Kevin Poulter sees solicitors adapting to austere times and firms nurturing the very best of our future lawyers, but is the Bar prepared to do the same?
Last month saw the sixth National Apprenticeship Week and the formal launch of the Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Services, supported by Skills for Justice and the National Apprenticeship Service. At a grand breakfast in the House of Lords, hosted by Supreme Court President Lord Neuberger, the great and the good showed their support for sensible innovation in legal training.
I was there to see how the profession really felt about opening the doors to those who had chosen not to follow the traditional route to qualifying. Our host’s opening remarks surprised me, as he suggested that it was “unfair if lots of people who want to become lawyers, cannot become lawyers”. It might be unfair, but it is also impractical and undesirable to have more lawyers than we need, not least given the well-publicised struggles at the criminal bar and with high profile law firms falling into administration up and down the country. More lawyers may, unfortunately, mean an unsustainable model.
However, with the cost of attending university at around 9,000 each year, even the most direct route to qualifying as a solicitor can cost upwards of 40,000, even before living expenses are included. Without a law degree in your pocket, this is over 50,000. It was clear, that an affordable, practical and fit-for-purpose alternative is a good thing, with the emphasis being placed on standards, competencies and quality.
It was good to see CILEX showing its support for the apprenticeship scheme, which could be seen as a competitor to its own vocational route to qualification. Also in attendance were representatives of the SRA and the Law Society, who in a moment of suspended reality and apparent disbelief both agreed that it was right to support, albeit cautiously, an apprenticeship route to the sector.
Conspicuous by their absence, however, were any representatives of the Bar. Despite being invited to join the discussion, there was a noticeable gap in the debate. I found that surprising given the hordes of aspiring lawyers taking the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) each year which far outnumber the pupillages available.
You might have expected an alternative route to legal qualification to be embraced and fully supported, not least because of the millions of pounds in scholarships, which are presented to fledgling barristers, funding their formal academic training.
Lord Neuberger rightly said that it is important for judges to be representative and diverse. This was echoed around the room by The Law Society and CILEX, who have themselves done so much to open careers in the profession to a wider field than ever before. But despite the president of the Supreme Court’s contention, the reality is somewhat different.
He went on to say that “judges come from the profession”, which is indeed true, but the side of the profession they overwhelmingly come from is the Bar.
All too often am I asked how long it will be before I become a barrister, if I will take more exams to get there, if I am jealous of barristers who make so much money. The public still struggles with the strange relationship between solicitors and barristers, presuming (incorrectly) that the Bar is something to aspire to or a badge that is awarded because of ability, rather than a different job altogether. In fact, it was recently reported in the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings that the average solicitor’s salary is 45,585 as opposed to barristers and judges with an average income of 40,242. This is a perception which, I fear, is being perpetuated by the judiciary and the Bar themselves. I was reading last month an article in the Observer magazine about what it’s really like to be in a particular job. As I flicked through the pages to ‘judge’ – skipping past ‘dominatrix’ and ‘psychic’ – I read on. “When you become a judge after years of being a barrister…”
Lord Neuberger is right to want a diverse and representative judiciary, but to achieve this, the Bar, the Judicial Appointments Committee and the rest of the profession need to work together. When there is a legal apprentice sitting in the Supreme Court, we can deservedly pat ourselves on the back.
I fear, however, that when that time comes, I will no longer be sufficiently agile to do just that.
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 9 April 2013, and is reproduced by kind permission.