Feature

Do law students still fancy a life in crime?

By on
39

Low pay, long hours and a crumbling justice system could be putting off the next generation of criminal lawyers

This is the first instalment in a special two-part feature examining the future of recruitment in criminal practice.

Like many of the best lawyers, Jinder Singh Boora’s career was launched by cheesy American television.

“As a child I was a very poor sleeper. After bedtime I used to creep downstairs and watch TV”, the Birmingham circuit judge said in a recent interview. “I came across an American legal drama named Petrocelli. I just remember looking at the attorneys in court with their smart clothes and perfect teeth and thinking — I want some of that!”

The likes of Petrocelli and its British equivalents — from Crown Court and Justice to the more recent Silk and Defending the Guilty — have helped to ensure a steady flow of idealistic recruits into criminal law over successive generations. Unlike most other practice areas, criminal defence is something people grow up wanting to do.

But the reality of criminal practice is nowhere near as glossy. Lawyers’ groups have been saying for years that low pay, high workloads and crumbling courts will eventually start putting law grads off crime as a career path.

The Criminal Bar Association, representing barristers, has been warning of a “recruitment crisis” since at least 2015. The Law Society of England and Wales talks about “a dearth of young solicitors willing to go into criminal law”.

So are those dire predictions now starting to come true? And how much of that is down to law grads themselves thinking twice about criminal defence work?

“I think students are very aware of the future looking pretty bleak in crime”, says Rebecca Wood, head of criminal litigation at Woollcombe Yonge in Plymouth. She recently advertised a training contract in her department, expecting it to be “like gold dust”, as it was when she was on the criminal traineeship hunt 15 or so years ago.

So far, the ad has received “hardly any responses”, Wood tells Legal Cheek. “I don’t want to be unfair on the few that have applied, but I was expecting hundreds. We advertised for training contracts in conveyancing recently which were snapped up — a flood of applications”.

Wood’s tweet about her disheartening recruitment experience seemed to strike a chord. “I used to get lots of unsolicited applications”, said Sonya O’Brien, a partner at another small firm in Oldham. These days, “I can’t remember the last time someone sent a CV in”.

Of course, problems in some areas of the country may not be reflected across the board. In Scotland, which has an entirely separate criminal justice system anyway, young lawyers still seem super keen.

One firm, Keegan Smith in Livingstone, recently reported 120 applicants for a single criminal defence trainee role. “The standard was all very high”, partner Iain Smith wrote on LinkedIn.

“My impression in Scotland is that at the trainee level it is supply of roles (and the ability to fund such roles) that is the problem, not any lack of interested applicants”, says Professor James Chalmers of Glasgow University. “I haven’t noticed any change in this over recent years”.

Lecturers elsewhere have different experiences. “I am not aware of a single former student who has taken a training contract in a criminal legal aid firm in the last five years, compared with many who have in firms working in other areas of law”, says Dr James Thornton of Nottingham Trent University. While lack of training contract opportunities is a factor, “it also seems to be the case that the job simply does not appeal to many students”.

Secure your place: The September 2021 UK Virtual Law Fair

Research by Thornton and others, based on interviews with criminal lawyers, points to a “declining proportion of law graduates opting to pursue a career in criminal law”.

That’s tricky to back up with hard stats: there’s no ready data on how many people apply for a training contract or pupillage in crime specifically. The Law Society does keep tabs on the average age of criminal duty solicitors, which gives an indication of the health of the recruitment pipeline.

That picture is pretty bleak in many areas of the country. In Wood’s part of the world, Devon, 58% of criminal duty solicitors are aged over 50. That picture is replicated in many regions: across the rest of the South West, much of Wales and in Worcestershire, over 60% are aged 50+.

As Thornton points out, though, that could be down to retention problems as well as a lack of trainees coming in. The number of criminal trainees across England and Wales has jumped around a bit, but there isn’t a consistent downward trend, according to data collected for the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid. There were 540 trainees at criminal legal aid firms in 2018/19, compared with 490 the year before and 570 the year before that.

But the same figures show a sharp rise in the number of solicitors dropping out of criminal legal aid: almost 3,000 in 2018/19. Some of that will be down to their firm dropping legal aid or closing down, but not all: every criminal lawyer has stories of colleagues quitting young.

Bill Waddington of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association remembers taking a newly qualified criminal defence solicitor along to a meeting with government ministers a few years ago, to reinforce the point that she was a “rare specimen” even then. Fast forward to 2021, and she’s now working for the Crown Prosecution Service.

“Criminal legal aid firms can’t compete with what the CPS is offering in terms of salary and benefits”, Waddington says. On top of that, “we lose people to other branches as well. If they’re intent on doing publicly funded work, they will have a much better existence in family law, which is better remunerated and doesn’t come with 24-hour call-out”.

Similarly, the Bar Council says that “those who do still enter the profession are swiftly confronted by the reality of the low fees and this rapidly drives out all but the most financially secure”. Around one in eight pupil barristers at criminal sets “already felt they would be unlikely to be able to sustain a full career at the bar”, according to a survey earlier this year.

Whether it’s recruitment or retention, the result is the same: an ageing pool of increasingly stressed-out criminal defence lawyers wondering where the next generation is coming from.

In the second instalment of this special two-part feature, out later this week, we hear from law students themselves about whether all the horror stories about criminal practice are deterring them from going into the profession.

Sign up to the Legal Cheek Newsletter

39 Comments

Chris

I completed criminal pupillage and left shortly after to reskill into a different area of law. The criminal bar is dying.

(41)(2)

Lou

Sorry to hear it didn’t work out! If you don’t mind me asking, how did you re-skill and where did you go into?

(4)(0)

SC

Aside from the merits of what is a very interesting article may I just say that this type of content is far, far better than the normal “X firm confirms £5k NQ salary raise”. More of this please!

(80)(4)

Curious

Given the ugly arguments that tend to happen in the comments and the attention that those articles get, I’d imagine LC gets lots of their ad revenue from them

(13)(0)

SC

True. 40% of the comments are either about Kirkland & Ellis, Lamborghinis or freshers.

(22)(0)

LLB, Anglia Ruskin

The arguments and insults are why legalcheek subsequently wiped the comments from most of their careers conundrums questions.

(3)(0)

Noddy

SAD

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Remember the days of “Top Bantah” and the reactively moderated comments?

They could get quite heated! I note that most articles archived from those days had the comments deleted in their entirety.

Different times…

Anon

Criminal work is without a shadow of doubt, the most interesting area of law. Don’t worry, there’s no grad rec here first-years, so you don’t need to pretend that filling out companies house documents is “stimulating”. The issue is – it’s the government who are paying for it, so there’ll never be any money in it. The trade off anyone needs to get to grips with.

(41)(2)

Question

I’ll be working at a US firm for my TC, and likely until 3-5 PQE. But after, I think I’d like to work as a criminal barrister. How hard is the process to transition over?

(1)(15)

Realist

It will be impossible to practise at a US firm for 7 years (including TC) without living the lifestyle that comes with it.

By the time you’re 5 PQE, you would likely be taking at least a 90% pay drop by transferring to the Criminal Bar, by which stage you might have a mortgage or even a family to support.

(44)(0)

anon

At the criminal bar, first year, you are looking at around 20k in local sets. Maybe a little in some London ones. I did a mini at one at generally you are just doing the work that no one else wants to do as it’s not worth their time. Believe it or not, there were people who were contemplating leaving the criminal bar to join the Police as the pay was better. Absolutely ridiculous.

(36)(1)

LLB, Anglia Ruskin

To be fair, police make good money by the standards of the public sector

(1)(5)

Richard

This is just not true. The criminal bar is busier than it has ever been. Our pupils are earning £50k plus a year each easily. Doing one day of magistrate’s prosecution work nets you £300. If you do that 5 Days a week for 48 weeks a year that’s £74k before chambers expenses as a junior tenant.

(4)(3)

C

5 days a week, 48 weeks a year sounds impossible to me, even if you can get such regular work. Add in travel, comms. and sundry other expenses as well as chambers fees, Let’s face it, crim is a tough gig and a fair bit of your work is done for nothing. 40 plus years of it is a lot to bear. Pethaps different if a Star and get into white collar crime, but does that fit the SJW image?

C

5 days a week, 48 weeks a year sounds impossible to me, even if you can get such regular work. Add in travel, comms. and sundry other expenses as well as chambers fees, Let’s face it, crim is a tough gig and a fair bit of your work is done for nothing. 40 plus years of it is a lot to bear. Pethaps different if a Star and get into white collar crime, but does that fit the SJW image?

Anonymous

There are funding issues in terms of equality of arms between prosecution and defence, but earnings aren’t as bad as is made out.

(2)(17)

Numbers, yo

https://www.thefpa.co.uk/news/grenfell-tower-inquiry-costs-reach-117-million

A large team of junior criminal barristers are currently working on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

Four years from the fire, £61 million has been spent on legal costs. We have many years to go until the inquiry concludes.

Might there by a future public inquiry into COVID? Who do you think is going to do the legal work and how much do you think they will earn for that in the intervening years?

Do you know of many other groups of people that could collectively bill £61 million within four years? I wouldn’t exactly call those people ‘hard done by’.

Don’t be manipulated by emotional pleas (though yes – that is part of the job of a criminal barrister). Look at the numbers. Criminal barristers are certainly not tied to earning only their fixed court fees.

(14)(43)

Just Anonymous

The Post Office settled the infamous Horizon litigation for £58 million. One could easily make a similar argument, based on that fact alone, that the claimant sub-post masters have become extremely rich off that litigation.

This argument evaporates, however, when you examine the breakdown of where that money has gone, and you learn that each individual claimant probably received the net sum of around £20,000: almost nothing at all given what the claimants actually had to go through to get it.

Similarly, without a breakdown of that £61 million, and what has been done to earn it, your argument goes nowhere.

(50)(9)

Anon

Tell us, how many “junior criminal barristers” are working on the Grenfell Inquiry?
What sets are they from?
What role are they playing? Are they disclosure juniors working for a government department (at less than legal aid rates), or juniors who are actually part of the legal teams representing one of the parties?
How much are these “junior criminal barristers” billing? What proportion of the £61M is going to the “junior criminal barristers”?
And, most importantly of all, tell us, precisely, how do we get onto this gravy train? What form do we fill in to become instructed on the inquiry? Who do I call to get that brief?
Do you have any clue, whatsoever, what you’re talking about?

(50)(2)

Numbers, yo

5 seconds later on Google, a full list of all senior/junior counsel and solicitors for the inquiry –

https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/inquiry-team

That’s exactly who the £61 million is going to. Think they work for free?

No groups of actors, consultants, engineers or politicians could receive anywhere near that amount of money for four years worth of services.

You are right – it is a great gravy train.

(7)(46)

lol

Just had a quick look. The vast majority of the barristers you’ve listed aren’t even Criminal barristers…..

(16)(3)

Anon

Cool, now, of those juniors, how many are “junior criminal barristers” as opposed to experienced public lawyers? Do you even understand what that term “junior criminal barrister” means?
And why do you think the £61M is going to that list of individuals? That’s the estimated legal bill for the entire inquiry. If you read the article in your original post, you’d have seen that half of the cost has gone to the core participants’ teams. Of the proportion going to the inquiry team, how much is going to counsel? And particularly, how much is going to the “junior criminal barristers” which is allegedly taking advantage of this gravy train?
Surely you’re not decrying the junior criminal bar without knowing these details?

(14)(4)

Name

As another commenter has mentioned, half of the £61m has gone to the core participants’ legal teams. That leaves £30.5m for the inquiry team. Let’s do some simple maths.

That link you provided includes a very long list of people (over 70). That doesn’t include a separate document review team. To simplify things, let’s assume (conservatively) that the doc review has cost £5m. If we divide £25.5m between 70, and then divide by four to get a per-year fee, that comes to £91k per individual (gross).

In reality though the QCs, the inquiry solicitors and the deputy solicitors would take a much larger chunk than the junior counsel, assistant solicitors and secretariat. Also, fixed costs and disbursements would take out a large chunk as well. The junior criminal barristers would, in reality, probably earn closer to £40-50k per year (gross). That would be a bit more than they would earn in their day job perhaps, but this is temporary consulting work so that’s to be expected. It’s hardly a gravy train is it?

Also, look at the number of places available for junior counsel on this inquiry compared to the number of junior criminal barristers struggling. It’s not really making a dent is it?

(5)(2)

Numbers, yo

£40-£50k extra income a year (as a conservative low estimate), ON TOP of what they would normally bill??? For an inquiry that has years to go until it is concluded?

That really isn’t helping me to feel sorry for criminal barristers. How many other people in the UK can earn an extra £40-£50k a year on top of their usual earnings?

They complain only because they earn less than their law school friends – not because they are actually in poverty.

It seems borne out of an attitude of envy and ultimately, entitlement.

Crim Lawyer

I am 5 years qualified and last year I earned significantly over 200k through criminal legal aid. I worked hard but didn’t need to put in the hours that you might at a US firm. It is possible to make crime work, you just need to get the right cases.

(1)(34)

Anonymous

I am not sure I see how these numbers add up, at least if all legally aided and not better paid private criminal work i.e. white collar financial crime (and in respect of which there is intense competition, not least with Fountain Court having entered this market) – would it be possible to provide some additional detail as to your chambers and some specifics as to the right cases for £200k billing as a 2015-2016 call?

(25)(0)

Crim Lawyer

I am a solicitor. Murder, frauds and drug conspiracies pay at the top end 80-90k per trial. There’s enough there for the solicitor to be paid well and the firm to turn a decent profit. A common assault trial on the other hand would pay about £400. I am not saying this to brag, I just wanted to demonstrate that it’s not as bad as a lot of criminal lawyers make out. Just go after the profitable work.

(6)(37)

Chancery Barrister

You will go bankrupt waiting on Legal Aid to pay you. As you are over twice the VAT threshold, you will be paying tax on billing figures not receipts. This is an absolute nightmare if you are waiting 2 years to get paid.

(18)(0)

Crim Lawyer

This doesn’t make any sense. After a case finishes, we bill legal aid for our profit costs (plus vat). After we receive payment, we pay the necessary taxes. We don’t pay taxes in advance of a case finishing. The system does not work like that because admittedly LA fees are a bit of a rollercoaster and you do not know what a case is worth until its conclusion.

Genuinely surprised by the downvotes. I just wanted to show students that crime is still a worthwhile pursuit.

If any of the downvoters don’t want to believe the figures, have a look at the litigator graduated fee calculator on the gov.uk website for yourselves. It’s no secret and the information is readily available.

(7)(15)

Al

Before I sold my soul and went into civil, I did practice mainly in criminal. After 7 years the Revenue started to tax me on bills rather than receipts.

That was especially annoying with LA work. As people have mentioned, it could take years to be paid. I had plenty of “3 yrs +” on my aged debt sheet.

One constant issue was you’d put in the bill. But even if it was endorsed by the judge or court clerk, the LSB would still knock you down on things like page count.

You then had a choice. Just accept that and pay in the cheque; or challenge. But then you couldn’t pay the cheque in (that was deemed to be accepting the fee). Of course, for cash flow purposes you pretty much just had to swallow it and cash the cheque.

(5)(0)

Chancery Barrister

I’m not sure how you earned over £200,000 if you don’t understand the difference between paying tax on cash or receipts. As the above poster stated, it used to be the case that once you were over 7 years’ call, you paid tax on billing rather than cash in. However, a couple of years ago HMRC decided that the threshold was not years’ call but whether you billed twice over the VAT threshold which now is £170k. If you billed £200,000 you would know this. In fact, this is something that would probably keep you up at night worrying about it.

The poor sods I know who do legal aid work, whether that be crime, family or god forbid housing, stick in their bill, charging every hour under the sun (no doubt cos the hourly rate is about £40 or whatever). After sticking in the bill, 2 years later they might get paid but find that LA has slashed their rates.

The LA barristers I used to know billing significant amounts were almost in the worst position at the Bar. They had age debts of £300/£400/£500k, paying tax on all the billing but had no money to pay the whooping tax bills. Most now sit as district judges, happy to get £90k real money (or whatever it is) than monopoly money from the legal aid.

(9)(0)

Crim Lawyer

Hi CB I have stated before that I am a solicitor and the billing system is very different. We bill as a firm (as opposed to a barrister billing as an individual). As you may imagine, any firm’s yearly billing will be high and many times the personal vat threshold. Paying tax on the amount billed vs the amount paid simply (and fortunately) isn’t something that we have to worry about because we bill as a firm and not an individual plus turnaround times are short. After a case finishes we submit a bill to the LAA and within around 10 days it is authorised and paid. If LAA try to knock the claim, admittedly there is some back and forth that can go on for a few weeks, sometimes months but no longer than that. The situation you are describing may well apply for Barristers but it just does not for solicitors.

IJ

I’m a criminal defence solicitor, just passed 1 and a half years qualified, and I’m leaving the profession. A lot of my colleagues are doing the same, or going to the CPS or different areas of law. Terrible pay, the stress and anxiety, never switching off, it’s not worth it. I’d urge any law student to stay away, I should have heeded the warnings myself but I was lured in by the excitement of investigation and court work, and a sense of justice.

(31)(0)

Scots Law Grad

I know lots of aspiring criminal lawyers from law school in Scotland but definitely feel the situation is lack of traineeships not trainees here. The Scottish government fund is great but doesn’t guarantee opportunities for future years. The biggest factor that puts people off pursuing criminal law careers here is simply being unable to get a foot in the door

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Although certainly, the cuts have dissuaded many from applying to criminal legal aid firms, it is worth remembering that even without this issue, there was already a declining appetite to apply to such firms.

Many such firms were small, family-run places which didn’t really welcome outside applicants, and only really offered TCs to people within the family/their friends. Because of that, plenty of people didn’t bother applying – particularly in the case of an unsolicited application as mentioned in the article – since it was so likely to be fruitless.

(5)(0)

Former Bazza

At crim (12.35)Lawyer no you didn’t earn over 200k from criminal legal aid work at 5 years call. Stop talking nonsense please.

(17)(0)

Crim Lawyer

Actually I did and anybody else can too. A lot of people may not know but payment on a crime LA case does not depend number of years qualified. The payment on a given case will be the same if the solicitor is newly qualified or 20 years qualified. The payment is dictated by (a) offence type, (b) how far you get in proceedings i.e g plea / cracked / trial; and (c) pages of prosecution evidence. It doesn’t take into account num of years experience, num of hours spend on a case, or the result. For good or for bad, that is the system. But it means that somebody with 5 PQE is just as capable of earning decent money as somebody with 20 PQE, all they have to do is get the right cases.

(2)(0)

Paul W. Kerr

When they say crime doesn’t pay, they’re talking about the lawyers.

(1)(0)

Comments are closed.

Related Stories