Some might say that life for junior lawyers has changed immeasurably over the past decade. But has it? The price of education has certainly ballooned, in terms of university costs, LPC/GDL fees and living expenses. We’ve seen the number of training contracts rocket during the boom years and then drop considerably, recently being confirmed at 4,869, the lowest level since 1999. But there is good news too. After focused efforts from the Law Society (and the broader profession), solicitors from black and minority ethnic groups now make up 13 per cent of all practicing certificate holders, twice what it was in 2002.
Why all this reflection? Not only have I just returned from the Junior Lawyer Division’s conference, it has been ten years since I first entered through the gates of the Law Society. I was a wide-eyed trainee and a member of the local Trainee Solicitors Group, in Sheffield. Every few months, I would report from the provinces and return with news from the wood-panelled ‘head office’, overwhelmed by the success and opulent gold-plated lions along Chancery Lane.
Little did I know at the time how my involvement with the Law Society would shape my career and my outlook on life. I was given the opportunity to edit a magazine with the circulation Good Housekeeping would be envious of, chaired committees of peers and superiors, presented awards in glamorous locations and entertained senior members of the profession, from the UK and around the world, in world-class venues. Being involved with the promotion of pro bono work among students and junior lawyers has brought huge rewards, both personal and professional, not just to me and to those who have benefitted. As I moved from the TSG to the now politically incorrectly named Young Solicitors Group, my commitment to supporting those starting out in the profession and those aspiring to join it continued. It has taken me to cities in Europe and America and introduced me to international lawyers who I am very happy to call my friends.
It hasn’t always been an easy (or free) ride though. At times, it’s been a downright struggle to convince the partners I have worked for that there has been value in my commitment to supporting the junior profession. I wasn’t bringing in extra fees or meeting prospective clients, at least not in the traditional sense. I was sometimes out of the office during the week and my ‘restful’ weekends were taken up with travel and meetings. Not everyone likes it. But there is huge value. I developed not only as a lawyer, but refined increasingly necessary management and communication skills. I built my network and continue to receive referred work and refer work to contacts. Associating with other lawyers is often frowned upon (especially at the junior end of the profession when firms fear we sit around and discuss pay packages) but without the JLD locally, nationally and its counterparts globally, we would be missing opportunities for ourselves, our firms and our clients.
Huge challenges still face junior lawyers, especially at this time of great change. The minimum training salary that was fought so hard for has been abolished, opening the way for even cheaper labour in the new ABS market. The revolutionary changes that are anticipated following the ever-more delayed Legal Education and Training Review will no doubt be addressed by those with the greatest stake in the changes (no, not the law schools or academics who appear to be steering the process) the aspiring and junior lawyers who will suffer the consequences of whatever changes are made over the coming decade.
As well as dealing with all that is going on already, JLD Chair Heather Iqbal-Rayner is tackling another issue crucial to junior lawyers and the quality of the solicitor brand. At present, there is a real disincentive for trainee solicitors (and post-LPC paralegals) to raise concerns they have about the quality of their training, supervision and legal education. If you ‘blow the whistle’ on a poor supervisor or a flawed or ineffective training contract the chances are that you will be the one to lose out – annoying your employer and not meeting the standards required for qualification. The JLD want this issue to be addressed and to ensure trainees are protected. Quite right. The arguments have been taken to the SRA who will now be considering their own procedures. No matter what the review may bring, this is something which will still be an important cause to take up.
If you are an aspiring lawyer, I encourage you to get involved with the JLD, locally or nationally. It’s a great opportunity to influence how the profession will develop in these uncertain times. My plea to partners, senior partners and managers? Support your lawyers who have the commitment to a cause alongside, not in place of, billing clients. There is more to life and the professional and financial rewards will come in time.
Ten years on, I am sadly no longer a junior lawyer. But as I progress, I hope to be well placed to support new entrants to the profession. If we can help them and correct our own mistakes along the way, the brand of solicitor will be protected for many years to come.
This article first appeared in the Solicitors Journal on 1 May 2013 and is reproduced with kind permission