So, you want to be a lawyer?
The conversation every parent dreads at this time of year starts something like this:
Enthusiastic, intelligent young thing with good A-levels approaches parents and announces, “Mum, dad, I want to be a lawyer. I am going to university to do a law degree and there is nothing you can do to stop me!”
Incredulous parents gasp and struggle for breath and the mother manages to stutter “You want to be a what? A lawyer? Haven’t we taught you anything?”
Father, frowning and with an increasingly red face splutters “No child of mine is going to become a lawyer! We won’t be funding your degree if that’s what you’re thinking.”
I jest, of course. Many parents, I am sure, would be ecstatic their offspring had chosen such a serious and laudable career over taking their clothes off for money, gambling or marrying their way to fame and fortune. Even I would prefer my daughter to enter the law than, God forbid, become an estate agent or reality TV star, although as she is only three it is not something I have to worry about quite yet.
I am not totally unsympathetic. I can understand why people want to become lawyers. Who wouldn’t want to follow in the worthy footsteps of Gareth Peirce, Shami Chakrabarti, Cherie Booth, Michael Mansfield, Martyn Day or even David Allen Green?
Too many people as it turns out. Michael Todd QC, the chairman of the Bar Council, recently warned that law schools ‘let down’ hundreds of students a year by taking on aspiring barristers who have no chance of joining the profession, leaving them with debts of up to £60,000 and a qualification that has little relevance elsewhere.
About 1,600 students a year take the bar professional training course, more than three times the number of pupillages available at barristers’ chambers. It’s no better for those wanting to become a solicitor, with the number of students passing the legal practice course increasing at a faster pace than the number of training contracts, leaving well over 1,000 graduates with little or no chance of entering their chosen profession.
As well as turning out too many would-be lawyers, it seems that the legal education system isn’t even providing them with the skills needed for a successful legal career. The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) recently published a discussion paper suggesting there are gaps in core knowledge, commercial and organisational skills, client relationships, communication skills and ethical awareness. I rather wonder what they are managing to teach.
Assuming students manage to overcome these shortcomings, the next problem is that recruiters also want to see previous legal work experience, but the LETR has found that ‘evidence suggests [this] is often not allocated on a fair basis’. This is a diplomatic way of saying ‘if your parents, or someone they know, isn’t vaguely senior in either a law firm or chambers you can kiss your legal career goodbye’.
With all this stacked against you, in a buyer’s market, how can you make sure you stand out from all those other would-be lawyers? What are the qualities that really make a successful lawyer? Just as important, do you know what you’re getting into? It’s not all Kavanagh QC or Ally McBeal. Here are some ideas.
Want to be a banking and finance lawyer, wheeling and dealing and, quite probably, taking home a sack load of cash? You’ll need to understand global markets and legal systems, so start planning a few overseas holidays to places like China, India, Brazil and Dubai and get yourself a frequent flyer card.
You can expect long working and playing hours, so start weaning yourself off sleep. And, male or female, invest in an expensive but nondescript sharp suit and one of those pink or blue shirts with white collars (with or without stripes).
If you find all that a total turn off and have no aspiration to have a second home and a fast car, you may be thinking of becoming an employment lawyer. The beauty of this is that no-one will expect you to be a natty dresser and the furthest you are likely to have to travel is Carlisle.
The downside is that you will have to work with trade unionists and insurers and may have to act as a de facto counsellor to stressed and depressed individuals. So learn how to cope with self-righteous anger as well as indifference and practice empathy.
As well as knowing you are doing ‘a good thing’ (unless of course you inadvertently end up representing employers) you may also find yourself in demand as a talking head and get to discuss age discrimination with John Humphreys at 7am on a Monday morning, so learn how to get your key message across, especially if this has nothing to do with the question you are being asked.
On the other hand, to shine as a potential criminal lawyer, you will need to demonstrate a complete lack of interest in money and preferably a non-existent social life because you won’t have one once you qualify.
You’ll be spending a lot of time in police stations and prisons, so watching Eastenders and buying old box sets of Porridge and The Bill could be useful. It may also be helpful to develop a convincing poker face so as not to look as if you are passing judgement on your clients (even if secretly you are).
Without wanting to belittle property lawyers, this is probably at the other end of the excitement scale and is going to involve a lot of sitting at your desk drafting contracts. Practice this by forcing your family to play monopoly and insisting that every purchase needs a paper trail.
You may have to do quite a bit of schmoozing, quite possibly with really dull people, so you could start hanging out at local business events where you learn how to hold a plate of inedible canapés and undrinkable wine while pretending to be interested in the ineptitude of the planning committee and the outrageous business rates.
Of course, if you want to be a barrister, you are going to have to develop an extraordinary and overblown sense of your own importance, which is vital not only to ensure everyone else is in awe of you but also to enable you to wear a wig and gown without looking and feeling really silly. Learning to love the sound of your own voice could also be an asset.
Once you’ve got that all sorted, getting your training contract or pupillage should be a breeze.