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CILEx: apprentices equip themselves for a changing industry

In our previous post, we explored the CILEx route into the legal profession and the advantage of apprenticeships. In this post we look at the future of the legal industry, and how apprentices are equipping themselves to deliver on it.

Are employers driving the apprenticeship content with respect to the skills they need within their business today and in the future?

Jenny Pelling, Director of Business and Apprenticeships at CILEx Law School:

Employers are very much driving the apprenticeship content. Trailblazer Apprenticeships are specifically designed to be driven by employers. Developed by employer-led groups, these are new Apprenticeship Standards for occupations in the legal sector. The law-focused group was one of a number of different sectors which are participating in this apprenticeship initiative, supported by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Education. The paralegal standard which was approved by the employer group has been designed to be sufficiently flexible to encompass a very broad range of skills.

Julia Szczepanski, Client Services Director at IntegraKM, and a Fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives:

In the legal sector, we now see an unprecedented acceleration rate of change due to: globalisation; client buying strengths; service delivery demands; alternative providers and structures; increased competition, including from the big four accountants and large consumer brands; and of course emerging technologies (cognitive computing, AI and Bitcoin) driving process and workflow changes.

These changes have led to a new skills requirement, not just of lawyers, but also support staff. Staff will have to accept and embrace change like never before. They should be encouraged to understand how all functions within the law firm impact upon each other, and to understand why business critical decisions have to be made.

New roles and competencies are front of mind for most law firms – how to train, retain and attract the best talent to assist in ‘future proofing’ law firms.

What have you noticed that has changed about the employer’s input to the content generation of apprenticeships / learning on the job today as opposed to the past?

JP: Employers are much more interested now in the content of apprenticeships. In 2013, the initiative was largely motivated by a diversity agenda – opening up access to the profession with an alternative non-university option, which didn’t require punishing levels of student debt.

Now that the structure of apprenticeships is in place, employers are influencing content.

Specifically, they are using apprenticeships as part of a strategy that includes delivering client services, using data analysis, IT and other business skills.

JS: My understanding is that more and more firms are using psychometric and critical thinking tests to screen for the attributes and characteristics that they are now looking for in successful applicants.

Where once the effort to select legal staff through rigorous selection screening, this is now being expanded to include the development of new ‘apprenticeship’ roles in support services such as IT, data management and analytics, business development, business intelligence, project management and information resource roles.

It is no wonder that law firms are in constant collaboration with colleges of law and providers of vocational support courses such as CILEX. Firms are having to ensure constantly, that their staff have the requisite skills that they need for roles which are now aligned with technological solutions.

Will the training include seat rotation, giving apprentices experience and insights into other business functions within the business?

JP: Our apprentices report that they are given a wide range of options and opportunities within their roles. Given the wide range of settings, from local councils and small high street firms to top level international law firms, the experience of apprentices is very diverse.

Solicitor apprentices should rotate, as the proposed SQE will involve assessments in two different practice areas. Some of our paralegal apprentices stay in the same team for two years, some are a central service for the rest of the firm, and others are, like trainees, rotate seats.

JS: The better the apprentice’s understanding of cross-functional roles, the more ‘function empathetic’ the employee becomes.

The more ‘function empathy’ the apprentice displays, the more they will be able to demonstrate the soft skills (collaboration, innovation, creativity, empathy, team working, questioning skills) that will be crucial to a firm that aspires to have a dynamic, agile and continuously improving workforce.

Are the quality apprenticeships really only being introduced in the cities?

JP: The available government funding has changed the way employers view and use apprenticeships. We are seeing a range of firms taking on apprentices, including high street and specialist local law firms, City firms, large regional firms and in-house and local government employers.

Both employer and apprentice are benefitting from this arrangement, and our client The Burnside Partnership is a great example. . For this small firm based outside Oxford, apprenticeships were always part of their plan, even before the business had been set up. They needed a full time employee to work alongside their solicitors and legal secretaries, and they thought that an apprentice would be ideal because they wanted someone who was really enthusiastic, flexible and ambitious. They were confident that as a small team, they could provide a lot of support and encouragement as well as a varied workload.

The result is that their first apprentice has successfully completed her apprenticeship and has been retained by the firm. The Burnside Partnership has now hired a second apprentice. Both apprentices and employer have received regional and national awards and accolades for the apprenticeship programme.

Our apprentices in local councils are based in locations across the country.

JS: Apprenticeships are nationwide but the quality may be dictated by the resources (experts, tools, attitudes, budgets, access to IT and cross-function practices) available and these elements are predominantly the bastion of city-based law firms.

The way to avoid the city practise bias of a premium apprenticeship only being available in City firms is perhaps to offer the smaller firm apprentices secondments relevant secondments and access to mentors who are leaders in their field and give the requisite guidance and development of the apprentice.

Do students believe they will be making invaluable contacts for the future that would be harder if they chose the university route?

JP: The feedback from our apprentices is unanimous: apprenticeships provide invaluable work experience in a sector where competition for jobs is intense.

Perhaps the view of Ellena Bedford of the Accent Group makes the point most forcefully: “It is really valuable to work with fully qualified lawyers that you aspire to be like, to see the sort of work they do and understand the pressures and importance of their duties.

The other day I met the CEO of the firm and he asked me to give a presentation regarding my apprenticeship experience to a prospective client. I did not expect to have such a huge opportunity as part of my apprenticeship.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Emily Barnes, an apprentice at Hill Dickinson: “My apprenticeship has been an invaluable springboard for my career. It has allowed me to establish myself within an international law firm and have them invest in my development.”

The final word goes to Ben Bennett-Williams, who recently completed an apprenticeship at Clyde & Co.: “Through the apprenticeship I have met amazing contacts in the legal world. I have worked on cases alongside partners and assisted them with different matters, which was a great experience.”

Is there a need to create a further level of support staff apprenticeships within law firms and if yes, what is driving that need?

JP: There are just over 250 law firms who will be paying the new apprenticeship levy from April. Their levy payments are often going to be much higher than the cost of legal apprenticeship programmes, so some plan to introduce apprentices into business services teams.

There is a need for a more professional-focused business administration apprenticeship and perhaps the merging of different types of apprenticeships so that the discipline of law can be combined with other skills requirements in technology.

JS: There is already a race to attract, retain, and train the best talent that will enable firms to compete in a crowded and dynamically changing marketplace. Creating a firm’s own loyal workforce is costly and time consuming. We are currently seeing support staff being TUPEd over to companies specialising in providing outsourced services both on and off site.

However, creating a workforce and inculcating in them your brand attributes and the skills that you know will become increasingly sought after means there will be a growing need for law firms to oversee or participate in ensuring that staff have the requisite skills the firms need in attaining its strategic goals.

Can apprenticeships keep up with the speed of progress in technology within legal?

JS: Apprentices who are brought in to provide the much-needed technological, business intelligence and data analytic skills will require expert and state of the art mentoring. Trained well, apprentices will drive their own need to stay current and will develop their own mentor network.

Remember, you are training a flexible and enquiring mindset – that should be an intrinsic part of soft skill and career development training. A well taught and respected apprentice will become part of your alumni in time and you want them to say good things about your firm – they will become PR ambassadors for your firm whether or not they remain an employee. Building a successful brand is a key differentiator for most firms and that doesn’t stop once your employee leaves.

I still remember fondly, the firm that gave me my training opportunity, I remain loyal to those who gave me that opportunity to develop my career, and who taught me so much not only about the law but about integrity, respect for team members, and how to work as part of a team.

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