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The Judge Rules: The money’s good, so get it while it lasts

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Junior City lawyers are bathing in big pay rises, but money isn’t everything — just ask those in practice

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It’s tough becoming a lawyer.

First, law degree students have to sit through loads of balls-achingly dull lectures and cram for exams designed to make heads implode. All while their counterparts on English, modern languages and arts degrees — and even those at medical school – are larging it big time on the booze and actually enjoying their subjects.

And if they don’t do a law degree, students keen on legal practice have to condense all that pain into a one-year conversion course, followed by more head banging on either the Legal Practice Course or the Bar Professional Training Course

Then there is the soul-destroying struggle for a training contract or pupillage. And the expectation these days — for wannabe solicitors, at least — is that the training contract hunt will be preceded by an equally soul-destroying trawl for a vacation scheme placement. The selection processes for both bear a strong resemblance to The Hunger Games.

Having navigated tedious hours of academia, vac scheme humiliation and the drudgery of a training contract, qualification surely means it’s time for the good times to roll …

Don’t get your hopes up.

As illustrated in the comments section to Legal Cheek’s recent list of 10 struggles only law students understand, actually practising the law ain’t that much more fun than the grinding process of qualifying.

“I have been a lawyer for nearly 30 years,” wrote one commentator, who appeared to be corresponding from head-in-oven position. “When I began it was great and stayed that way for a while. My advice to you guys now? Don’t bother. Find yourself something else.”

Wrote another, who appeared to be almost delirious with pain and ennui:

“And then once you get on the training contract, two years of hard graft to get an NQ job…and then it only gets worse from there…”

Of course, bleary-eyed law students in the middle of exam fever might reply that if nothing else the money will be bloody good. And the current City law firm scramble to buck the trend of deflationary Britain by chucking 5% to 7% pay rises at trainees and qualifying solicitors seems to bear that out.

Big money

In what other profession — apart from banking — can a green-around-the-ears recruit expect to earn more than two and a half times the average national wage on the first day of qualified employment?

Indeed, some might argue the ‘over here and over paid’ maxim regarding American soldiers in the Second World War applies in spades to young lawyers at US firms in London.

Those trainees lucky enough to qualify at DC-based Akin Gump and New Yorkers Davis Polk and Sullivan & Cromwell will be welcomed with eye watering starting salaries of £100,000. Even mean spirited Latham & Watkins and Skadden will cough up £98,000 to NQs.

But all that money doesn’t lead to happiness. If you don’t believe the judge, listen instead to Scottish legal profession guru, Richard Susskind.

The perma-tanned author of the 2013 book, “Tomorrow’s Lawyers”, points out that a generation or so ago, students did not enter the legal profession in search of vast wealth. Sure, the law provided a stable and good living, but it wasn’t seen — even in the City — as offering anything more than a comfortable middle class lifestyle: a house in suburbia with a modest saloon car in the garage at best.

In the last generation or so, argues Susskind, that view of legal profession careers has changed. Surveys show students aspiring to legal practice for the money and not much more. And indeed, it’s difficult to see how much satisfaction — apart from financial — there is in pulling all-nighters poring over tedious deal agreements for days on end.

But, according to Susskind, the rub is this: not even the money is going to be there for too much longer — at least it won’t be there for as many lawyers as are currently Hoovering it up.

Legal practice is being farmed out to cheaper outsourcing providers; the advent of alternative business structures will see transactional work increasingly scooped up by accountant-dominated professional services firms; and lawyering is even becoming automated.

Robots, runs the argument, will be able to churn out deal agreements 24 hours a day without whinging about meal breaks and certainly not requiring £100k pay packets.

So it is certainly tough becoming a lawyer; and it is going to be increasingly tough being a lawyer. By the way, don’t spend the dosh all at once.