Criminal law not an attractive long-term career, say 81% of junior lawyers

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Low pay 👎 long hours 👎 poor work-life balance 👎

The overwhelming majority of junior lawyers feel criminal law is not an attractive career option, a new flash poll undertaken by the Law Society has found.

The survey discovered a whopping 81% of junior lawyers were reluctant to peruse a long-term career in crime, with low pay, long hours and poor work/life balance among the top factors cited by the nearly 140 respondents.

Providing further details as to why they don’t see a long-term future in crime, one young lawyer said: “I do not trust that the government would ever fund it adequately to allow a solicitor a good wage and quality of life. Why go to university and the huge debts to earn the wage they do, the hours they work and antisocial hours at that.”

Another respondent explained how they recently switched from criminal to commercial law, where newly qualified associates working in the latter can trouser upwards of £100,000 a year. “As a single person the salary was fine but as a parent it is not sustainable,” they said. “Having moved to commercial law within a year I have already doubled the salary that I received as a criminal solicitor.”

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A further junior lawyer told researchers: “No work-life balance, no prospects for a family, very little pay, too emotionally draining without enough support, not respected by the public.”

The comments flag similar issues to those contained in special report undertaken last summer by Legal Cheek.

One student told us how they were were advised during a mini-pupillage to “train away from crime within ten years and do something more lucrative”, while another wannabe solicitor said that she and many of her peers were “thinking twice about entering criminal defence” given the financial downsides.

The poll comes as criminal barristers continue to apply a ‘no returns’ policy — they agree not to accept cases that are returned by colleagues who have a diary clash — over their longstanding concerns with legal aid funding.

Although the government confirmed in March it had accepted an independent review’s recommendation to pump an extra £135 million a year into the criminal legal aid sector, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) says the increase in fees under the deal will “not be sufficient to retain enough criminal barristers to keep the wheels of justice turning”.

The CBA is now considering further action with meetings and a ballot of members scheduled for next week.

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Criminal law is a great way to hone your advocacy skills. It also gives you the best war stories.

But I completely understand why people may then wish to transition to something a little less despairing and a lot more lucrative.


Do people really escape from the criminal bar, and stay in law?

This is a good point, but I’m not sure how easy it is to transition. All the barristers which my firm instructs (One Essex Court, South Square-calibre, etc.) have an impeccable pedigree through an array of glittering Oxbridge firsts and then temple scholarships etc. but I’ve yet to see anyone escape from the criminal bar into a commercial or chancery set.

I know of one criminal barrister who managed to secure a commercial role in a firm in Dubai, and then moved from there after a few years to further commercial roles in Cayman, but that’s not the same as being in a commercial or chancery set in London.


Criminal QC

In other news, water is wet…



How does one transition from crime, say, to commercial work? Asking for a friend….


Junior barrister

Step one: Do anything to join a common law set.

Step two: fake it till you make it. Decent criminal clients will have a portfolio of problems. Assist with property / Insolvency / civil disputes that arise but stay out of High Court. 2 years max

Step three: bill as much as you can. Perhaps then you can join a fallen star like **** Chambers or *** Grays *** or xxxx buildings by emphasising the 6 civil cases out of 150 completed in previous 12 months. They will take billing @ £80,000 and won’t look to hard at CV.

Step four: bill more at fallen star set. The legal market is red hot. Even at a low level civil set, if you are talented and extremely hard working you can still be on £150-200 within 2 years.

Step five: enterprise, Hardwicke, No 5. If you are around 5-7 years doing £150-£200K, they will take you without caring about university or grades. If you are talented, you can bill decent sums in those places.

Step six: Wilberforce, maitland, 3VB, Essex etc. won’t care if you are billing £3-£500k within 10 years at previous places mentioned, you will have to be ranked, a good fit, and genuine silk prospects to get in. Even then, difficult to see magic circle commercial sets taking anyone save for the absolute superstars.

I have seen this done. Essentially, at each stage, you need to be ahead of your colleagues around the same call at that set. If you are, then just reach out to the senior clerk at the various sets one tier above you. There is a serious war for talent so if you are doing well you should get snapped up.



A criminal barrister friend in London managed to get a scholarship from one of the inns of court to undertake a secondment to Al Tamimi, a commercial law firm in Dubai. She impressed them, and was offered a permanent associate role, and remained with them for several years, before leaving Dubai to move elsewhere (still in a commercial role). On one reading therefore, she did transition from crime to commercial work.

Several caveats, though:

1. She moved from being a criminal barrister to a commercial *solicitor* (in effect).

2. I am led to believe that jobs in Dubai are easier to get than those in London, if only due to the level of competition.

3. If you’re asking how to get commercial/chancery bar tenancy in London, I think it’s virtually impossible. The baby barristers and junior barristers we instruct are painfully highly qualified, and appear to have lived, ate and breathed law for a decade from their mid-teens. I simply don’t think that it is achievable to get commercial/chancery tenancy without a similar background.



The problem with a commercial setting though is that these reported figures are obviously fake or again from MCs, which does not reflect 90% of the industry.
Completely changing fields is HARD in this country (unless you want to be a conveyancer). Many of my colleagues abroad do not have the same difficulties, it’s normal for firms to acknowledge that once you’ve qualified you can work in whatever field and change it as and when, regardless of whether you’ve had a seat in that area or experience-they accept you’ve learned the skills required to learn the ropes. Over here, however, if you want to change fields you’ll be met with questions and major doubts over your “loyalty”, which is a total nonsense if you ask me. It’s enough to see how many firms (besides conveyancers), currently, would actually take a person on a retrain.
At least criminal law is one of those areas that still allows advocacy for solicitors and it’s fairly encouraged (albeit the price paid is your work-life balance). Having said that, in commercial settings you’re just an office worker pushing papers around; yes you get a higher wage, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that work-life balance is any better. From personal experience I can guarantee it’s worse in many cases (not counting the added stress from clients, partners etc).
Moral of the story is: the whole profession is in complete shambles, not just one area of law. Seriously think twice before you go down the route of becoming a lawyer over here.


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