Students interested in a legal career were historically expected to attend university and obtain a law degree there. In more recent years, however, an emphasis on accessibility to the legal profession has opened up legal apprenticeships as an attractive alternative route – one which is structured quite differently to the traditional path. It is also worth remembering that your experience will likely vary between universities and between apprenticeship-sponsoring legal institutions – there is no homogenous pathway. It can certainly be a challenging decision to make the right choice between the two options. This article analyses the pros and cons of each option side-by-side, providing you with all the information you need to make the decision which best suits you.
The university route will usually take three years (incorporating focused academic study), is usually paid for via student loans, and can be started at any time. After completing your degree (an ‘LLB’ for undergraduates), you will likely attend law school for a year or two (to gain qualifications like the LPC or newly introduced SQE if training to become a solicitor, or the bar training course for barristers).
The apprenticeship route can also start at any time (although often begins after A Levels in sixth form/college), involves the sponsoring institution (e.g. a law firm) paying a gradually rising salary to the apprentice (and covering their training fees). The apprenticeship route often lasts around 6-10 years, and includes a conveniently bundled path to qualification (incorporating, for example, SQE study alongside your full-time work at the sponsoring institution).
This is often seen as one of the most important factors when making the decision between university and apprenticeships. University degrees are expensive. The average undergraduate degree will cost somewhere around £60k (based on a three-year course and including both tuition fees and living costs). These costs do not have to be paid back immediately, and the loan repayment system in the UK is generally viewed as relatively generous (by international standards) – although the minimum salary repayment thresholds have gone up a few times recently. Many will never pay back their loans in full, but the financial burdens are certainly one of the least attractive elements of the university route.
Legal apprenticeships were designed for the very purpose of improved affordability (with a social mobility aspect often driving government support). First of all, you are entitled to the national minimum wage (changes depending on age) as a salary, but most employers will offer more competitive salaries. A rough idea for a first-year solicitor apprentice, for example, could be £14,000-£20,000 outside London (or £20,000-£26,000 in the capital). Your sponsor (and/or the government) will also take care of the costs involved in your studies. The idea of actually being paid to get your degree is a big selling point for many.
A law degree at university develops broadly applicable skills such as research and extended writing – these are attractive to employers throughout various industries (law students often decide during their degree to go in various directions after graduating). A legal apprenticeship, however, will often take a more practical, vocational approach to your education which is tailored specifically for the qualification you are pursuing. As a result, many will suggest that a university degree is a more appealing qualification for those not entirely set on their future career yet.
Apprenticeships usually last between 6 and 10 years. A university law degree (LLB) will usually only take 3 – however, this option will then require further study at a law school (of which there are numerous options) for qualifications like the SQE. Some individuals will prefer the all-in nature of a legal apprenticeship, whereas others will prefer to split their route up into smaller segments (e.g. university degree, law school, pupillage). Both routes require a great deal of time and effort, so the difference is relatively negligible.
The ability to gain real-world experience in the legal sector (and therefore to develop your CV, a very important aspect of legal career hunting) from an early stage is one of the key advantages of an apprenticeship. University students will often still gain experience (for example by partaking in internships during university vacations) throughout their studies, but there is a notable difference in terms of depth and breadth of real-world experience – something which has become increasingly important in the competitive modern job market.
A major advantage of legal apprenticeships is the fact that the apprentice is often able to stay on at their sponsor firm, chambers, etc. – it is often seen as a fast-tracked route to employment as a result. After university, on the other hand, students are left to fend for themselves and apply for pupillages (for aspiring barristers) or training contracts (for aspiring solicitors). This difference is often cited as an advantage of the apprenticeship route.
Both university and apprenticeships offer excellent opportunities for networking. Apprentices are able to network within the legal industry from day one – both within their own sponsoring institution and with clients. University students, however, are able to network in their own ways – for example with expert law tutors (many of whom may have had successful careers as barristers or solicitors already), or with other students who may be going into related industries (a university law student aspiring to become a solicitor will do well to network with aspiring investment bankers on their campus, for example). Neither route has a clear advantage here.
This is often cited as one of the main advantages of university over apprenticeships. Apprentices are expected to work full time whilst studying, which often leads to a difficult work-life balance (although the opportunities to socialise within the office should not be understated, either). Students at university generally encounter far superior opportunities for socialising – for example the range of student societies on offer, which builds those all-important extra-curricular interests and skills. It should also be noted, however, that law degrees at universities are certainly not easy either – especially with the demands of especially intense courses such as those on offer at Oxbridge or the Russell Group universities.
While legal apprenticeships have grown massively in popularity, university law degrees are still the most popular routes into the top legal professions. A major reason for this is the fact that not all law firms or chambers offer apprenticeships yet. Allen & Overy, for example, became the first Magic Circle law firm to introduce solicitor apprenticeships – this only happened for the first time in 2022. There are, of course, many other law firms outside of the Magic Circle or Elite US groups, and many such firms do offer apprenticeships. However, the route remains very competitive due to the relatively small number of spots available. This is not to say that university law degree places are easy to come by either, especially at the most prestigious universities. On the whole, however, the apprenticeship route will likely be a more challenging prospect in terms of availability. Our page collating opportunities for legal apprenticeships is a great starting point.
A university degree in law will ensure students are provided with an in-depth legal education on a strong foundation, including studies of the historical or theoretical background of the legal system of England and Wales. Apprenticeships similarly provide a comprehensive legal education, but may also specialise a little more based on the particular needs/strengths of the sponsoring institution. A solicitor apprenticeship at a firm which focuses on a handful of very niche practice areas, for example, will likely receive a greater emphasis of learning in those areas This would be fine if the apprentice is already set on pursuing a career in one of those practice areas, but could potentially be an issue if not.
There are clearly a huge number of differences between these two routes into the legal profession. Financial considerations, duration, work experience, career security, and work-life balance are amongst some of the most important considerations when making the choice between these two routes into law. However, both are wonderful options for aspiring lawyers, and the ‘best’ choice ultimately rests on the personal preferences of the individual.
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