#NAW2018: Womble Bond Dickinson LLP: promoting diversity in apprenticeships


Leading transatlantic law firm Womble Bond Dickinson began offering UK apprenticeships in 2014 as a method to diversify the staff it recruits, now it is using the Apprenticeship Levy to introduce new apprenticeships to the firm and plug skills gaps. The firm’s apprenticeships have been a major success, helping to improve staff retention levels and the continuity of client service. Womble Bond Dickinson has just launched its new solicitor apprenticeship programme and has exciting plans to strengthen and expand its award-winning apprenticeship offering.

Promoting diversity

In an industry not known for its accessibility, law firm Womble Bond Dickinson is helping to open doors to a career in law through a range of apprenticeships. Named Best Large Newcomer of the Year at the National Apprenticeship Awards 2016, Womble Bond Dickinson has been offering legal apprenticeships in its Plymouth office since 2014, and, since September 2017, in its Newcastle office too. In Plymouth, Womble Bond Dickinson recruit onto the Paralegal Apprenticeship standard. Following the programme’s continued success, it has now rolled out further apprenticeships across its other business functions and locations, including a new solicitor apprenticeship in Newcastle.

Sam Lee, Head of Recruitment at Womble Bond Dickinson, explains why: “Hiring apprentices is absolutely the right thing to do in our sector. We wanted to create opportunities for people who might not otherwise think that a career in the legal sector is for them – or even possible. But our apprentices, even if they don’t necessarily want to go to university, have drive, a willingness to learn, and an incredible enthusiasm for the work they do.”

Womble Bond Dickinson’s passion for social mobility means they target school leavers, focussing on young people’s potential. Regardless of background or school, Womble Bond Dickinson encourages anyone with the right grades and passion to apply to become an apprentice. Following the success of its legal apprentices, Womble Bond Dickinson now offers apprenticeships in its business support teams, including Facilities, HR and IT, recently bringing in its first secretarial apprentices too.

Sam admits the legal sector isn’t known for its diversity but she believes the introduction of the levy will help tackle that perception. She says: “The levy has coincided with the introduction of the new trailblazer apprenticeships within our sector. Opening up opportunities for those who might never have thought a career in law was available to them is a hugely positive step.”

Plugging the skills gap

Before introducing apprenticeships, Womble Bond Dickinson struggled with a high turnover rate among paralegals. Many were graduates who wanted the opportunity to gain experience in a top law firm, before moving on to further their careers as lawyers. With apprentices now in these roles, the programme is already bearing fruit with benefits to internal and external clients. Hiring legal apprentices has helped Womble Bond Dickinson to address its staff retention issues and offer consistency and continuity for its clients.

Sam says: “Apprenticeships are an important retention tool for us. They create a pipeline of candidates to fill the gaps, and have been a real asset in how loyal to Womble Bond Dickinson they are. Apprentices’ length of service has been longer than the average paralegal, allowing us to be more consistent with our clients. Now we can safely ensure a client’s team has a well-trained, well-trusted paralegal who will maintain a consistently fantastic level of service.”

Moreover, since the introduction of the levy, Womble Bond Dickinson is making progress through extending its apprenticeship programme even further. Sam says: “We’re working with the business to identify where the skills gaps are internally and whether apprenticeships might be the answer.” She continues: “Since the first announcement that the levy was coming, we’ve been looking at opportunities to develop further programmes. Our legal apprenticeship scheme is now an integral part of our recruitment strategy and we’ve been working on rolling out programmes across our IT, Facilities Services, HR and secretarial teams. We've also seen our first ever solicitor apprentices start in our Newcastle office, an exciting milestone.”

A supporting, collaborative environment

The law firm offers a range of support to its apprentices with structures in place to encourage their career development. For example, since completing their apprenticeship, Womble Bond Dickinson’s first apprentice cohort are still working in the firm and they have chosen to study towards a legal executive qualification. Meanwhile, a mentoring system encourages more senior paralegals to offer guidance to the apprentices, with a qualified lawyer offering support, and a dedicated member of staff overseeing apprenticeships at the firm.

The success of Womble Bond Dickinson’s apprenticeships was underscored recently when 20-year-old paralegal apprentice Florence Lungu was crowned Advanced Apprentice of the Year at the South West Regional Apprenticeship Awards 2017. "An apprenticeship was a very easy decision for me,” Florence explains. “Earning whilst gaining a recognised legal qualification, combined with future career progression opportunities was the perfect choice." Womble Bond Dickinson has also been named in the prestigious Top 100 Apprenticeship Employer list, which recognises excellence in businesses that employ apprentices.

"We took on apprentices because it was the right thing to do; for social mobility, improved staff retention and for the future of our business,” Sam says, “but what’s amazed us most is how well the apprentices have performed, they still surprise us every day.” She adds:  “Apprenticeships have provided great development opportunities for our existing staff, too. There’s a real buzz in the office around apprentices, as people increasingly see the benefits they can bring. Apprenticeships also give staff opportunities to supervise and mentor people – opportunities that they previously may not have had.”

Sam says that raising awareness about the value and benefits of apprentiships is vital. “It’s critical to ensure the whole business understands the opportunities that apprentices bring to the business,” she explains. “Investing time and effort into making this happen is one of the reasons we’ve seen such great progress.” The business is now planning to expand its offer by providing apprentices with even more support to help during the transition from school to the workplace. Sam says: “With plans to develop an Apprenticeship Academy under way, we’re committed to continuing our apprenticeship programme and building on it in the years ahead.”

The perfect choice: Rebekah’s perspective

Paralegal Apprentice Rebekah Putnam joined the firm six months ago. Reflecting on her decision to choose the apprenticeship route, she says: "I've always wanted to pursue a career in the legal sector, mainly because I believe that law is a fundamental part of our society and I love problem-solving. The apprenticeship at Womble Bond Dickinson was a perfect choice, enabling me to continue learning and acquire a legal qualification whilst gaining invaluable working experience at a top transatlantic law firm. This is my first year as a Paralegal Apprentice and the programme has already surpassed my expectations. I am considered an integral part of the team and this has given me a strong sense of responsibility and boosted my confidence. I am really excited about my future at Womble Bond Dickinson."

More National Apprenticeship Week stories:

Monday, 5 March 2018

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#NAW2018: Womble Bond Dickinson LLP: promoting diversity in apprenticeships