Ed note: This is the latest post in the 'If I knew then what I know now' series, where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes.
Ignorant and aimless, I spurned the opportunities I had been given only to fall in love with law by accident, writes President of the Chartered Institute Of Legal Executives Nick Hanning. I'd gained a scholarship to a top rank public school, and was supposed to try for Oxbridge, when rebellion struck and I abandoned home and school for squalid self-sufficiency...
After spells working as a kitchen porter, pub barman, restaurant waiter, petrol pump attendant and an especially poor photocopier salesman, the thrill of destitution wore off and I enrolled at night classes to do A levels, where the timetabling forced me to study law.
To my surprise, I found it fascinating. But past the normal university age and with a life and home to support, I couldn't afford to take three years out to keep studying. This meant that I couldn't be a lawyer. Or so I was told. It was at this point that I heard about what is now the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX), which offered a route to legal qualification provided I could find a job and pass all the exams.
It took me a year to find a job. I had to move to a new area where I joined a sole practitioner who gave me a pay rise before I even started (he said I was asking for too little). My role was essentially to do all the work he didn't like, which proved to be everything except family and crime. Mostly it was residential conveyancing and personal injury – an odd mix but one which has more or less stuck with me.
The "training" was pretty much non-existent – a case of just getting on with it with help from the occasional articled clerk or assistant, none of whom seemed to stay long. When I too moved on after three years, I remember my new boss remarking rather tartly that I had learned to run but not to walk.
Besides that steep learning curve, I was also attending the local college and sitting an apparently endless series of exams. All told, qualifying as a legal executive took five years of hard slog, but at least there was a fancy certificate at the end of it.
Having crossed the hurdle of actually becoming a lawyer, I was delighted just to be practising law. It hadn't occurred to me that I might also be able to change it. But that is what happened at an early Social Security Commissioner's case I appeared in, which ended up reinterpreting housing benefit provisions to the invaluable gain of a few precious pounds a week. OK, it was a minor change, and actually turned out to be short-lived as the regulations were promptly amended, but the bug had bitten. Years later, I was lucky enough to have a case go to the House of Lords – the decision in which, unlike the housing benefit case, proved to have a rather more lasting effect.
Another thing I had been led to believe was that, despite becoming a lawyer, I would never be able to actually appear in open court. Also wrong. Legal executives gained the right to apply to be advocates in 2000, which I duly did. Then, when the rules changed to allow legal executives to become partners in 2009, I became a partner in my law firm. A couple of signatures on some forms and it was done.
So, with the changes that have taken place in the legal profession over the course of my career, it turned out that much of what I thought I knew, and what other people had told me, would turn out to be wrong – or at least not set in stone.
Of course, I'd have liked those changes to have come sooner. Working in an environment where doors are closed to people who possess intellectual ability but lack the academics can be dispiriting. And if I'd known way back when that I wanted to be a lawyer, I'd undoubtedly have done it all very differently. Now I'd probably be a solicitor in a very different practice or perhaps a barrister.
Happily, with the differences in the rights and opportunities available in the various branches of the profession diminishing, the CILEX route is, these days, increasingly being selected as a preference rather than the choice of last resort. So the next generation of lawyers won't face some of the difficulties I encountered.
Still, I don't have too many regrets. And I'd even say that, on balance, I'm glad of the ignorance which led me onto my peculiar career path. It has made me see that every case, however small, changes someone's life even if only a little, and underlined the importance to me of genuine access to justice. For better or worse, if I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't be the lawyer I am today.
Nick Hanning is the President of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives and a partner in RWPS Law.