Jonathan Bourne – managing director of Damar Training – on why apprenticeships are so vital to the legal sector

Jonathan, can you tell readers of The Brief a bit about Damar Training?
Damar is a long-established specialist provider of apprenticeship training and recruitment that works nationally with customers in the legal and justice sectors as well as a broad spectrum of public and private sector employers. Our team of over 60 is currently working with 1,000 apprentices at more than 200 employers. We specialise in business skills so our apprentices are working as, for example, trainee paralegals, administrators, trainee accountants, team leaders or in customer service roles. We are inspected by Ofsted and have a contract with the Skills Funding Agency which helps fund much of our work.

How long has Damar been working within the legal sector?
For nearly as long as we have been in business. However, over the past seven or eight years our work with the sector has grown significantly – partly because both I and my co-director are solicitors by background but also because of changes in the marketplace. We could see that many law firms had administrators who were moving into fee-earner support roles and also growing numbers of paralegals but there was no suitable apprenticeship pathway for these positions. Firms were keen to put a more robust development structure in place for their non-qualified staff and many also wanted to recruit from a more diverse pool of talent. So, we could see a business need and worked with partners to develop the first apprenticeships specifically for the legal sector.

What kind of apprenticeships are you placing most of at the moment?
Within the legal sector it's a fairly even balance between firms looking to recruit apprentice legal administrators and apprentice paralegals. We speak to lots of firms who have had apprentices in the past but who have completed fairly generic apprenticeships in, for example, business administration, usually delivered by training providers without any particular knowledge of the sector. When they find out that there are specialist apprenticeships, delivered by trainers with legal backgrounds, it is a very attractive addition or even alternative to other ways of recruiting/developing staff.

Is it just law firms recruiting apprentices or are you also working with other kinds of legal service providers?
We work increasingly with the wider justice sector as well as with law firms. This includes barristers’ chambers, in-house legal teams, and the not for profit legal advice sector – organisations such as Citizens Advice and Advice UK. We also work with some large public sector employers such at Greater Manchester Police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

What kinds of firms/ companies are best suited to employing apprentices?
There is no best type of firm as such but there always has to be a business need. Even with government funding, apprentices represent an investment and so we need to identify, with the firm, where they want to generate a return. This can be in a number of areas. Common features though are a desire to improve “leverage” within a firm, basically, ensuring that the right work is being done by the right people. If, with the support of apprentices, fee-earners can cut down their admin work by even a couple of hours a week, the returns are significant. Better retention, particularly amongst paralegals, is also a common theme – by definition, apprentices aren't looking for a training contract and can often be very loyal to the employer that has backed them early on. The lowering of recruitment costs and a better development pathway for existing staff are also factors.

Firms need to commit to apprentices – although the returns are significant it's not an overnight fix for, say, a staff shortage. The returns start coming through after about six months in most cases and grow with time. Supervisors play a key role and we always like to meet them before an apprentice starts so they understand their role and what to expect.

What’s the general awareness and attitude like within the legal sector to apprenticeships?
Awareness is growing rapidly as more firms take on apprentices and as the range of legal apprenticeships grows. The increasing focus on competency-based training and assessment for qualified staff is helping too as apprenticeships are all about competence and ensuring that work is being done to a consistent high standard. By and large, employers in the sector are very positive about training and the level of commitment from many of the legal sector employers we work with is exceptional.

What common factors/ myths put off law firms and legal service providers from looking at apprenticeships?
Some people aren't aware that apprenticeships are for people with a wide range of academic backgrounds or that they go right up to degree level. Current legal services apprenticeships take between 18 months and three years to complete and are really demanding, rigorous qualifications. Bureaucracy can also be a worry although a good training provider can manage most things on the employer’s behalf; and the fact that firms receive lots of approaches from apprenticeship providers, many of whom aren't specialists in legal services, means that the volume of Information can be off-putting.

What are the main benefits for a law firm or legal services provider which chooses to employ apprentices?
At the heart of many firms’ business challenge at the moment is the balance between the allocation of human resources and quality. Clients rightly expect high quality at a good price. The demand for quality has traditionally been met by using expensive qualified lawyers to deliver legal services. Firms are finding that apprentices can form part of a blended service where the most complex, high value input is provided by solicitors and other aspects are dealt with by well-supervised and supported staff who in many cases are not qualified lawyers. This approach makes for a more satisfying and profitable allocation of work internally as well as better value for the client.

How are you engaging with firms, education establishments and young people to raise the profile of apprenticeships?
A successful apprenticeship is a partnership and this means that we need to build relationships with school, firms and individuals. So, we attend lots of HR and networking events with law firms and we speak regularly at careers events. We encourage existing employers and apprentices to support apprentice “ambassador” schemes, where apprentices meet schools and employer groups and share their experience. There's much more to do though – I am particularly keen to raise awareness amongst parents to the opportunities that apprenticeships now present.

How do you think legal apprenticeships will develop over the next five to 10 years?
The drivers that have contributed to the developments over the past few years will intensify. In response to this, the range of legal apprenticeships on offer will continue to increase. Just in the last few weeks we have seen the approval of new “trailblazer” apprenticeships for Licensed Conveyancers, Chartered Legal Executives, solicitors and a new paralegal trailblazer apprenticeship. These mean that we now have, for the first time, apprenticeship routes that match the great majority of roles in legal services and so the days when the choice was just between the graduate route and CILEx are over. Importantly, student debt is no longer a pre-requisite to a career in the law.