‘The Chances You Don’t Take Are The Ones You Regret’

Ed note: This is the first in a series of posts where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes. We'll be featuring one-a-week in the run-up to the 'Legal Cheek at the Google Campus' event in December.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have become a barrister rather than a solicitor, writes Joshua Rozenberg.

I found it very difficult to get through the solicitors’ exams in the early 1970s – though I made it in the end. The Bar exams were reputedly much easier at the time. Why, then, didn’t I read for the Bar?

Nine months working as a solicitor’s outdoor clerk (delivering briefs, getting deeds stamped; asking High Court masters for leave to file out of time) persuaded me that barristers were much cleverer than I could ever aspire to be and that solicitors merely needed to be methodical.

This turned out to be a gross misrepresentation of both sides of the profession...

The only solicitors I had met were high-street practitioners; I didn’t know that partners in City and other commercial firms were as bright as any barrister. The would-be barristers I knew at university were much cleverer than I was; but it turned out that there were some areas of the Bar where advocacy skills and an understanding of human nature counted for more than book-learning.

Above all, I would have enjoyed the camaraderie that existed at the bar; certainly 40 years ago when the profession was much smaller, and perhaps still today.

Of course, what I didn’t know until the BBC offered me a job on its news training scheme at the end of 1974 was that I would leave the profession that I had struggled to join before taking out a single practising certificate. When it became clear that I was going to make my career in journalism rather than law, I allowed my name to lapse from the roll of solicitors. If I was going to join a branch of the legal profession in order to leave it, the Bar would have been a more sociable option.

I am therefore immensely flattered when barristers mistake me for one of their own, an understandable mistake given that I am an honorary bencher of the friendliest of the Inns of Court.

If I had known the state that journalism was going to be in now, I would still have devoted the best part of 40 years to it. But I would certainly not advise anyone to go in for it now.

As a job, it looks very easy: just listen to what someone has to say and summarise it. As a job it is very easy, which is why so many people go into journalism when they have nothing better to do. What’s difficult now, though, is getting a job in journalism. With newspapers in rapid decline and the electronic media paying little or nothing to contributors, the chances of making a living out of it – unless you started when I did – are vanishingly small.

So my advice for anyone seeking to follow in my footsteps is: don’t. But the one thing I did know when I was young was to take opportunities when they came along; the chances you don’t take are the ones you regret. And that’s something I have never forgotten.

Joshua Rozenberg is Britain's best-known commentator on the law. He hosts Radio 4 show Law in Action and writes columns for The Guardian, The Law Society Gazette and Standpoint.

10 Responses to “‘The Chances You Don’t Take Are The Ones You Regret’”

  1. CurtisMayfield

    Good piece....unfortunately, the bit about "So my advice for anyone seeking to follow in my footsteps is: don’t"...sounds remarkably similar to the advice being dished out by many practicing barristers/solicitors.

    My generation has been left the tab by the babyboomers.

    Reply
    • Jezhop

      Many (including me) would disagree with the negative career advice from lawyers that you refer to. I believe the current climate in the legal sector will lead to increased and more varied opportunities for those looking for a career in law, outside the current pupillage/training contract bottlenecks.

      Reply
  2. kris

    Er, "Curtis",

    I don't think the boomers are responsible for Law R Us advice desks - it's the clever sparks who think law is a commodity to be pitched in a race to the bottom.

    And Joshua,

    "The only solicitors I had met were high-street practitioners; I didn’t know that partners in City and other commercial firms were as bright as any barrister".

    Just wow.

    Reply
    • CurtisMayfield

      Er, "Kris"

      I was thinking more along the lines that cuts to legal aid/lack of bank credit etc is in response to the mountain of debt accumulated due to the fiscal profligacy of the boomers. Perhaps the race to the bottom is also a consequence of this debt, not the cause.

      Reply
  3. kris

    Hi Mr Mayfield,

    I thought you were making an ironic reference to "Super Fly" with your name. Apologies if your boomer parents were the ones being ironic.

    With regard to your Tory talking points, I have to ask if it was the boomers who brought down the international banking system?

    Reply
    • CurtisMayfield

      What can I say, they were big Blaxploitation fans…

      Nope, they didn’t cause it, they just bailed out the banks…thus emptying the government coffers and loading the debt onto the next lot. Should have let them go to the wall so we had the chance to start again.

      My boomers remark was merely a throwaway remark – it was a good article.

      Reply
    • PAS

      Enjoyed the article and the replies. Yes, 45 years ago many of us thought that opening up the doors would lead to greater equality not less. However, as Wilkinson and Pickett note it has not only not reduced the gap between top and bottom but also led to greater inequality within income bands as deregulation has advantaged the strong at the expense of the weak.

      Reply
  4. Shoaib M Khan

    So, as we already know, it's extremely difficult to get a training contract, almost impossible to get pupillage and now, legal journalism isn't an option either? NGOs, human rights organisations etc. are downsizing for lack of funds, CABs and law centres are closing down, and the future of legal aid is bleak at best. So what do we have to offer the 'next generation of wannabes' reading this?

    Existing solicitors wouldn't have become solicitors if they had knon what they know now, ditto for barristers and, now we learn that, Joshua Rozenberg wouldn't become a legal journalist in the current climate! But surely there must be something that the profession, young and old together, can do about this?

    Roger Smith has suggested increased use of technology and NHS-direct type legal information/advice services. Although Roger was talking about catering for clients' needs in a post-LASPO world, that may well also create opportunities for entrants to the profession. Helena Kennedy QC talked about a new Law-Centre(ish) movement to create opportunities for new lawyers, but I feel that would have to be particularly innovative, even adventurous, to overcome the current practical and financial hurdles.

    Do we just wait and see if chambers' and firms' businesses recover and they start recruiting at former levels again, or can we offer anything else to the aspiring lawyers of today?

    Reply

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