Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Becoming a lawyer

Like many people I suspect, I was concerned to read the recent BBC report about glass ceilings which, the report said, means that "top professions such as medicine and law are increasingly being closed off to all but the most affluent families”

However I am not sure I entirely agree with that. I don’t know about medicine but so far as becoming a solicitor is concerned (I am not going to talk about barristers), it is not necessary to travel in a line from Eton to Oxbridge to Linklaters. There are alternative routes.

The traditional route
The process of becoming a solicitor is described on the Solicitors Regulation Authority web-site here. There are three stages:

  • The Academic stage (normally a law degree, but there is a conversion course for non law graduates)
  • The Legal Practice course. This is offered by the College of Law and various Universities (generally former polytechnics) and colleges, and
  • A training contract (previously called ‘articles’) normally with a firm of solicitors.

    1. So far as stage 1 is concerned, if you cannot afford to go to University, you can study for the London External Law Degree. I studied for this many years ago (as I could not afford to pay for the conversion course from my Geography degree) - it took me five years. It was a tough five years but also enjoyable in many ways. You can only really do an external degree in this way if you actually like the subject (which I did).

    For the first part of this time I worked as a legal secretary, for the final two years I worked as what we now call a paralegal but which then was called a solicitors clerk (i.e. someone without a legal qualification doing fee earning work in a solicitors office). Although I disliked the secretarial experience, it has actually proved invaluable for me, so my chequered route to becoming a solicitor was after all a Good Thing.

    2. As regards the legal practice course, you can also now do this part time. Many of the colleges offer this, allowing you to study in the evenings or at weekends. If you have worked or are working in a solicitors office doing legal work (as I did) you should find this course fairly straightforward, as much of it will be familiar to you from your job.

    3. The training contract is often the most difficult part of the journey, as you have to persuade a firm to take you on. However you should manage this (eventually) if you can show that you are able, and willing to work hard. You can also get a training contract with legal departments in local authorities and some other large firms such as the utilities. It has to be said though that some people find it very hard indeed to get a training contract. Which is very unfair. Although if you hang on in there and keep trying there is always hope. The solicitor who started the Nearly Legal web-site was in this position when he started blogging (hence the name), and he is now a qualified solicitor in a good London firm.

    The Ilex route
    There is however another route to becoming a solicitor, which is not always realised. This is via The Institute of Legal Executives, also known as Ilex. Here people, usually (although not necessarily) support staff at legal firms, study part time for their Ilex exams, which will eventually qualify them as a Legal Executive Lawyer. This is excellent for those who cannot afford to take time off or pay the fees to study full time.

    Legal Executive lawyers have many of the rights formerly reserved for solicitors, for example legal executive advocates have right of audience in the County Court and Magistrates Courts, and although most work within solicitors firms, they can practice on a self employed basis.

    A couple of years after qualifying as an Ilex Fellow, they can then go on to become a solicitor, generally without having to do a training contract, although I believe they still have to do the legal practice course. The Ilex site is rather vague about this and implies that the rights now available to Ilex Fellows now make this unnecessary.

    One of my best friends started out as a legal secretary, qualified with Ilex, become a solicitor, and then went on to become a partner in her firm, so anything is possible if you want it badly and are prepared to work hard.

    Don’t give up before you start
    If you are not from a moneyed family with contacts in the legal profession, it will be harder for you to qualify. Life is not fair. However if you are of reasonable intelligence and willing to work hard, you should manage it. I did.

    The main barrier I would say is one of intelligence rather than money. When I started my external law degree, there were many people in the class who never made it to the second stage because they simply could not pass the exams. You have to be able to analyse in a legal way. That is one of the main skills that you learn through the legal education process, it reprograms your brain to think differently. If you can do this, it will help you get on in life generally, even if you never make it to becoming a qualified lawyer.

    But before you start
    I would suggest that all thinking of a career in the law, should first read Professor Richard Susskinds book, The End of Lawyers? which I discussed in my blog item here. This will prepare you for the future in the legal profession, which long term is unlikely to be much like the past, for most of us.

    Stumble Upon Toolbar

    John Bolch said...

    Excellent post, Tessa. I had the same thought about the report, at least as far as our side of the profession goes.

    Anonymous said...

    Hi there. ILEX here. Thanks for the mention! We think our route to qualification as a lawyer is great too!

    I also ought to mention that recent developments mean that Legal Executive lawyers are eligible for judicial appointments and partnerships in Legal Disciplinary Practice law firms (LDP’s). When Alternative Business Structures (ABS) come into force in the future they’ll be able to partners in those too. That's why we're not sure why anyone who's a qualified Legal Executive Lawyer would feel the need to go on to become a solicitor.

    For those who are still obsessed with becoming a solicitor, if you are a Fellow of ILEX before you complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) you may be exempt from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) two-year training contract. This exemption is at the discretion of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and may depend on the qualifying employment experience you have completed. This should normally have been in a solicitor’s office or department. All trainee solicitors must also complete the Professional Skills Course, which is a much shorter course of skills training following the Legal Practice Course.

    There's more detail on how you can get trained through ILEX at our dedicated careers website, www.ilexcareers.org.uk.

    Francis Davey said...

    I quote agree (with anonymous). Being a legal executive is now a serious career choice in its own right and the legal executives who I deal with (and who instruct me) seem pretty good quality (as much as a legal professional as I am in other words).