Hiring trainees as a small firm: a guide to solicitor apprenticeships

Recruitment, retention and legacy can be difficult issues for those running a small firm. John Moreland explains why solicitor apprenticeships can be a win-win solution for firms and future solicitors.

Often, the perceived cost of taking on a trainee is a deterrent to those firms who may otherwise wish to do so.

This is especially the case with Magic Circle firms offering an annual salary of £45k to £55k to its trainees, and other large firms offering several thousand pounds worth of sponsorship for trainees to take Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) preparation courses.

The reluctance of smaller firms to take on trainees is yet another threat to the long-term survival of the small firm legal practice model in a world where the number of firms continues to fall.

Legacy, succession and retention are meaningless phrases if recruitment is not taking place.

This article is intended to publicise the assistance available to help take on and fund trainee solicitors through the apprenticeship scheme.

It hopes to demystify the administrative steps that need to be taken to recruit an apprentice and to reassure firms that their commitment will not overburden their practice.

Who can be an apprentice?

An apprentice can be anybody who:

  • is aged 16 or over
  • lives in England, and
  • is not in full-time education

Those are the only minimum requirements, save solicitor apprentices must have GCSEs in maths and English by the time of their final assessment.

This means the range of people a firm could take on as an apprentice solicitor starts from a person with no previous legal training (academic or otherwise) to a person who has completed the LLB law degree or equivalent.

This person could be fresh out of secondary school or a more senior person seeking a change in career.

The fact a person has previously completed an apprenticeship is not a bar to completing a further apprenticeship either.

While opening the potential for firms to recruit from outside their organisation, apprenticeships also allow firms to support the professional development of existing employees, irrespective of whether they hold a degree.

How much will it cost?

Significantly less than you may think.

An apprentice’s minimum salary is the National Minimum Wage. For apprentices in their first year, this is the currently same rate at a person aged under 18 (£6.40 an hour).

After their first year, the minimum rate increases to reflect their age, provided they are aged 19 or over. Firms will be alive to unfair remuneration undermining staff retention.

Apprentices are also entitled to all the usual annual leave and sick pay other staff have.

Financial support of up to £1,000 may be available for certain apprentices and some may be exempt from employer national insurance contributions.

The only other financial cost is for the academic training provided by an approved training provider.

Unless the firm is one whose annual pay bill (in loose terms, total wages expense) is over £3 million then the firm will be entitled to pay up to a maximum of just 5% of the training provider’s course fees.

Depending on the course and training provider, this cost to a firm in real terms is roughly between £850 to £1,500.

The only other cost to firms is the time and commitment to train the apprentice.

What do I have to do?

Firms taking on trainees will need to sign an apprenticeship agreement. This is a formal document signed by the firm, the training provider and the apprentice.

An apprenticeship agreement sets out the apprentice’s terms of employment, similar to a standard employment contract, but should also consider how the firm will support and train the apprentice.

Template agreements are readily available online for free.

As part of an apprentice’s employment a firm must give the apprentice 20% of their contracted working hours as ‘off-the-job’ training.

‘Off-the-job’ training is loosely defined as learning which takes place outside of the apprentice’s day-to-day duties.

In practical terms, ‘off-the-job’ training may include research, shadowing others, attending the training course provider’s classes, mentoring sessions, watching webinars, etc.

Think of the old CPD points regime but for 20% of the apprentice’s contracted hours rather than 16 hours per year.

The ’off-the-job’ training is a minimum requirement for a valid apprenticeship. Most training providers will require the apprentice to keep a record or portfolio which will be periodically reviewed.

Finally, most training providers will require an apprentice to attend meetings with a tutor from the training provider.

Some may require meetings with the apprentice’s supervisor at the firm. The frequency of these meetings varies from provider to provider but most will offer online appointments.

How long will it take for an apprentice to qualify?

To use a lawyer’s answer, it depends.

The period between taking on an apprentice and them qualifying as a solicitor may range from 18 months to seven years depending on the practical and academic experience of the apprentice.

To fully qualify as a solicitor, the apprentice must have completed both SQE1 and SQE2, and must have completed two years qualifying work experience.

The more academically or professionally qualified the apprentice is already — for example a qualified paralegal or LLB graduate — the shorter the period of study needs to be before they take the SQE exams, and therefore the shorter the apprenticeship can be.

An apprenticeship must last for no less than 12 months, so it is theoretically possible to take on an apprentice who already has 12 months’ qualifying work experience for a further 12 months apprenticeship, provided a training provider can be found that offers this.

However, at the time of writing, I am unaware of such a provider.

Ultimately it is the apprentice passing the SQE2 which completes the training provider’s role in the apprenticeship. Any additional academic training and support before this will be as per the course being offered by the provider.

Firms are encouraged to shop around for the most cost- and time-effective course on offer which is most suited to the needs of the firm and the prospective apprentice.

How does this help smaller firms?

Although the apprenticeship route is open to larger firms, the real advantage to smaller firms is the significantly reduced cost of an apprenticeship course compared to other undergraduate and/or SQE preparation courses.

Many other preparation courses are prohibitive to prospective solicitors unless they are sponsored by a firm or are prepared to incur significant debt.

Smaller firms, while generally more financially disadvantaged than larger firms, tend to boast a closer collegial atmosphere among staff.

Firms which support existing staff in achieving their professional development ambitions, and/or firms which invest six to seven years’ worth of training in a person, are more likely, I hope, to retain that person than they would a freshly qualified LPC trainee who comes to the firm purely for a two-year training contract.

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