Risky Business – Becoming a Solicitor

A large part of the work of a lawyer is the assessment of risk. The risk that your client will win or lose a particular point in litigation, the risk that they get a longer sentence for requiring the prosecution to prove their case rather than admit it, the risk that a provision in a contract will be not be capable of being relied on just when it is most needed, the risk that a regulator will find that it has failed to comply with one of the requirements imposed on it.

So, in a way it is not so terrible that making choices before entering the legal professions also involves weighing up risks. The risk that a particular combination of A levels will not be favoured (ironically Law A level tending to be in the list of subjects that are not highly regarded by the most selective universities) weighed against the risk that obtaining a lower set of grades in more “suitably challenging” subjects would also prevent entry into the better courses. The risk that taking one or two years of costly and demanding post-graduate education might not lead to a training contract or pupillage. The risk of not finding a job even after qualifying.

There have recently been a couple of innovations announced which make the choices more complicated, but offer some novel ways of managing these risks. Pinsent Masons has recruited its first candidates to seek qualification as non-graduates via ILEX membership – or rather its first candidates for a large number of years, 30-40 years ago it was relatively common for solicitors to train up in similar ways and there are still a number of senior partners in the very top law firms who are non-graduates. The University of Northumbria has launched a new 5 year LLB/MLaw course which includes work placements in the final two years which lead to candidates fulfilling the training requirements to become solicitors without needing to secure a training contract: http://bit.ly/ogTQ5z . Acculaw has started to recruit trainees which it will employ and hire out to firms on secondment, taking the responsibility for trainee recruitment and funding away from firms (it estimates that the average cost to a firm per trainee is £175k – it is easy to see how Acculaw could quickly get a foot in the door with many firms by offering to reduce this to a trainee salary of £20-30k a year for two years plus a mark up): http://bit.ly/qPd2gh .

In one way, these options are welcome in that they provide alternatives to the standard routes to qualification. These alternatives are certainly needed given how the number of graduates with qualifying law degrees and GDL conversion courses has grown much faster than the number of training positions and permanent jobs in the legal professions over the past couple of decades.

My personal view is that this is at least partly a big con. Law is about the cheapest undergraduate degree to be able to provide, particularly as it no longer even needs investment in expensive paper libraries as a large proportion of legal materials, reports and journals are available relatively cheaply online. There are lots of underworked junior barristers around who are happy to do a bit of teaching to help raise their profile in a technical area or just supplement their income while they build their practices. Law courses can be an attractive option at less illustrious institutions because they don’t sound like Mickey Mouse degrees. They may well be better for getting non-law jobs than some of those courses. However, the reality is that the lower ranking the institution and course, the smaller the proportion of its graduates who will have any chance of a legal career.

Some might argue that this misses the point as a large proportion of students take Law degrees without any intention of practising (a recent study mentioned a figure of 50% of Law undergraduates never having had any intention of entering the legal professions).  I am sceptical about these figures, but even if they are true, find it odd that so many would choose to study Law for its other uses and general interest. Of course, I know that Law has its interest – I would not have given up work and returned to do a post-graduate degree in it at my own expense after qualifying otherwise nor would I have blogged about it at all, although both of those things would have been far less likely had I decided to follow another profession after my undergraduate degree. Doing it as a moderately rigorous course to buff up the fact that you “only” got into a less well-regarded university doesn’t sound like the start of a deep intellectual engagement with Law or one which will give much of a university educational experience.

Most of the competitive universities require AAA at A level for entry into Law degrees so it is increasingly difficult for firms and Chambers to be able to distinguish between candidates other than by having seen them in action during vacation work experience schemes. However, competition for these schemes has itself hotted up substantially since I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s when you needed to have done just enough work experience to be able to show that you had some commitment to the profession and understanding of what the job might entail. Now, they are, unsurprisingly being seen as the first stage of an interview process – indeed message boards for aspiring lawyers often fill with questions about “how can I explain the fact that I didn’t get offered a job by the firm I did a Vac Scheme at”.

Being able to sidestep this by having training built into your degree, as at Northumbria has its appeal in this climate. Instead of balancing out the risk of being left with 3 years of undergraduate debt plus a year of more expensive and immediately repayable LPC debt and no training contract against the opportunity of getting a well paid training contract (heading up towards £50k in larger City Firms), candidates can be sure that after 5 years they will be qualified and “only” have 4 years of undergraduate level debt. The Acculaw proposition comes from the other end and makes providing training places more affordable for firms. It might be a cost saving measure for some firms that already recruit trainees, but it might also increase the number of training positions by making it affordable for smaller firms to take on trainees.

But, is it a good thing overall to encourage firms to invest less in training, either in terms of money (in trainee salaries, course fees and supervisor time) or more strategically in terms of thinking hard about who they want to spend £175k on, what their future needs for qualified people will be and so on? Most larger law firms spend a lot of time, rightly, talking about how their people are their greatest asset. This is true – one or two substandard lawyers (whether technically, or more often, by personality) can make a big difference to how a firm is perceived. Commoditising trainees and investing less in them in all senses might presage a greater ruthlessness towards them – if it is easy to get trainees and there’s little downside to having one that doesn’t make the grade, why work too hard in choosing and nurturing the right people as most firms try to now?

Moving the financial risk of taking trainees from employing firms of solicitors on to the trainees themselves, as with the Northumbria course can also be seen as potentially retrograde. Only a few years before I started my pupillage, it was routine for pupil barristers to pay their pupilmasters for the privilege of training. Things had modernised somewhat by my time as all pupillages were free even if you did have to find money to live off while you did them (a small number of pupillages at the very top sets were funded). Now, all pupils get at least the national minimum wage. Before the Bar did so, the Law Society introduced a minimum training wage for solicitors.

This will not apply to Northumbria’s students. Perhaps overall the financial risk is mitigated by such courses, but this is mitigation which puts the whole of the burden onto the student/candidate. It may also be worth considering whether merely being qualified is worth taking that risk – which firms will employ Northumbria’s MLaw graduates? There are some decent local firms in the North East, but it is a limited market and one which is little known or understood outside the region.

The only really progressive approach of the three is the Pinsent Masons experiment with encouraging more non-graduate trainees. This is being mirrored by some accountancy firms and potentially other big employers. Law and accountancy for most of history were not graduate professions, are not more conceptually or technically difficult now than they were in the past, and there are more technological tools to help. Giving some 18 year olds the ability to step off the conveyor belt of studying for a degree when they are mature enough and interested enough to choose a career will provide a real option. There’s no reason why, if they miss the experience of studying at university that they could not do so later in life, but this would be a genuine choice, rather than, as it currently stands, the only practical option.


One thought on “Risky Business – Becoming a Solicitor

  1. Pingback: Review of 2011 – 2. Something so objectionable they pay you for it | botzarelli

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