Until 2012 Ian McIntosh was a partner in a large law firm advising business clients on corporate deals, mergers and acquisitions etc. He is now a career coach for aspiring lawyers.
Q. “What is black and brown and looks good on a lawyer?”
A. “a Doberman”
Few careers have their own genre of jokes, but lawyers do, especially in the USA. While this reflects an unloved status, law is still a career that attracts many young people (directly, and through parents’ encouragement). This blog looks briefly at the routes to become a lawyer and then – perhaps more importantly – lawyers’ working lives, and how they are changing.
First lets deal with terminology. “Lawyer” is a generic term for people who practice law. But, just as doctors and nurses both practice medicine, there are different types of qualified lawyer. The three main types are barristers, solicitors and legal executives, and each of these kinds of lawyer has their own routes to qualification.
Numbers give a helpful perspective. There are around 15,500 barristers in the UK, compared with around 130,000 practising solicitors and 20,000 chartered legal executives in England and Wales. The formal differences between the three roles are reducing, but there are still differences in the kind of work they do.
Barristers’ most public role is appearing in court to represent others, wearing a wig and gown. But barristers also draft court documents and give specialised legal advice, especially where the issues might finish up in court, or are complex in law. Senior barristers are called Queens Counsel (QCs). Barristers are usually brought in (or “instructed”) to advise clients by the client’s solicitors.
Solicitors by contrast are usually a client’s direct legal adviser. It isn’t an exact comparison, but you can think of solicitors and barristers in a similar way to doctors (GPs) and consultants. Solicitors (like GPs) are normally clients’ first port of call for advice, and they spend more time dealing directly with clients than barristers, but with a more general practice they will often refer specialist issues to barristers (just like hospital consultants). Solicitors can do all the things that barristers do as described above (solicitors can now become accredited advocates in English courts), but barristers continue to do more court and related work, especially in non-routine matters.
The next helpful distinction in these roles is where and how they work. So most barristers (80% or so) are self employed, working for themselves. They typically work in “sets” or “chambers”, an arrangement where a group of barristers pool office costs and employ clerks and other support staff, with each barrister still practising as an individual, being instructed in their own cases and bringing in their own fees. So this gives them independence and autonomy, and the other benefits of self-employment, but not the security and support that comes from being employed by a firm. By contrast nearly 70% of solicitors work in private practice, usually solicitors’ firms (often now just called “law firms”) set up as a form of partnership, and the percentages of legal executives working in solicitors’ firms would probably be similar. Some work that individual solicitors and legal executives do in these firms will be because clients instruct them personally, but a proportion (increasing in larger firms) will be because the client is a client of the whole firm.
So already there is a choice for young people looking at legal careers; an individualistic role, with possibly more legal specialisation and often appearing in courts, or a firm environment, with a more client-facing role.
But many lawyers do not work in traditional barristers’ chambers or law (i.e. solicitors’) firms. Many (over 26,000 according to a recent report, double the number in 2000) work “in-house” – employed by a company or other private sector organisation to work exclusively on their affairs. Others work in law centres – not-for-profit organisations serving local communities, often funded through a mixture of Legal Aid and local grants. The public sector also employs lawyers in-house, in both central and local government, in regulatory bodies such as the Financial Services Authority or criminal prosecutors like the Crown Prosecution Service or the Department of Public Prosecutions. And of course many qualified lawyers work in other roles, in business or government for example, some using their legal training and analytical skills, others just leaving law behind completely.
Routes to qualification
First, a general word of warning; all routes to becoming a lawyer are very competitive, with large numbers of well-qualified students applying. It is not an easy option.
1. Qualifying as a solicitor
We’ll start with solicitors, as they are the most numerous. For solicitors, the traditional route after school has 3 stages:
Law degree (typically 3 years)
Legal Practice Course (1 year)
“Training Contracts” (working with solicitors – 2 years)
But graduates in non-law disciplines (and some non-graduates) can become solicitors by taking a foundation fast track law course instead of a law degree. Confusingly, there are 2 alternative fast track courses:
- the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and
- the Common Professional Examination (CPE)
The two courses are virtually identical, with the distinction coming down to semantics – some CPE courses award a diploma, hence the title GDL.
After this fast track law course students then take the Legal Practice Course, designed to teach law and practice specifically for solicitors.
Further details can be found at the Law Society’s website.
2. Qualifying as a barrister
Again, the traditional route after school has 3 stages:
Law degree (typically 3 years)
Bar Professional Training Course (1 year full time)
“Pupillage” (working with a barrister – 1 year)
But, like solicitors, barristers do not need to have a law degree. So a graduate in a non-law discipline (but not non-graduates – you still need a degree) can become a barrister by taking the CPE/GDL as an alternative to a law degree.
This is then followed by the Bar Professional Training Course. As you would expect from the numbers above, the competition to become a barrister is fierce, with many more students aspiring to practice as barristers than the profession can possibly sustain. It is not a choice for the faint hearted.
Further details can be found at the Bar Council’s website.
3. The Legal Executive Qualification
An alternative to the solicitor/barrister route is to become a legal executive, starting work straight from leaving school, so “learning and earning”, and avoiding student debt. The route to becoming a Chartered Legal Executive lawyer looks like this:
Working in a law firm (learning on the job, and being paid!)
Level 3 Professional Diploma in Law and Practice exams
Level 6 Professional Higher Diploma in Law and Practice exams
This route offers a recognised legal career in its own right. Legal Executives can go on to also qualify as solicitors if they wish, usually by taking the Legal Practice Course (they are usually exempt from most of the CPE/GDL and the training contract).
Further details are available at the website of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives.
“Paralegals” are people who carry out legal tasks, often more routine ones, but without a formal qualification, and they are increasingly common. The term covers a wide range of roles; for some it is a meaningful role in its own right with interesting work, others are simply use the role to gain work experience while waiting for a training contract or pupillage. Interestingly, it is now possible to use appropriate experience as a paralegal as an alternative to a training contract in qualifying as a solicitor.
Lawyers’ Working Lives
Let’s start with the positives – what do lawyers like about their jobs?
The work is often interesting and challenging. So, for example you might be dealing with an issue where the law is complex and you have to concentrate for long periods to work out the answer. Or sometimes the law might be straightforward but gives an answer that isn’t sensible, or which your client doesn’t like. So the challenge is to find a better answer, to make the best of a weak position, and to explain the weaknesses of a situation to your client clearly and in a way they understand and accept. For many lawyers those challenges – working out the intellectual answer and delivering a practical solution for a client – are a big part of the job satisfaction.
That sense of helping clients manifests itself in different ways. For some people it means doing right and helping the underdog – preventing a tenant from being evicted or defending someone wrongly accused of a crime; there are many examples. But others just enjoy working with their clients, finding solutions for them, keeping them happy and loyal, and so it is their client relationship that matters.
For many a real plus is working with bright people; colleagues who, like them, are intelligent, highly educated and perhaps share similar interests, creating a sense of collegiality.
And there is money. The best lawyers, whether barristers or senior solicitors (partners) at the best law firms, are very well paid. And, while it appears that clients are prepared to pay high fees for the best lawyers, it is an open question whether in the future there will be quite so many well paid lawyers jobs in the middle ground, below that top level, as we’ll see below.
But there are disadvantages too
Law is a service industry and clients, paying high fees, are demanding. If you have 4 different clients each wanting an answer that day, and each answer takes 3 hours’ work, an 8-hour working day simply isn’t long enough. So the working day expands to fit the work, meaning 12-hour days (or longer) but high incomes. Good lawyers work hard, sometimes to overwork, so stress and related ailments often go with the high earnings. Young people looking at law need to decide what they feel about these “lifestyle” issues.
Practising law means detail, accuracy and thoroughness. Contracts need to be drafted without loopholes, court documents need to be right, and evidence needs to be fully investigated and checked to avoid surprises in court. Clients pay lawyers to get these things 100% right, to cover all the angles and not to miss things. But lawyers are human, and they can make mistakes. That perfectionist pressure (often self imposed) to get it absolutely right can be a real struggle and source of stress for many lawyers.
Qualities Lawyers Need
There are some qualities that law firms and barristers’ chambers look for when recruiting which are general and apply to many graduate jobs; commercial acumen (the ability to understand their clients’ environment, sort out the big issues from the little ones, and shape their advice to reflect the real world), team-working skills, honesty and integrity. These are important, but more in hunting for jobs than in selecting law as a career.
But there are some general qualities that perhaps apply particularly to lawyers
Most obviously, lawyers need to be bright, and visibly so. No client wants to have a lawyer who doesn’t seem as smart as the other side’s lawyer. This means being able to understand strengths and weaknesses in an argument – your own as well as the other side’s – and to see gaps and ambiguities in the way is a point is made or a sentence is written. So what does “between 5 and 10” mean? Is it the same as “not less than 5 and not more than 10”? That kind of question is meat and drink to lawyers.
As well as understanding words and arguments, lawyers need to be able to speak and argue well. This is obviously important for barristers, arguing a case in a way that is clear and persuasive for a judge or jury. But solicitors and legal executives need this skill too – to negotiate with an opposing lawyer or persuade a regulator or prosecutor. This goes beyond the cleverness in seeing the argument; it means speaking confidently, with presence and credibility; making people believe you.
So far we have talked about words – analyzing them, picking holes in other peoples’ words, and writing and speaking. But successful lawyers are not simply clever in this analytical way. Clients don’t want their lawyers to give them a clever analysis of the law; they want advice on what the law means, on their options and risks; in short, what practical steps they should take. So lawyers need to give advice and recommendations that are realistic and practical. “Practical” is key here; another word for it is “commercial”. It means lawyers must understand their clients’ perspectives, what is and isn’t important to them, and then lawyers need to frame their advice in this practical or “commercial” way. These “softer” skills – being good with clients and giving commercial advice – are a big factor for clients when choosing their lawyers, so they are important factor in a competitive market.
In short lawyers need to be good on detail, precise and hard-working, as you’d expect. But to be successful, clients need to like dealing with you and find your advice useful and usable, as well as legally accurate.
What are the current trends in the legal sector?
- The sheer amount of law and regulation is increasing (and there is no sign of that changing soon), leading to greater complexity. So that suggests an increasing need for people who can advise on the law, and you’d think that means qualified lawyers.
- But there are other factors at play. The law is no longer a secret body of knowledge, available only to those with a legal training or law library; the Internet makes large amounts of law and legal knowledge and documents available to any Google user. So why pay large amounts of money to a lawyer for advice for something you can find for free on the Internet? And more generally, the “professional” or “expert” status of lawyers (like other professions) doesn’t give them the deference from clients, or protection from increasing client demands, that they used to have. Do you really need a highly qualified and expensive lawyer to do all this work? So lawyers have to work harder to make their services valuable for their clients.
- Larger law firms are increasingly using paralegals to carry out significant volumes of document reviews and standard legal processes. Sometimes this work will be carried out by specialist legal outsource firms, while other law firms have set up their own in-house paralegal teams, often based in low cost locations including outside the UK. Using staff without full legal qualifications in this way, with highly standardised processes and good technology, can be much cheaper, without noticeably compromising quality.
- Technology has helped lawyers greatly in standardising their documents and processes and delivering their services more efficiently. But the next wave of technology might not be so benign. So for example in litigation large clients can already choose to have specialist computer programmes search through large volumes of documents and data, more quickly and cheaply than large teams of junior lawyers reading the files. How much further can this technology go, and what other lawyers’ work, especially standard processes and documents, will be done more efficiently by technology in the future?
- Against this background, the job market for young qualified lawyers seems to be shrinking, with the number of new solicitors training contracts (around 5,500) around 16% lower than before the 2007/8 recession, without any sign from law firms that this trend will reverse.
- Legal service providers are becoming larger. Solicitors’ firms, from the smallest high street firms to the largest international firms, are merging with each other to provide scale and depth to their services and to achieve efficiencies of scale that will increase both profitability (partners’ income) and their ability to invest (especially in technology). Recent legislative changes also now allow non-lawyers to own law firms, so large companies can move into the legal sector, bringing capital and ideas from other businesses, to experiment with different ways of providing legal services.
- Predicting the future is never easy, but a few conclusions could be drawn from the above.
- The legal sector is going through a long period of significant change, which will produce winners – and losers. Increasing use of technology and consolidation among law firms are likely to be key factors in this change.
- The opportunities and rewards for the very best lawyers will continue to be very good, but the competition for those roles will continue to intensify.
- Technology, and its ability to carry out standard processes, is likely to be more of a threat in more routine legal services, so the pressure might be greater on mid-market and high street firms.
- The new entrants to the legal services market, and the new operating models and technologies they will introduce, offer big opportunities for those who can apply their traditional lawyers’ skills in new ways, to deliver services more efficiently and cheaply.
- There is no reason why those with higher academic legal qualifications should be the biggest beneficiaries of these trends. The future for legal executives and paralegals, especially those with business acumen and an aptitude for IT, is at least as bright.