Could budding lawyers skip Uni and go straight to the office?

Several UK firms have banded together to implement an initiative that allows high school leavers to qualify as solicitors. We explore whether this would work Down Under too

UK firm Addleshaw Goddard has announced a lawyer qualification plan for school leavers that will allow them to qualify as solicitors without obtaining university degrees.
 
The firm is spearheading the initiative and has helped the government draft and develop the new standards, called the “Trailblazers Apprenticeship in Law”, alongside a raft of other firms and in-house teams that include DAC Beachcroft, Simmons & Simmons, Clyde & Co and Eversheds.
 
The Trailblazer standards meet the requirements specified by ILEX Professional Standards Limited (IPS) and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for qualification as a Chartered Legal Executive or Solicitor.
 
The scheme is now in its second phase, and the employer-led group will consult on the development of a curriculum and assessment process that complies with existing SRA and IPS regulations, before the new standards are launched next year.
 
Gun Judge, HR specialist at Addleshaw Goddard, called the apprenticeship a “pivotal milestone for social mobility in the legal profession”.
 
The new pathway into law aims to expose the profession to those who can’t afford the UK’s university system, and Judge says it will open the doors to a more diverse talent stream.
 
But is a scheme like this the way forward for the legal profession outside of the UK in other countries, like Australia, where university fees continue to rise?
 
Australasian Lawyer asked a group of legal professionals what they thought about opening Australia’s legal industry up to bright high school leavers as a way to sidestep university.
 
The Australian managing partner of Squire Patton Boggs, John Pousen, is doubtful that the programme would add much value Down Under.
 
He recalls something similar that used to exist in Western Australia, where you could become a lawyer by becoming articled.
 
“It was a seven-year programme and it was brought to a head because it wasn’t being used so much,” he says. “In Australia there are so many law graduates and students studying law that it would be a bit counter-intuitive. I just don’t think the supply and demand make sense.”
 
The managing partner of Australian firm KWS Legal, Harriet Warlow-Shill, told Australasian Lawyer that she can see positives in the implementation of an apprenticeship programme, especially amidst the rising cost of university.
 
It would ensure that the legal profession is open to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and it would offer “fabulous” hands-on experience and insight into the operation of law, she says.
 
However, Warlow-Shill acknowledges that it would also come with large challenges to successful implementation.
 
The obvious one is that the resources, time and cost that would be required to ensure the programme is properly monitored would be simply “huge”.
 
She is also weary that an apprenticeship could lead to some firms “using” apprentices to assist practitioners in duties normally completed by law clerks.
 
Other challenges include whether or not firms would be discriminatory towards students who have completed an apprenticeship as opposed to a degree, and what would happen to the apprentice if either they or the employer is unhappy with the relationship, Warlow-Shill says.
 
From an academic perspective, Judith McNamara, the associate professor at Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Faculty of Law, says to have a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the common law system and how to interpret legislation and case law requires years of intensive training.
 
“A university setting, where the core focus is on a mix of theory and real world cases is proven the best approach for creating the most competent legal practitioners,” she told Australasian Lawyer. “An apprenticeship style of training following university education continues to be used by many firms who run graduate programs. These programs produce excellent practitioners.”
 
However, a standalone apprenticeship program - without formal educational training - would not offer the theoretical basis needed to be a well-rounded practitioner and would only offer training in one specialty area of law, McNamara says.
 
She adds that like many universities, QUT offers a raft of scholarships and financial support so that attendance is within reach of most young people.

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