An anonymous trainee legal exec thinks attitudes to the apprenticeship need to change
When you say to people that you’re training to be a lawyer, they usually assume you’re going to be a solicitor. Then they’ll say: “Well, the drinks are on you then!”
I’m currently studying to become a Chartered Legal Executive. I have three exams left to take (I’ve taken nine exams and done four ‘professional skills’ courses so far) and I’ve been working for my firm since I was 18 (I’m now in my mid-20s).
I did reasonably well at school; I left with three A-levels, a higher than average number of GCSEs, and absolutely no desire to get into a huge amount of debt. Also, I don’t think student life would be for me — packet noodles and excessive vodka shots are not my thing. I was accepted at multiple, fairly good universities to study. I wasn’t a ‘drop out’, I just made a personal choice not to go to university.
I fell into my firm accidentally. It was much smaller then, and I was taken on as an administrator. It wasn’t a great experience, and within a year I was a fee earner. In 2014, I decided I needed to think about a career, and I discovered the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx).
At £8,000-odd for the whole course, it saved a lot of debt and worry, plus my kind employers agreed to fund 50% of the course. It seemed to be happy days all round!
That was, of course, until I changed roles. I began to work with Joe Public and other solicitors. The transition was good for my career, but not good for my confidence.
Am I going to be a solicitor? No, but by the time I finish my apprenticeship I will be a fully-qualified lawyer with five years’ extensive experience in all types of litigation. My ‘no’ answer is usually met with a look of disappointment (the ‘unexcited’), a patronising “ah well, you might become a solicitor one day” (the ‘patroniser’), or just disgust (the ‘I am better than you’, depending on who I’m speaking to.
I want to challenge every single person who falls into those three categories. I want to say I’m just as deserving of the title ‘lawyer’ as those who attended university, completed their Legal Practice Course (LPC) and obtained a training contract.
I want to tell them that while I’ve been studying I’ve played stepmother, ran a house, paid a mortgage, paid 50% of my tuition fees, battled my way through doubts over my experience or competence, and fought against the prejudice that comes with my studying. Oh, all while running a caseload of exactly the same cases as my solicitor colleagues.
And don’t ask me to get the drinks in; I simply don’t get paid enough. I do the same job as my solicitor colleagues, and get paid barely a percentage. If my solicitor had lots more experience than me, I think I could accept this. However, in my current position I’m working alongside a solicitor who has absolutely no experience in the field we’re working together in. This colleague has lost the basic principles of all things litigation, and gets treated far better. This colleague is also one of the ‘patronisers’ referred to above. It’s painful.
I accept that as an unqualified person I get paid peanuts. If I knew I was guaranteed payment in line with a solicitor later on, I would be optimistic. But I’m not. Statistics show that employers prefer solicitors and pay solicitors more. I’m not sure why.
I work as hard as anyone else. I go home and I neglect my family because I study so hard. I push myself so I can qualify as soon as possible. I battle with the people that have known me since I was 18 and still treat me as that 18-year-old. I lead my fellow colleagues in the right direction. It’s hard.
One thing I don’t do, however, is complain about the senior management of my firm. The partners and the directors are my only supporters — they value my commitment, my hard work and my knowledge. I am so, so grateful for that every day.
I only hope that other employers, colleagues and the general public soon learn to accept my hard work and knowledge. I hope they learn to accept that I can do this job, and I can succeed. Who knows what the future holds; hopefully the attitude towards Chartered Legal Executives will change. We need these people, these people with a breadth of life experience, work experience and legal knowledge, to be heading up our firms. We don’t need a battle.
When we contacted CILEx to give them the opportunity to issue a comment on the themes discussed in this piece, a spokesperson told us:
“A lack of parity was, historically, one of the more common issues our members faced, whether that be parity of esteem, recognition, pay, partnership or career development.
However times, and the sector, have changed for the better and will continue to move in the right direction. Our members are fee earning during their training, they are partners and directors and business owners at firms around England and Wales. We have witnessed a positive shift in attitude from the sector with an increasing appreciation of and demand for the skills and competence of our members.
Unfortunately, we know that this attitude is not true across the entire sector, yet, and CILEx will continue to work to ensure that our members receive the respect, recognition and reward that they deserve. Our employer partners are creating opportunities, supporting and developing our members in ways that often go unreported. Often because, quite rightly, they are the same as those of other lawyers and are not considered ‘newsworthy’”.
Unnamed Exec is in her mid-20s and is currently studying to become a Chartered Legal Executive while working at a law firm.
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