One of the great privileges of working with local authorities to deliver apprenticeships is observing the different approaches legal departments take to deploying and developing apprentice staff, writes Noel Inge.
CILEx Law School partners around 50 local authorities around England, some of whom have already used legal apprenticeships for their first generation of paralegal graduates.
Our most recent round of visits and surveys has yielded some useful information on best practice: what works well – and the pitfalls to avoid.
At the outset
Local government lawyers are often unaware that they can use the apprenticeship levy (0.5% tax on pay bills over £3m) to pay training fees for existing employees. That will help them meet the government’s target of at least 2.3% of the workforce in public sector bodies being apprentices.
Those who are already CILEx part-qualified or law graduates without a professional legal qualification would be eligible to have their training costs met by the levy. One authority we spoke with has several law graduates it wishes to develop into specialist lawyers through the Chartered Legal Executive pathway.
The local authority emphasised how important it is to plan the appropriate levels of work for apprentices as they progress through the apprenticeship from their role as a paralegal to lawyer-level activities.
Recruitment: timing and approach
Recruiting suitable candidates is a key concern, particularly when selecting from a pool of school leavers. Some of the employers we spoke with have said that they would benefit from starting their recruitment campaign in the first half of the year. Now is a good time to advertise because you can promote the benefits of an apprenticeship to able Year 13 pupils well before they leave for their summer holidays.
Indeed, authorities have told us that having a work experience scheme is a useful way to identify potential candidates and they see it as being an integral part of workforce development incorporating legal apprenticeships. If this is not feasible, the authority’s legal team should consider taking part in an open day which can also offer a useful insight to potential apprentices.
Some authorities have made good use of visits to local schools to talk about their work and explain about the benefits of a legal apprenticeship to potential candidates: the Institute of Fiscal Studies has estimated average graduate debt will soon rise to £50,000. Add to that the cost of professional legal training and further maintenance costs and it is easy to accumulate a debt of £80,000 without a guaranteed job to pay off the debt. This can be a compelling argument – especially for parents – to seriously consider the apprenticeship route.
Recruitment: which areas of work?
The employer must decide the level of apprentice required. Legal administration? Business Administration? Paralegal? Chartered Legal Executive? Solicitor? Naturally it will be easier for any authority to recruit a good quality school leaver for a paralegal apprenticeship if there is the prospect of them extending their education to the Chartered Legal Executive or solicitor route.
Many authorities look beyond the department’s immediate requirements. Unitary authorities, for example, may be able to provide experience in different areas of legal work. In these circumstances, achieving continuity of supervision is desirable – but that can be tricky. As a result, larger authorities have successfully appointed an immediate supervisor and a separate mentor who can help their apprentices move between different legal areas.
At paralegal level, most authorities will choose one or two areas for apprentices to work in. Typically this will be debt recovery or in the property transactions team.
Some authorities have also successfully placed apprentices in childcare teams – although they have tended to be more mature entrants. Authorities have also said they prefer childcare apprentices to live outside of the borough or local area, which tends to exclude younger candidates.
Recruitment: what qualities are we looking for?
Most authorities will know what they are looking for in a new recruit, but sometimes a young apprentice’s basic skill set will be underdeveloped. Selecting those with genuine potential will determine the success of the apprenticeship.
We usually find that being able to communicate effectively in a team is the most valued commodity for any apprentice. Good organisational skills and (particularly for new recruits) being able to adapt to a professional work environment are also essential attributes.
Employers say that candidates need to be self-motivated and possess the maturity required to successfully combine the work and study elements of the programme.
One quandary is the weighting employers should give to academic qualifications when making an appointment. It’s hard to be prescriptive about this, but the CILEx qualification within the paralegal apprenticeship is quite demanding, so we suggest three Cs at A level. For a solicitor apprenticeship we recommend three Bs, although other factors such as having a degree in another subject, new BTECs which incorporate exams and previous exposure to law should be considered.
One final point: the employer needs to be confident the potential apprentice is actively committed to the apprenticeship route, especially if if their initial choice was a place at university!