Q&A with Katy Robinson on Solicitor Apprenticeships and the SQE

Whilst we’re talking about different routes to qualification, there is another option to the LPC, separate from SQE, which has been available since 2019.

Katy Robinson is a solicitor and partner in the Public Law department at Wilson Solicitors LLP. She works exclusively in legal aid and with clients with unresolved immigration issues and specialises in immigration detention, community care work, and other Judicial Review challenges. Katy established Wilsons’ solicitor apprenticeship scheme this year and leads Wilsons’ work experience and internship programmes, in partnership with educational charity Inspire!, Micro Rainbow International, Queen Mary University’s 93% club and 10,000 Black Interns.

 

What is a solicitor apprenticeship? 

A solicitor apprenticeship is a programme of work and part-time study which allows aspiring solicitors to enter the profession without incurring the costs of qualifying in the traditional way. In a week, a solicitor apprentice will typically spend four days at work and another day undertaking paid study with a training provider. Their course fees are covered by the government’s apprenticeship fund and a small contribution from their employer. At the end of the course, they are admitted to the role in the same way as traditional trainees.

 

There are currently two main types of solicitor apprenticeship: a graduate solicitor apprenticeship for those who already have a degree (typically 27 months for those with a law degree and 30 months for those without); and a 6-year solicitor apprenticeship for those with A levels or equivalent, who also gain an LLB as part of the programme. We are proud to offer both at Wilsons as of 2021!

 

What do you look for in a solicitor apprentice? Do you look for different things compared to a traditional trainee solicitor?

I would say that for the graduate apprentices, the skills and attributes we look for are very similar to those we seek in our trainee solicitors. Typically we offer these positions to our current caseworkers, as they are already familiar with Wilsons and do the same day-to-day work as their colleagues following a traditional training contract.

 

This year, we recruited our first 6-year solicitor apprentices, so we adapted our criteria to focus on potential rather than experience. We were looking for aspiring solicitors with A levels (or equivalent) who showed a strong commitment to the full 6-year programme and to qualify as a solicitor with us, as well as a genuine interest in human rights, social justice and the other areas of law we practise. We sought a good academic record, although we were careful to put our applicants’ grades into context, mindful that their backgrounds and personal circumstances have an impact on their ability to focus full-time on their studies. Beyond that, we looked for good time management and organisational skills, strong communication, the ability to work as part of a team, and good numeracy and IT skills. We had many very strong applications and recruited three smart and talented young people full of promise and enthusiasm!

 

When during their apprenticeship will a solicitor apprentice sit the SQE1 and SQE2 assessments?

In the final year of the programme: for example, our graduate apprentices on the 27-month programme (which began in February 2021) should sit the SQE1 in July 2022 and the SQE2 in April 2023.

 

How has your firm found hosting solicitor apprentices and how have the solicitor apprentices themselves found the experience? Do you think this will change in light of the introduction of the SQE?

Overall, it’s been hugely successful and beneficial for us as a firm. It was a steep learning curve at first. We are grateful to Frances Swaine at Leigh Day who spent time talking us through the process when we were setting up the scheme here at Wilsons, and to our internal Ethnic Minority Committee, who fed into the design and set up of the programme from the beginning, and were critical in our recruitment process. We now have four graduate apprentices and three 6-year solicitor apprentices, with more to follow in the new year. With the scheme set up, it is straightforward to run and no more complicated than supervising trainee solicitors.

 

Understandably, our solicitor apprentices are apprehensive about the SQE because it’s so new and unknown – how it plays out in practice remains to be seen. But in general, I think the balance of work and study really suits our apprentices, particularly those on the 6-year route who are keen and ambitious and want to get straight into the world of work rather than heading off to university first.

 

Overall, because the solicitor apprenticeship route provides a qualification route without the costs of a degree and the LPC fees, it has the potential to open up the profession to many aspiring solicitors who might not otherwise be financially able to consider it, with a clear positive impact on diversity and social mobility.

 

As to what our solicitor apprentices themselves think, here are two of them, Zara Haleem and Goldinne Opoku-Agyemann, in their own words:

 

“I chose an apprenticeship over the traditional university route as I really value learning on the job. I wanted to get started in the workplace as soon as possible and being able to do that at a law firm was very appealing to me. I also really liked the idea of getting a degree without student debt and so a degree apprenticeship seemed like the perfect mix of working and studying at university.”

“The six-year apprenticeship programme is an innovative opportunity to gain hands-on experience working in a real law firm. One of the main things that attracted me to the apprenticeship programme is the fact that you will gain valuable experience being surrounded by professionals in the field. Also, by working in a law firm, you can see the tangible change which comes about as a result of your work. From a financial perspective, the apprenticeship programme is much better as it means you will not incur any debts from university fees.”

What impact do you think the SQE will have in general on current and future trainees/apprentices?

I think it’s a bit early to say. In general, it has the potential, of course, to open up the profession as there is no requirement to follow a particular course before sitting the exams. In practice though, the exam fees will be prohibitive for some. Those who can afford it are likely to be able to pay for expensive preparation courses, increasing their chances of success compared to their peers from less wealthy backgrounds, hence maintaining the status quo. The existence of the SQE also doesn’t remedy the impact of a lack of connections and social capital among aspiring solicitors without contacts in the legal world, a lack of access to quality work experience, or any other barrier to social mobility.  

 

The solicitor apprentice scheme is, in my view, a potential antidote to this. Two things will be critical to its success as a means of social change within the profession, however: one, a careful recruitment process and two, ensuring that solicitor apprentices are properly and fairly paid, and adequately supported throughout the programme. At Wilsons, we are a Living Wage employer and so all of our solicitor apprentices, like all of our staff, earn more than the Living Wage. Our graduate apprentices are paid comparably with our trainees – in my view, this is critical if the apprenticeship scheme is to open up the profession in the way we hope it will. 

 

What advice would you give to someone hoping to qualify via the solicitor apprenticeship route?

I would suggest speaking to some current apprentices and finding out how they found the scheme and doing as much research as possible online too. A solicitor apprenticeship is not an easy option, given the balancing of work and study the programme requires. But I think it’s an excellent choice for those seeking to qualify into the profession without incurring the costs of doing so in the traditional way.

 

As to further advice, I leave this to our existing apprentices too! This is what Zara, Goldinne and our third apprentice Hamza Gallo have to say:

 

“My advice to anyone considering a solicitor apprenticeship in the future is to just go for it. It is a great opportunity to get a head start in working. There are many benefits to doing a degree apprenticeship in general and the solicitor apprenticeship sets you up to do really well in a career in law as you gain valuable experience that you wouldn’t learn from a book.”

“My advice for anyone considering a solicitor apprenticeship is to definitely apply! It is honestly one of the best decisions I have made and I certainly don’t feel like I missed out on university. The benefits outweigh the drawbacks significantly, especially if you’re a practical learner.”

“This experience is perfect for those of you who would like to go into the field of law in the future. One thing that the apprenticeship offers is valuable experience which would be more difficult to attain elsewhere. This route will allow you to put all your practical skills to use and contribute to revolutionising the legal field as a whole as you will have gained 6 years of experience by the time you are finished with the programme.”