07 Feb 2017

In the legal profession we perhaps have a reputation for the traditional. Is it right? Maybe. Is it fair? Possibly. Is it changing? Definitely! As an HR professional, one of the most exciting developments in recent years has been around entry to the profession and, in particular, routes to qualification. Aspiring lawyers have traditionally had to contend with a highly competitive graduate recruitment process following university and postgraduate education. The widening of access to the profession through the introduction of apprenticeships has been welcome news for many, and at Bond Dickinson we were only too happy to embrace the change.

The first legal apprenticeship was introduced in 2013 and we launched our scheme 12 months later, in September 2014. It was the result of a year-long project which involved significant consultation, development and education of mentors and supervisors. Whilst we've a very established graduate programme in place, convincing the business that we should be investing in a school leaver programme, took a little time. But, our business case was solid. We'd recognised the importance of creating alternative routes to the profession, not only to address social mobility in the profession, but also to give access to those who wanted to start their career sooner rather than later. University isn't for everyone but that shouldn't be a barrier to those who want, and are able, to pursue a career in law. We also had some retention issues at the time within our paralegal team. We have up to 80 paralegals within this team, many of whom are graduates looking to gain experience to help support their applications for training contracts. We're able to give them some fantastic experience, help develop the skills they need to be successful as lawyers and, inevitably, that means that we lose many of them when their applications for training contracts are successful. That was a big challenge for the business and we saw the apprenticeship scheme as a way of ensuring that we had continued pipeline of paralegals into this team. 

So, has it worked? Absolutely. We've been so impressed with all of our apprentices. They're bright, motivated, ambitious and willing to learn. They've integrated into the team very quickly and have contributed to its success from a very early stage. It's been such a pleasure to watch them grow in confidence every day. We're seeing some great quality candidates from previously untapped and under-represented pools of talent and whilst that's great for our social mobility strategy, more importantly, we're reaping the benefits of a more diverse team. Although it's still early days for us, we are now starting to see that pipeline of paralegals coming through. We're now recruiting for our fourth cohort of apprentices so time will tell on that point, but we're optimistic.

In the three years that we've been running the programme we've certainly achieved our intended aims but there have been a number of other positives that we didn't anticipate. It's given others in the team some great development opportunities. We elected to use paralegals, rather than lawyers, to supervise and mentor the apprentices, which has given them experience that they might not ordinarily have gained. It's also been a really good news story for the business. The hard work that has been put into making this programme the success that it is, has been recognised in the last twelve months in two awards. We were recognised by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (our apprenticeship provider) as their Employer of the Year in October 2016. In November, at the National Apprenticeship Awards, we were the South West Regional Winner of the Newcomer Large Employer of the Year and we're now through to the national finals which are held later this month. We're really proud of the programme so this is great validation of all that we're doing and the hard work that everyone has put in.

But we haven't stopped there. We're committed to developing our early careers strategy and last year saw the launch of our formal programme. It's been designed to give opportunities to students who want to gain an insight into a career in the legal profession, whether that's as a lawyer or business support professional, and involves a variety of work experience placements, insight days, skills workshops, mentoring schemes and school visits. We're very much hoping that this will support our recruitment strategy for the various apprenticeship schemes we're now running.

All of this has served to put apprenticeships firmly on the map at Bond Dickinson. So much so that we're now taking requests to design and deliver apprenticeship programmes for other areas of the business. In the last 12 months we've recruited apprentices into HR, Facilities and we're just rolling something out for our IT team.

So what's next? The Apprenticeship Levy has presented us with a fantastic opportunity to invest further in apprenticeships. We're talking to a number of teams at the moment about the opportunities available to them, for both new and existing employees. But most exciting for us is our new Solicitor Apprenticeship. We're currently designing a programme that will see school leavers through to qualification in 6 years. Our first apprentices will join us in September this year. This is a huge development for our profession and we're delighted to be there right at the beginning.

Our focus most definitely is not shifting entirely to apprenticeships, rather this is about creating new routes to the profession which might ordinarily have been closed to some very talented candidates. Home-grown talent has always been at the heart of our recruitment strategy, and our apprenticeship programme is now firmly embedded within that strategy, alongside our very established graduate programme.