What Boris Johnson’s big majority means for the legal profession and those seeking to enter it

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By Alex Aldridge on

Focus on innovation, the North and alternatives to higher education could impact lawyers

? Original image via Snowmanradio

A year ago a curvy blond had just been ditched by top QC Marina Wheeler and was looking at the end of his career in politics after quitting as foreign secretary in protest at Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

Now that same blond is in charge of the country and being talked about in the same breath as Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

Love him or loathe him, Boris Johnson has a great big majority and his Conservative government is set to bring about major changes over the next five years.

Brexit now looks a dead cert (although expect more flurries of legal action as activist lawyers look to hold the government to account as the UK thrashes out new trade deals), with the focus now surely turning to implementing the Johnsonian vision for the future of Britain.

What will this mean for the legal profession and those seeking to enter it?

Law firms to look north

Perhaps the biggest feature of the Tories’ win was their spectacular defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in many traditional Labour strongholds in the north. To retain these seats Johnson will have to channel funding outside the M25. Serious state investment in infrastructure, healthcare, green energy and technology will generate substantial amounts of legal work for the big commercial law firms. As they chomp through it, and become reliant on it, expect their attitudes to the north to start to shift — don’t be surprised if some firms start to drop the ‘northshoring’ language of outsourcing and start referring to their hubs in Manchester, Leeds, Belfast and elsewhere as proper offices.

Quick plug here for our LegalEdCon North event in Manchester on 30 January 2020.

Solicitor apprenticeships to finally reach the magic circle?

Labour’s plan to scrap undergraduate tuition fees would have been great news for students while posing a problem for the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), which was designed partly to allow a cheaper route to qualification for debt-burdened future lawyers.

The Conservatives’ win means that the prohibitive cost of qualifying as a lawyer remains very much an issue that will negatively impact access to the profession unless pro-active steps are taken to mitigate it.

To this end, expect pressure to be put on big law firms to start using the money they are forced to set aside under the apprenticeship levy (which at many firms is just sitting there dormant) to help students from less privileged backgrounds to become lawyers.

Under the solicitor apprentice model being developed to dovetail with the introduction of the SQE in 2021, rookies complete a law degree and then professional skills training part-time while working four days a week as paralegals. At the end of six years they are qualified solicitors. As the success stories from this new route start being told, more firms will surely jump on the bandwagon.

Don’t get your hopes up on legal aid

Although the Tory manifesto pledges to end austerity and splash cash on the NHS, it is almost silent on legal aid. Indeed, other than mentioning a pilot scheme to evaluate the return of legal aid to cover early advice in some areas of social welfare law (as removed by Chris Grayling when he was Lord Chancellor in the Coalition government), there’s barely any mention of it.

Instead, Johnson and co have been banging the law and order drum by talking loudly about being “tough on serious crime”. What does that actually mean? “Making prison sentences a bit longer”, says legal aid whistleblower the Secret Barrister. SB’s suggestions for fixing the criminal justice system sadly look likely to go unheeded.

Online courts could be the big legal tech development

With artificial intelligence, blockchain and other tech buzzwords so far translating into some savings around the margins in law firms, rather than a revolution in the way legal services are delivered, the next big thing in legal tech may prove to be online courts.

As Professor Richard Susskind notes in his piece for Legal Cheek today, “court systems around the world are pretty much broken”. Citing OECD figures, he reports that “more than 4 billion people live beyond the protection of the law and courts” and highlights “astonishing backlogs … of 100 million cases in Brazil and 30 million in Indian”. The stretched court system in England and Wales seems almost efficient in comparison, but with no plan to replace the third lopped off the legal aid budget in 2014 it’s clearly going in the wrong direction.

In a government infused with the pro-innovation focus of the PM’s top advisor, Dominic Cummings, the solution to this and many other problems is likely to be sought in technology. In this new book, Online Courts and the Future of Justice, Susskind sets out his vision for a new online court model that completely rethinks the delivery of justice towards a model that reduces oral advocacy and focuses instead on the deciding of disputes in written form online. The conditions look ripe in the UK for this to take off over the next decade.

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