In Conversation with The Careers Company: Marissa Sanders, The Apprenticeship Queen

career conversation early careers human resources leaders May 02, 2023

In Conversation with The Careers Company: Marissa Sanders, The Apprenticeship Queen


“Helping young people pursue their chosen career is a joy”


This is the first of our series of showcasing exceptional careers work undertaken by HR, Talent and Careers professionals and their organisations. The series is aimed at democratising career solutions for all organisational leaders but particularly medium-sized organisations that don’t have the same resources available to them that large organisations do.  It could be about sharing: careers thought leadership pieces, impactful diversity interventions focused on career progression, how organisations are using technology e.g. Talent Marketplace or ChatGPT, or doing things on a global scale.   


In this particular article we focus on the work of Marissa Sanders, Head of Early Careers and her team at Irwin Mitchell.  Irwin Mitchell, founded in 1912 is one of the largest full-service law firms in the country providing legal and financial advice to both individuals and businesses.  The firm also aims to be a leading responsible business and in 2022 they were the law firm with the most female partners in the UK[1].



Marissa herself has had an enviable corporate career.  She has over 25 years in financial services and, having spent almost 10 years with Irwin Mitchell, has built the Early Careers function to incorporate a number of roles, and moved to head up the function. Marissa has passed on her passion for pursuing your career goals to her children.  A mum of two twenty-somethings, both first generation, to go to university.  She has also helped many others get that first step on the career ladder of their dreams.


As we all know, the Early Careers space is super competitive.  The world of work is complex, careers are becoming more global, we are continually being asked to adopt new ways of working. Workforces are more diverse and competition for the most coveted roles remains fierce.  Coupled with the effects of COVID and the Great Resignation, careers can be tough to steer and navigate. 


With firms like Irwin Mitchell that are highly dependent on their people, the way careers start set the stage for long term career success and progress. Marissa is not phased.  She and her team are constantly innovating, rethinking every aspect of the Early Careers space.  In particular, there are a number of thoughtful interventions that Marissa and her team do differently in both the recruitment and career development of their colleagues. 


  • Irwin Mitchell no longer has an application form for its graduate programme.  As extreme as it may sound, Marissa and her team did not find this helpful and did not feel this was necessarily a fair reflection of the applicant. Instead they have a tailored, scenario-based assessment process based on an individual’s strengths, where no weightage is given to prior legal experience.  They also use the same assessment process for their graduates and apprentices!  “It’s really important that our apprentices are regarded on an equal footing with our graduates”, says Marissa.  “Using the same assessment process for our flagship Solicitor pathway, be that as a graduate or an apprentice, helps dispel some of the myths surrounding apprenticeships.  It lets colleagues see for themselves how amazing our apprentices are, and challenges some more traditional opinions that apprenticeships are only for manual roles.”


  • They practice “Blind recruitment” throughout their recruitment process which means your personal and academic information isn’t shared at any stage.  As a hiring manager, imagine the concept that where you have been to university and the grades achieved is no longer relevant!   “Sometimes life gets in the way, and your academic results don’t always reflect your abilities.” says Marissa.  “Giving young people another chance to prove themselves rather than writing them off so early in their career is something I feel strongly about.  The process includes a verbal and critical reasoning assessment, and isn’t easy, but it does provide applicants with another chance to show what they are capable of. “


  • While these two changes in the recruitment process have been game-changing for Irwin Mitchell, what Marissa is most proud of - her legacy - is the introduction of an award-wining Apprenticeship programme. And before you say that is nothing new, Marissa introduced this BEFORE the levy was introduced. She is our “Apprentice Queen”.  Irwin Mitchell offers 17 different apprenticeships;  as well as the legal ones to become a paralegal or solicitor, it also offers apprenticeships in a wide range of fields from accounting and project management to Level 7 Master’s apprenticeships in cyber security and sustainability.  “When I started in financial services, I was given half-day release to undertake my banking exams.  They saw my potential and I rewarded them with hard work and loyalty, passing my exams and staying with my employer for over 25 years.  Although it wasn’t called an apprenticeship, that’s effectively what it was!”


And the impact of these thoughtful interventions? You may well ask! 


At The Careers Company, we know that the impact of careers interventions is difficult to assess but here are some of the ways Marissa and the team view their success:


  1. Retention rates.  Graduate retention rates are among best in class, generally retaining over 90% of graduates at the end of the training programme.
  2. Awards and accolades. They have been named as the top law for Apprenticeships by TheJobCrowd and RateMyApprenticeship recently rated them second-highest law firm offering apprenticeships and TheLawyer noted that Irwin Mitchell offers more apprenticeships than any other law firm.
  3. Apprenticeship levy usage. Marissa added a dedicated Apprenticeship Manager to her team 2 years ago and has seen her initial apprenticeship programme go from strength to strength, using over 55% of the levy and rising!


Finally, Marissa totally practices what she preaches and is an inspirational leader.  Since joining Irwin Mitchell she has completed a Master’s degree and is currently completing a coaching apprenticeship.  Additionally, 5 out of her 7 seven-strong team are also undertaking apprenticeships in business administration, project management and coaching.


“Maybe I’m a qualification junkie.” says Marissa “I’ve always continued to study throughout my working life and have no intention of stopping!”


Like what you’ve heard?  Are you or your company doing something truly innovative? We’d love to hear.  Contact us!








Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.