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