Gordons’ pioneering legal apprentices

It all started with a TV programme about social mobility. Upon watching it, Paul Ayre, managing partner of the 170 year-old Yorkshire law firm Gordons, was spurred into action. He himself had been raised on a council estate and had worked his way to the top. Now he looked at his profession and saw how its best career opportunities often went to those from the wealthiest backgrounds. He decided to do something to change that.

In 2011, the firm started to offer Higher (level 6) Apprenticeships in Professional Services – this was the first of its kind in the legal sector. The concept: to give young local people the chance to embark upon a career in law without having to go to university.

Find out more about the business benefits of apprenticeships

Running the Gordons apprenticeship scheme

So far, ten apprentices have been employed with Gordons. Over a five year period, they will train as chartered legal executive lawyers, through a mix of practical experience and study towards a Level 6 (honours degree standard) Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) qualification. There will be no difference between entry via this qualification and a university degree. “It is a new way of entering the profession,” says Barbara Rollin, partner and head of Gordons’ apprenticeship programme.

The first year of the programme, she admits, was “incredibly difficult” to implement. There were no precedents for the firm. “We didn’t take external advice as there was no-one to ask,” she says.

Gordons set three criteria for this new breed of intake: the apprentices had to be bright enough to cope – three Bs at A-level is a minimum – and had to demonstrate determination – as this is not an easy process – plus a can-do attitude.

The firm has a well-established trainee scheme, but there are clear differences between university graduate trainees and apprentices. Their ages, for a start: apprentices are 18-year-olds straight out of school, while graduates can be 23 or 24. “The apprentices just haven’t had the same life learning,” says Rollin, so each one of them has a mentor, who has more of a pastoral role, and a supervisor, who is a qualified solicitor. Each apprentice has an appraisal every three months.

Business benefits of the scheme

The initiative has enhanced the firm in several ways, says Rollin:

 “they have just lifted the place. They are honest; they tell you what they think. And they are malleable; they are learning our culture, our way of doing things, right from the start.”

They are making a tangible contribution by starting to earn money for the firm. To date, the ten apprentices have been able to generate £450,000-worth of fee income. The feedback from colleagues in the firm is positive; the services of the 2011 intake are now much in demand. For Gordons, the apprenticeship scheme provides the firm with a supply of future legal talent from an entirely new source. ““Our apprentices create greater diversity in the legal profession, developed through practical experience, not just the academic route.”

“The contribution the apprentices make means we are able to deliver high quality client work at more competitive costs than would otherwise be the case,” explains Rollin. In a world where technology and outsourcing is making some legal services a commodity, and where clients are increasingly cost-conscious, this matters.

The apprenticeship scheme has also enabled Gordons to build stronger relationships with its client base:

“It really connects us to our clients. We are doing something that they are all interested in. The scheme is enhancing our’ reputation as a good corporate citizen, aware of social issues and ready to invest time, money and expertise in tackling them. It makes us feel very proud.”

Future plans for apprenticeships at Gordons

When the first intake of apprentices qualifies in 2016, the firm plans for them to stay and move up. ““They are gaining a fantastic business experience that belies their years,” says Rollin. “Progression opportunities for the apprentices are limitless and there is no reason why they should not be partners of the future or even become managing partner.”

Interest in the scheme is picking up. In the first year, Gordons received 18 applications. For this year’s intake, Rollin is predicting that there will be about 40. However, she wants to see a change in attitudes among schools about apprenticeships. “They are the gatekeepers,” she says, “and can prevent children from learning about these opportunities. I think that there is still a perception in many schools that apprenticeships are only about blue-collar work. But there’s not an overall in sight here.”

Rollin’s advice to other professional services firms thinking about apprenticeships is clear:

“Have an open mind and be flexible. You are not getting a finished product with an apprentice, so you must be able to see their potential even when they may not see it themselves. They need to be nurtured. And make sure that they end up with the equivalent of a university degree.”

Gordons has been named in the City & Guilds Top 100 list of Apprenticeship Employers. Find out more about the business benefits of Apprenticeships from  the National Apprenticeship Service on 08000 150 600.