement.

We spent a significant amount of time working with all of these people, helping them to understand why we were introducing the programme, the benefit it would have to the business and the very important roles they all had to play. It helped that it was presenting some great development opportunities for people that might not ordinarily have presented.

In addition to the invaluable support we gained from CILEx, we worked with an external provider during our first round of recruitment, Vision Apprentices. We've since brought the recruitment in-house but that first year we took all the support we could get.

Use of the levy

The apprenticeship levy has been an interesting development. It's not perfect, but it's here to stay for now at least so why not make the most of it. For most law firms, their levy payment is going to give them a significant pot of money from which to drawn down training funds. This doesn't necessarily mean increased headcount, but it has led us to think a bit more creatively about our resource requirements.

We're a bit more thoughtful when it comes to replacement roles; do they present an opportunity for others in the team to step into development roles, allowing us to backfill with apprentices to give us a greater pipeline of talent. It also presents an opportunity start looking at upskilling your existing people, feeding into your overall learning and development strategies.

Benefits of taking on apprentices

We've been so impressed with all of our apprentices. They're bright, motivated, ambitious and willing to learn. They've integrated into their teams very quickly and have contributed to their success from a very early stage.

It's been such a pleasure to watch them grow in confidence every day. We're seeing some great quality candidates from previously untapped and under-represented pools of talent and whilst that's great for our social mobility strategy, more importantly, we're reaping the benefits of a more diverse team.

When we started our paralegal apprenticeship programme in 2014, average length of service for our paralegals was less than two years. It's now increased to four years, and employee turnover has reduced by 37%.

We're certainly seeing that pipeline of paralegals coming through that we hoped the scheme would produce. So we've certainly achieved our intended aims but there have been a number of other positives that we didn't anticipate. It's given others in the team some great development opportunities.

We elected to use paralegals, rather than lawyers, to supervise and mentor the apprentices, which has given them experience that they might not ordinarily have gained. It's also been a really good news story for the business.

The hard work that has been put into making this programme the success that it is, has been recognised in a number of awards over the last few years and that's really helped to put apprenticeship high on the agenda within the business.

Recruitment

We knew that our traditional methods of recruitment were unlikely to be effective for our apprentices. Not least because the majority of our candidates had limited experience from which to draw examples during an interview.

We were also mindful that many candidates were unlikely to have set foot inside a law firm and we wanted them to be fully aware of the reality before they made their final decisions – particularly those who were also considering university.

Our apprentice recruitment was really designed to reflect all of this. We started with an open evening for those interested in finding out more and this was particularly aimed at parents who we knew were stakeholders at this point of their career. We now involve our current apprentices in this event – they're so impressive and such great ambassadors that it's hard not to be enthused about the scheme once you've seen them in action.

Our application process involves an application form, video interview and mini work placement. The work placement gives candidates a real insight into life in a law firm, our culture, the reality of the role and it allows them to make some informed decisions about whether it's right for them.

The interview takes place during this week and it's much more light touch than our graduate interviews. By this point, we've seen the skills they have, it really becomes more about whether they're right for us and we're right for them.

Expanding the programme

We currently have around 20 apprentices across our business in a variety of roles. Our paralegal apprenticeship has been running since 2014 and has really been the blueprint for the apprenticeship programmes that have followed.

In the last few years we've rolled out programmes across Facilities Services, IT, HR and this year we introduced our first solicitor apprenticeship, a development that we're particularly excited about. It's so refreshing to see our profession open up the routes to qualification in this way and we were absolutely delighted to embrace the change. We're currently in the process of developing additional programmes, and will have our first recruitment apprentice very shortly.

Solicitor apprentice: Hope Gallant

Hope GallantLaw has always interested me due to the relevance it holds in everyday life. I think it is so exciting to be a part of something which not only shapes our lives but the functioning of our society.

I decided to pursue this passion by participating in work experience days to enable me to fully understand the profession. Work experience with solicitors along with working at the Citizens Advice Bureau have fuelled my ambition to become a solicitor.

How did you get involved in the apprenticeship route?

Knowing I wanted to pursue a career in law led me to research the different routes into doing so. Although I wanted to study and work in law, I knew university wasn't the best path for me. When I realised I had an opportunity to apply for the apprenticeship it seemed to be the perfect route.

What was the most useful source of information?

When researching the career path you would like to take it is important to consider all your options. Work experience, career fairs and insight days are invaluable resources to help you establish the right path for you.

If you have already decided on pursuing law with the ultimate goal of becoming a solicitor, the solicitor apprentice is something which should be seriously considered: there's a variety of resources available to aid your discovery. For example, an abundance of information can be found on the CILEx website, explaining how the apprenticeship program is structured and outlining the academic studies which are involved.

Further to this, when applying to the apprenticeship scheme it is important to research the law firms which offer this route to establish which firm you would like to be a part of. Majority of law firms have valuable information on their website, which can give a real insight into the business culture, values and operations.

Other than this, the most valuable resource, in my opinion, is the opportunity to discuss careers and different routes into the job with those who have experience in the sector. It is vital to ask questions both about different careers and the routes which are available.

Similarly, now the apprenticeship scheme has been fully established, those like myself who are currently participating in the apprenticeship scheme will be able to give a real insight into how the academic commitments marry with working life. Understanding the job from a first-hand perspective is the most useful resource available to allow you to make an educated decision regarding your future.

Have you experienced any obstacles when applying?

Initially, I applied for the apprenticeship through CILEx directly, unfortunately I was unsuccessful in this application. This was very disheartening, however my enthusiasm and passion for the scheme drove me to continue with the pursuit of this career path. Next, I applied through Womble Bond Dickinson for the solicitor apprenticeship; luckily I was successful within this application.

The application process was fairly in depth but an experience I enjoyed and did not find overly stressful. The first stage is an online application, which involves a CV and covering letter. Next was the pre-recorded video interview: this is the stage I found most difficult as it is an unfamiliar experience. However, it does have advantages over a face to face interview as they allow time to think about each question.

If successful, you’re invited to attend a week placement which incorporated assessment day like activities along with work experience days. To finish this week, there was a face to face interview; which is a good opportunity to express your passion and enthusiasm whilst evidencing the relevant skills you have and wish to develop.

In terms of the skills you have developed, which ones do you find most valuable?

To pursue the apprenticeship route there are a number of skills which are invaluable. Firstly, due to the need to achieve a good balance between work and personal life, good time management is an essential skill to have or develop to enable you to manage the studying requirements.

Maintaining a good level of study whilst beginning life in the work place is a difficult task and can take some time to balance efficiently. Having dedication, enthusiasm about both working and continuously learning helps to achieve this balance.

The main skill I have found to be most valuable both in the work place and in everyday life is the ability to communicate effectively in both social and professional situations. This is a skill which is developed throughout working life, however having a foundation knowledge will help a great deal.

What advice would you give to someone starting their apprenticeship programme?

I chose to do an apprenticeship because I have a passion for law and knew I wanted to become a solicitor. If you share this passion and drive and think university is not the right route for you, this is a perfect opportunity.

The most important elements to remember when beginning the apprenticeship is to manage your time correctly to begin a routine. Keeping up to date with the university work is essential to enable you to completely focus on the legal work you’ll be doing at work.

Another vital skill to begin the apprenticeship is the ability to adapt and respond to constructive criticism; taking on advice allows you to grow professionally and help you to become a successful and valuable asset to the team.

Overall, the apprenticeship scheme is an exciting route into a career in law. Approaching the opportunity with an open mind, passion and enthusiasm will allow you to lead a successful career.