Solicitor apprenticeships. The next stage and why Damar and BARBRI are leading the way

Damar Training at 111

By Damar Training Managing Director, Jonathan Bourne

Many of the best lawyers I have met do not have a “traditional” lawyer’s background. They went to ordinary schools. They are the first lawyers in their family. They did non-law degrees (or no degree at all) or they did something else before becoming a lawyer. The diversity of their experience and backgrounds is part of what makes them great lawyers. Another thing many of them have in common is that their career journey has been harder than for those from more typical backgrounds.

The data bear this out. 23% of qualified lawyers in firms regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority attended a fee-paying school, compared to 7.5% nationally[i]. For women and lawyers from certain black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds there remain significant differences at partner level, in some larger firms, and in higher paying practice areas. At the Bar, the disparities are just as acute. Of the QCs (now KCs) who responded to the BSB’s 2021 survey and were educated in the UK, 56% went to private schools[ii]. Lawyers with disabilities are under-represented generally.

It is perhaps no surprise that many lawyers from non-traditional backgrounds are good. Part of the reason is that many of their less-gifted peers simply have not been able to overcome the various barriers in their way. The odds against even getting into the profession are stacked against them. Our system has been producing roughly 24,000 law and GDI (Graduate Diploma in Law) graduates each year[iii]. But there are only 5,500 to 6,000 solicitors’ training contracts and about 500 barristers’ pupillages[iv] (the traditional routes into these professions). If you are not economically or academically extremely fortunate (or both), it is a big bet to take with £60,000 or so of borrowed money.

One area that my colleagues and I at Damar have been working on for several years (with the support of some far-sighted employers, sector partners and education providers) is to improve vocational pathways and reduce barriers to access and progression for those many candidates with the potential to become great lawyers but for whom the playing field slopes upwards. Cost is one barrier but there are others, including some that have been created, inadvertently, by traditional academic and vocational routes to qualification.

We have made progress. There are now several different apprenticeships for lawyers and, at Damar Training, we have helped hundreds of people become paralegals, Chartered Legal Executives, conveyancing technicians and licensed conveyancers through apprenticeships. Dozens of our successful paralegal apprentices have progressed to solicitor apprenticeships. These programmes cost apprentices nothing at all and employers’ principal investment is a day or so per week of aggregate study time. Most or all the training fees are paid via the Apprenticeship Levy or the Government.

The apprenticeships are good but not perfect. I have written before[v] about the lack of joined-up thinking in legal apprenticeship design and the difficulties of progression through and between the different overlapping legal professions[vi]. These difficulties have long existed outside apprenticeships. It’s a game of snakes and ladders. A licenced conveyancer or part-qualified legal executive has had to go almost back to the beginning if they want to become a solicitor or a barrister. A solicitor apprentice who decides they want to take a break to raise children or stop at a senior paralegal level risks not getting any qualifications at all. Limited career mobility is a problem not just for individuals but also for employers needing to respond to changes in client and customer needs.

A route review undertaken by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE)[vii] has yet to report, but we are not expecting any material changes.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. A new generation of vocational legal education is emerging that will significantly improve access to the Law for those from diverse backgrounds and will enable candidates of all backgrounds to qualify more efficiently. It is high quality, more flexible, less expensive and more employer and candidate focused.

Like the arrival of the challenger banks in the 2010s or budget airlines in the 1990s, we are about to see significant change in vocational legal education in England. It is driven by three things. First, the Solicitors’ Qualifying Exam (SQE), the super-exam that virtually all would-be solicitors now take. Second, the fact that, as part of a master’s level solicitor apprenticeship, apprentices can train without student fees and with no need to complete a law degree. Third, improvements in technology, which mean that providers can create a more personalised user experience – one that values and recognises the prior knowledge and skills of apprentices, even when they have taken a non-traditional route.

Until now, solicitor apprenticeships have significantly replicated the old pathway. In essence, they are a law degree and a combination of the old Legal Practice Course (LPC) and an SQE preparation course. In all it takes about six years. Some providers offer a shorter version, for Law and GDL graduates, that takes about 2 ½ years.

A paralegal apprentice or a part-qualified legal executive wishing to become a solicitor gets little if any credit, resulting in a total journey time of eight years or more. That’s challenging for a younger apprentice, impossible for many older candidates and inefficient for employers who are obliged to invest perhaps eight hours a week of the apprentice’s time in training, some of which covers old ground.

Today, Damar has announced the launch of a unique technology partnership with leading global legal education provider BARBRI, that will allow a far wider range of talented candidates to access solicitor apprenticeships.

The “Damar powered by BARBRI” model combines our 40+ years’ experience in apprenticeships with market-leading learning materials and technology to offer a solicitor apprenticeship that is built, from the ground up, specifically for the SQE and to develop the skills that employers need. Apprentices receive 1:1 and group coaching and use BARBRI’s learning management system, which brings together materials developed by experts in legal education, artificial intelligence and real-world exam experience to produce a learning programme uniquely tailored to each apprentice and which can flex, during the programme, to develop identified strengths and address weaknesses.

The model democratises access. An applicant who has successfully completed a paralegal apprenticeship, or CILEX Level 3, is a CLC conveyancing technician or who has been working successfully as a paralegal for several years, does not need a six-year solicitor apprenticeship. And for law and GDL graduates or legal executives wishing to become solicitors, there is no need to undertake a programme where every student covers the same syllabus, at the same speed, over 2½ years.

It also makes it easier for employers. Rather than having to take a gamble on whether a new starter has what it takes to be a solicitor in six years’ time, the journey can be undertaken in sensible stages. Two years as a paralegal apprentice, then a further three as a solicitor apprentice.

Just as with budget airlines and challenger banks, other providers will innovate too. This is to be welcomed. Our goal at Damar is and has always been, to help individuals and organisations achieve their potential. The legal sector has missed out on too much talent for too long and this is something that we are determined to address.

If you would like to be part of the future of vocational legal education, please do not hesitate to contact our super team at Damar on 0161 480 8171 or via . Or message me direct on LinkedIn.

Jonathan Bourne

Managing Director, Damar Training

2nd March 2023