As a relatively newly qualified solicitor I am often asked by aspiring lawyers about how I got my qualifications and what I think the best routes to qualifications are.
This is not an easy question to answer; especially now the costs of attending university have gone up and the trainee minimum has been abolished.
I suppose the traditional academic route has always been:
a) do A-Levels,
b) go to university,
c) do the legal practice course,
d) get a training contract
e) qualify as a solicitor.
A, B and C have normally been relatively straightforward provided you studied hard and got good grades, but in the current economic climate training contracts have been very hard to come by. In 2008 Large Firms were deferring contracts while the banking crisis was unfurling itself and with even small firms receiving 100’s of application for each contract it did not look good.
According to the Law Society 2011 Annual Statistical report 5,441 new traineeships were registered in the year 1 August 2010 to 31 July 2011. That was an increase of about 11% on the previous year, however the year before had shown a massive decline. Compare this with about 14500 graduates from the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and you can see the problem.
So there are a lot of people out there with their LPC. The anecdotal and the statistical evidence is that there are simply not enough training contracts to go round. This has led to individuals taking any job in a law firm on the off chance that a foot in the door might just mean that at some point in the distant future they might be further up the list and at least make it to interview for that elusive contract.
This leads me to wonder if the traditional route ought to be circumvented by those who are now at the early stages of their legal career. The dawn of Alternate Business Structures means that you no longer have to be legally qualified to have a stake in a legal practice. So why not get a job in a law firm and work your way up?
If you show an aptitude for the job and have a good work ethic you might even persuade a firm to fund your study. You will still have to study and work hard but you won’t have any student debt and will have a wealth of experience that most students straight out of University can only dream of.
There has always been the option of doing CILEx (formerly ILEX) and becoming a Chartered Legal Executive. This does not prevent you from “topping” up this qualification and qualifying as a Solicitor at a future time.
So there is a choice… the academic or the vocational route.
I myself did not take the most straightforward route. I studied law briefly at A-Level as part of my General Studies but by that time I was already on another path to University, to read Business Administration and Educational Studies. I was in two minds about whether to work in business or become a teacher. On Graduating with a 2:1 I went to work in a transport company – initially in sales and then later and much more enjoyably as a project co-ordinator. This role required me to work closely with the in-house legal team in relation to tenders and employment matters for new contracts. It made me realise that I rather enjoyed the law and so I decided to start a part time Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) also known as law conversion. This meant giving up my weekends and a lot of my evenings, but by this time I was two years post graduation and in no position to afford to do the course full time and pay for it! So two-years, £8000 and no social life later I had my GDL.
I had applied for and been accepted to the LPC, but as I had really struggled doing weekend distance learning I switched to do the LPC by attending college one day a week. I was in a new job with very supportive bosses who knew my career plans and were happy for me to work a four day week. This took another two years and another £8000!
Now to find a Training Contract. I started looking just after I finished by GDL, but I admit I only really looked in earnest at the start of the second year of my LPC.
Employers look for excellent grades and experience and with so many trainee wannabes about the cream are swiftly scooped up. Now while I didn’t necessarily have the best grades prior to University, I felt I had a lot of other skills and experience which outweighed that; but with many firms using an automated online system this meant that if you didn’t get 10 A*’s at GCSE or straight A’s at A-Level you got cut there and then regardless of your experience thereafter.
I lost count of how many applications went unanswered and how many phone calls I made to see if my immaculately prepared application had been received only to be told “If you don’t hear from us then it’s because we’re not interested. We get 100’s of applications you know….”
I was then fortunate enough to secure a training contract with Smith Jones.
So 6 years of graft after starting my journey to become a Solicitor I was finally admitted to the role on the 1st of September 2010.
During this time I have been in contact with lawyers of all descriptions. People who started work in a law office as a junior straight out of GCSE’s and then worked their way up by studying as they went.
Others who have taken the ILEX route and become Legal Executives through a combination of on the job experience and training and stopped at that, and more again who have gone on via this route to qualify as Solicitors.
If you look at the costs of studying independently combined with the risk of never getting or getting a low paid training contract why not go straight into the job – earn while you learn and gain experience? Experience is the one thing a University Degree does not give you.
On the other hand, University was a great experience, I made lifelong friends and my original degree has proven to be invaluable in my current job.
I think if I was looking at starting my career in law now I would have to give very serious consideration to the vocational route. All you can do is research all the options fully, do the maths and work out which option is going to suit you.