The legal press has been awash recently with stories about admissions to the profession: Kaplan Law School is looking to introduce an admissions test for the Legal Practice Course (LPC); BPP is seeking to open three new law schools in Cambridge, Liverpool and Newcastle; and the College of Law has refused to refund fees to students who never commenced their courses. In themselves, these stories might cause a stir and provoke debate about the commercialism of legal education or open market competition. But together they suggest something more serious.
The recession has marked the end of a period of rapid expansion in the profession. The heady days of nineties boom are now a distant – if fond – memory for many firms suffering from noughties bust. The profession was desperate to fill its junior ranks with graduates from across the country and opened itself up to an unprecedented level of lawyers from across the world transferring to sustain demand.
Television series such as This Life, Ally McBeal (pictured) and North Square (does anyone else remember that?) perpetuated the myth and sold the legal profession as a sexy, fast-paced, well-paid and desirable lifestyle to a new generation of lawyers. A new brand of legal celebrity has since been created – for better or worse. George Carmen QC, Mr Loophole Nick Freeman, Cherie Booth, Fiona Shackleton and Lord Goldsmith have become household names as society’s insatiable appetite for news and knowledge has continued to grow.
I recently put a figure on the number of unemployed LPC graduates seeking the elusive training contract. I said it was between 10,000 and 20,000. I stand by these figures, despite some arguments to the contrary from parties with vested interests (step forward Mr Crisp, chief executive of BPP).
I don’t make this declaration lightly. This is a serious issue for the many thousands of wannabe lawyers. But there is a bigger picture to consider. As we move forward under the cloud of the Legal Services Act, alternative business structures are already being put into place in anticipation of a 2011 start date. Unless consideration is now given to the sustainable future of legal services, we may soon find ourselves in a position familiar to many private practice firms already – a top-heavy profession.
The pyramid structure of a traditional partnership model has been knocked down and rebuilt over recent years. Partners have continued to take out substantial drawings equivalent to those experienced during the property, personal injury and economic boom. Unfortunately, once you get used to something, it is often difficult to give it up – whether that is the holiday home in the south of France or private school fees.
As drawings continued to be taken, little investment has been put back in to some firms. There have been many casualties – large firms and small – across the country. But the real casualties are those who have been made redundant and the increasing numbers of graduates still entering what is a contracting profession.
Unless investment is ploughed in at the junior lawyer level, the ageing top-heavy firms which are still surviving will become relics and most likely extinct, or the prey of larger all-consuming behemoths.
Worse still, perhaps, is the future outlook in light of ABSs. We have seen how warehouses full of ‘legal advisers’ have built a personal injury system which is maintaining a pyramid shape model, but at its most extreme. As paralegal positions expand, the number of training contracts reduces. Which one is affecting the other the most is impossible to say with conviction, but I fear that a workforce of specifically and not generally skilled lawyers will emerge. This will be an acute example of early specialisation which – although attractive to some firms – will not benefit the profession overall.
So, my plea goes out to partners to invest in the junior end of the profession. A quick buck might feed the coffers in the short term, but it is becoming evident that this model will not lead to long-term gain. Although none of us can guess at the future, we are expected in our professional lives as lawyers to look ahead, advise and assess each potential outcome for our clients. Risk management is essential. It may be true that the traditional partnership model is now redundant (pardon the pun) but for whatever replaces it we will need well-educated, well-rounded lawyers to satisfy client demand and promote access to justice for the long term, not the short.
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 9 November 2010, and is reproduced by kind permission