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Saul Goodman-style mavericks vs straight-A golden children: who will be the advocates of the future?

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Debt-burdened wannabe litigators could yet exert influence on direction of grades-obsessed profession through new routes like the paralegal shortcut

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Up until the financial crisis some students with pretty mediocre CVs made it into the elite end of the legal profession. With pupillages and training contracts more plentiful — graduate law places have dropped by between 20-30% since 2008 — many firms and chambers tended to hire annually a handful of charismatic wildcards without the most impressive educational backgrounds.

Sometimes they thrived, other times not so much — but most would agree that the profession was richer for it, especially when it came to the quixotic field of advocacy, where a little spark can go a long way.

These days, though, in a squeezed and increasingly competitive legal market, the luxury of the Saul Goodman-style maverick trainee or pupil is rarely allowed. Even at the criminal bar — where law’s more weird and wonderful characters have traditionally found a home — the penchant for flair has dimmed as cash-strapped chambers opt for earnest grafters who have demonstrated their commitment by slogging it out for years as paralegals.

Is it over for the rough diamonds?

Mukul Chawla QC, who leads criminal set 9-12 Bell Yard, avoided answering this question directly at Legal Cheek Careers at Gray’s Inn on Tuesday evening, but his response wasn’t good news for anyone with a ‘B’ on their CV.

“We have two pupil slots a year. We had 350 applicants last year. Most are pretty good. Some are clearly outstanding,” he said.

Chawla’s fellow panellist, BPP Law School’s joint director of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), James Welsh, who is also a criminal barrister at 9 Bedford Row, has an interesting theory on the matter.

“The removal of unfunded pupillages took away the opportunity for lots of sets to take on the wildcard. But I do see with the less conventional people who we feed through to the bar that chambers are pretty good at trying to give them a passage in.”

Of course, some people have it all. And for these characters with a combination of brains, charm and polish at an early age, life remains sweet. They may end up at top law firms, like Herbert Smith Freehills arbitrator Matthew Weiniger QC, who rose to silk last year as a solicitor. Or they may find a home at leading chambers, which is the route Essex Court Chambers commercial barrister Claire Blanchard QC has taken. They may even jump between both worlds, as Hardwicke commercial barrister Charles Raffin has done, beginning at the bar, before spending three years at the London office of US law firm Skadden and then subsequently moving back to the bar.

All three told students about their experiences on the Legal Cheek panel at Gray’s Inn. The bottom line: getting into law via their route is incredibly competitive, but can be done — and these days depends less on what university you went to than the grades you obtained when you got there and how you come across at interview. Blanchard, who heads her set’s pupillage committee, got her undergraduate degree from Liverpool Polytechnic and is determined to widen access to the bar.

“The present situation is largely self perpetuating,” she said. “Students who didn’t go to Oxbridge are repeatedly and wrongly advised to not apply to a set like ours. We can’t recruit you if you don’t apply.”

Weiniger’s firm, Herbert Smith Freehills, meanwhile, is currently looking to extend its reach from the 35 campuses where it is currently active as it bids to hire more widely, although continues to be stringent on academics and gauging wannabes’ suitability. Commercial awareness is key, Weiniger (pictured below) emphasised to the audience:

“The way to stand out when applying to a corporate law firm is your commercial analysis. There is barely a story in the newspaper without a financial story underneath it. From celebrity news, to politics to tax and even crime. There are financial implications and stakeholders. The really good applicants understand where the stakeholders are and where the money is moving … and can summarise this in a concise manner.”

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Raffin’s chambers, Hardwicke, also seeks to bring in candidates who have ploughed furrows outside the ordinary, hence his recruitment from Skadden and the set’s hiring of a former Evening Standard journalist among a number of non-Oxbridge recent pupils.

“Don’t be put off if you haven’t gone to one of the established institutions. If someone has got that spark and the skills, and is able to demonstrate evidence of those skills, such as through pro bono or other life experience, then they should apply,” said Raffin (pictured below).

raffin

While a handful make it into these top firms and chambers at graduate level, another group manage to stumble in via more circuitous routes. Solicitors who train at smaller firms have been known to get into much bigger ones amid an uptick in work in a particular practice area, although these days vacant positions are often filled from abroad, particularly in the highly international world of arbitration in which Weiniger has carved his niche. But these global links can work in wannabes’ favour, with Weiniger recommending that young solicitors seek out positions in the less desirable locations in global law firms’ sprawling networks as a way into plum jobs in London.

Raffin, meanwhile, spoke about how the “fantastic experience of working on the other side of the fence” in a law firm had held him in good stead for his return to the bar. And Welsh (pictured below) reflected on the potential of more obscure sets at the regional bar as a place for barristers to build a name.

“Having practised in London and outside, one difference you notice on circuit is that solicitors tend to pick solicitors rather than the sets they’re in. So it means that if you are personally very good that word will spread around circuit more rapidly than in London,” he said.

jameswelsh

Still, many graduates remain without training contracts or pupillages. And as these numbers grow — training contract numbers sunk again last year to 5,097, which is way off the 2007-08 high of 6,303, while pupillage numbers have plunged from 550 to around 400 — perhaps something more radical is called for?

Already, there are discussions about merging the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and BPTC to create fused vocational training from where all graduates would have to go on to practise as solicitors, only being eligible to become barristers at a later stage. This idea, when combined with the new “paralegal shortcut” that allows LPC graduates to qualify without doing a training contract, would at least cut the vast number of paralegals.

But the panellists on the whole weren’t enthused, with Chawla and Welsh expressing doubts about the wisdom of forcing wannabe transactional lawyers to do advocacy modules at law school, and Blanchard seeing no reason to remove the direct route to the bar.

There was even less love from the quintet of top lawyers for an idea to re-purpose the Inns of Court to their original function of providing accommodation so that they could then house law graduates rent-free to do low-paid but important legal aid advocacy work.

“I love your idealism but it won’t work,” said Chawla.

With the audience of 90 students at Gray’s Inn outnumbering the panellists 18 to one, they could of course have seized the building there and then. Just as the tens of thousands of law students, paralegals and junior lawyers could attempt to start their own movement to challenge the handful of baby boomers who run this country’s legal establishment.

But are rookie lawyers of sufficiently revolutionary character to redefine the profession? We’ll see.

20 Comments

Anonymous

Well, let’s see. The best-paying clients are large corporates. They will have an in-house lawyer, who instructs outside lawyers. If the choices available to that in-house counsel are:
1. a Harvey Specter-type character; or
2. a Saul Goodman-type character,
then Harvey wins every time, because in the event that the outside lawyer screws up, the in-house lawyer will be hauled over the coals for hiring him or her, and the in that situation the in-house lawyer wants to be able to justify the decision. “I hired the best qualified person” is a better narrative than “I hired a maverick”.

Will there still be a role within the profession for Saul? Sure. Might it be exciting and fulfilling? Very possibly. Will it be at the top of the profession? Doubtful.

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Not Amused

Will there still be a role in the profession for a fictional American criminal?

I don’t know where to begin answering that question …

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Aardvark

Oh cheer up Not Amused, you really are a sour puss. What happened?

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Anonymous

‘With the audience of 90 students at Gray’s Inn outnumbering the panellists 18 to one, they could of course have seized the building there and then.’

THEY COULD HAVE OCCUPIED THE INN!

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Pen

Wait. So James Welsh is pro rip off BPTC and in favour of unfunded pupillage?

Who exactly would be this unfunded “wildcard”? Some toff who didn’t get into Oxbridge despite his privileged upbringing.

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Jim

I assume they mean that solicitors on circuit are more likely to pick barristers than sets? This is true in my experience; every set has its comparative duffers and perhaps on circuit it is easier to ascertain who is good and who isn’t due to greater exposure to the same courts and solicitors? This is presumably as the market ought to work?

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Jim

Unfunded pupillage is an argument that goes both ways; it gives more people a chance but that chance is easier to take if you have family support or other financial backing. I am not sure that I could have done it without the £834 per month I got in my first six but I like to think I would have tried.

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Not Amused

Why?

It is only a job. I think it is very important that actual barristers do not ourselves succumb to this hysterical cult of the Bar. A cult which only private equity profits from.

I was born poor and I would not be able to be a barrister if I was 18 today. Now I am a barrister it is not for me to pontificate on how amazing that is or to blame the 18 year old today who cannot do it for financial reasons. I am sad for those 18 year olds.

But it is just a job. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t paid and neither would any other sane barrister. So while I am sad for those 18 year olds. While I do everything I can think of to stop this horrible situation we now live in. While I, I think rightly, condemn people like James Welsh, for their brazen self interest. While I do all of this, I’m not going to pretend that trying to get by on peanuts is noble or that the horrendous evils we have done to the young are some how ‘character building’.

I’m not going to brow beat the young for rightly choosing not to face an adversity which I know would have defeated me.

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Anonymous

Absolute rubbish that the top sets don’t discriminate on where you went to university. If you believe that you’ll believe anything. It’s self perpetuating self-selection of the highest order.

The Liverpool Polytechnic QC is 1 in a million. There will always be 1 in a million, and yes it could be you. But that’s no justification for failing to call these people out on what they are actually like.

We all know the truth.

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Seamus

I couldn’t agree more, although I don’t really see it as ‘discrimination’. I don’t have a problem with the top sets only hiring the top grads, that makes sense! But I do have a problem with them falsely raising expectations of aspirant lawyers, and thus encouraging more debt. To say the only reason they hire Oxbridge firsts is because everyone else is discouraged to apply is laughable and borders on the absurd. Not so smart from Blanchard QC. Maybe Liverpool Polytechnic isn’t what it’s cracked up to be…

Cut the BS and tell it how it is: the law is a ludicrously competitive profession where average is simply not good enough.

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Not Amused

Well, ok. Yes.

But personally, I think we also have to accept that law is ludicrously complicated and wrong is just not good enough (for your client).

Blanchard did not, I am sure, mean to falsely give hope to every kid that the likes of the BPTC providers prey upon. She was just saying that “you never know”. Which is true.

I do think that we would do better if we were honest with young people. I.e. – I earn X. With X I can buy my house which is worth 5xX (maybe more). That means debt of about Xx5. I am insured to 3/4 times the value of my home.

Thanks to economic loss in tort, if I mess up then I lose my house. There are very few jobs in the UK where that is true. So before you start saying “I want to be a barrister”, start asking yourself just how much you want to live with the pressure.

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Anonymous

And additionally – yes it’s clear that tomorrow’s pupils will all be 4 As at a level, 1st class degree candidates. And the bar will be poorer for it. Perhaps I will be one of the last people who got in to the civil bar with a red brick 2:1 but who is actually decent at the whole advocacy bit. When I’m on the pupillage committee I’ll be sure to stand up for the rough diamonds but don’t have much faith the others will.

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Anonymous

PPS, utterly staggering that James Welsh spoke out in favour of unfunded pupillage. He was a tutor of mine – I rated him and I liked him as a person. But unfunded pupillage? Seriously? He wants to make the Bar even MORE of a playground for rich kids?

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Rach

More rich kids who can afford the fees at BPP. James can then buy that second home in the country that he always wanted.

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Lord of all justice and laws

I think the whole it doesn’t matter on your University theory is flawed. If you truly were brilliant and a 1 in a million, why would you go to say Northumbria with you had impecable grades?

The likelihood is if you get good A-levels you will go to a good University. Why on earth you would go to a sub par university with 4 As at A-level is beyond me. I’m also 90% sure such candidates do not exist.

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Tim

I think idea is that occasionally a bright person will not do well in school (because they didn’t work hard, they attended a terrible school etc) but they get their act together and turn things around at university or sometimes even after finishing university. Some people just do well in exams, but would make greater advocates. I think this is more common than most people think.

Frankly, I know smarter people stacking shelves at Tesco than at the Bar – these guys came from broken families, or attended awful schools or just didn’t study for their GCSE/A Level exams. That is the sort of maverick that this article is referring to, I believe.

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Not Amused

Well the problem really is that:

1) the answer is complex and not simple: therefore lots of people have got bored listening to the answer and instead just make stuff up; and,
2) There are some people in the world with kind hearts and empathy: and they do not realise just how dangerous they are.

The likelihood is that most kids who will get good grades will go to good unis. And that is a good thing. The problem is what happens when that doesn’t happen.

Sadly lots of poor born kids with good grades go to lesser universities. Note my use of the word ‘lesser’, not ‘shit’. Let’s call this THE PROBLEM. We have in the country an ‘aspiration gap’ or a ‘lack of confidence’ or a ‘insert your own term here’. Whatever we call it is irrelevant, compared to what it is, what it is is bright poor born kids going to less good unis than they could.

Now, to me that is a very big problem. My answer is to de-mistify Oxbridge. To make our poor born bright kids feel that the best two unis in our country are their birth right. That way I would hope to combat this ‘force’ which is sending our bright, but poor born, children to lesser unis. Of course they can’t all go to Oxbridge. But this is what Eton does – it makes all its bright boys try for the best, then they settle for second. That is a damn sight better than trying for fourteenth place and pretending you’re happy with that.

Now, let’s assume that even I am not right. Let’s try to see the otherside. Well the other side sees these bright poor born kids going to lesser unis. And they go further than me. They also see dim, poor born kids going to lesser unis. They start to get excited about THE PROBLEM; they start to see it as a weapon.

You see is it not easy to find sympathy also for dim poor born kids? If we have sympathy for bright poor born kids and their enemy are the rich born kids. Then aren’t all poor born kids good and all rich born kids evil?

That’s the path that the otherside step down. I think they are wrong. I think that bright rich born kids never asked to be born rich. They are not the enemy of bright poor born kids. Dim kids of either backround never asked to be born dim – I accept that. This is where it gets COMPLEX.

But – one step at a time. We know what THE PROBLEM is. But here is where it gets even more complex. Do you remember number 2)? That’s where these lovely but troubling people come in. They start to say ‘well why don’t we all just pretend that the 14th best uni in the country is as good as the 1st?’. That is a lovely sentiment. Of course it is also completely mad. But this madness is sold as the SOLUTION to THE PROBLEM.

So those few of us left; i.e. those who can a)follow this, and b) not fall asleep, live in a world where both THE PROBLEM and the SOLUTION are problems. Do you see why I said it was complex?

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Q

A key ingredient in the problem are dim rich kids who get into Oxbridge for a course which is not very competitive like classics and then they will get in to a good set of Chambers. Whist bright poor kids might study law at a poly but stand no chance whatsoever at getting pupillage.

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Anonymous

Yes, something that people forget is that it is much harder to get into law at another top 10 uni than it is to get into a less competitive course at Oxbridge.

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Lord of all justice and laws

Are you sure it’s Tesco shelves? I would have thought it would be Waitrose…

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