Ed note: This is the fifth in a series of posts where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes. The first four are here. We’re featuring one-a-week in the run-up to ‘Legal Cheek at the Google Campus‘ on 5 December.
A career in legal services wasn’t my choice. My introduction to law was truly random, writes Jeremy Hopkins.
I finished my education in the 1980s. The concept of careers advice was in its infancy, its benefits being limited to those who had already decided exactly what career they wanted but needed to know the best route there. In reality, very few teenagers really know at that stage what career they want. I certainly wasn’t one of them. I had no idea of the existence of a job role entitled “barristers’ clerk”, never mind any thoughts of becoming one.
When the time came to choose further education I simply opted for subjects that I hadn’t tried before: law and economics. I enjoyed the crossover between the logic of the law and the often highly illogical facts and behaviour to which it had to be applied. I was particularly enthused by finding out stuff that ‘normal’ people didn’t know: like the fact that trespassers can’t really be prosecuted, or that a contract can exist even if it is not written down and signed. Even these fairly basic legal truths come as a surprise to most people outside the legal world. Already there was a feeling that you were a bit special if you knew the law, as if you were a member of some exclusive club.
It is possibly this state of mind that drives the culture within the legal profession, both for better and worse. For me, it goes towards identifying what I see as the essence of legal practice: expert knowledge and understanding – not hoarded away behind a cloak of exclusive, expensive mystique, but instead shared openly with those who need its guidance and protection.
The problem for me was that I couldn’t imagine myself, as just a normal bloke, being able to make it into this exclusive club within the revered profession of law. Solicitors and barristers, they were truly special, weren’t they? People like me simply didn’t end up becoming one. Thus there was never a true belief to drive on my study, which petered out ignominiously (I should add here that in my case, this was far from the only reason – minor matters such as lack of ability and application may also have contributed).
Despite this, I was lucky enough to find a job in the courts service and ended up in the privileged position of spending my time calling the list at Bow Street Magistrates Court. I frequently watched barristers and solicitors on their feet; some great and some truly awful. I remember well to this day Clive Nicholls QC locking horns with the Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary in a technical argument over extradition law. I was awestruck, despite barely being able to understand what they were talking about.
I moved on to a job in a barristers’ chambers (not through any “cliquey” route but simply by responding to an advert in the Evening Standard). As time passed, it became clearer and clearer to me that the perception I had of the profession being on a different level to the ordinary person was an illusion. This couldn’t be illustrated better than by reciting a question so familiar to barristers’ clerks: “If these people are so clever, then why are they paying me to tell them the obvious?”
While the legal profession has made great progress over the last 20 years, the feeling persists that many people are daunted by the prospect of a career in law because of a perceived gap between themselves and the “professionals”. This is compounded by the effects of an outdated education and training system where routes into legal practice are confined to pupillage and training contracts (and of course the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX), which has thankfully increased in profile as a credible option over recent years). Pleasingly, the world is waking up to this, as evidenced by the soon-to-be-concluded Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) and the emergence of new roles within legal service providers.
There will always need to be an outstanding group of the exceptionally gifted at the top tier of the profession. The strength of any industry requires this. The integrity of our justice system demands it. But I genuinely believe there is a place in the legal services market for anyone with knowledge and understanding of the law, provided they are passionate about sharing it in a way that offers true value, whether by providing regulated legal services or being a part of the process or structure that enables it.
At this time of unprecedented swift legal market evolution, the business needs the right people, with the right skills, the right attitude and the right values. The journey for those meeting this description is a demanding one – as it should be for those seeking to be part of a system of such great significance to society. But the challenges should be tests of genuine ability and desire. If you can overcome these, then you’ve earned the right to laugh in the face of illusory barriers and watch them fade away into the background of reality. They truly belong in the past.
Jeremy Hopkins is director of operations at Riverview Law.