5 features of a changing legal market that wannabe lawyers will have to deal with in their careers

Avatar photo

By Alex Aldridge on

Top solicitors, barristers and chartered legal executives reveal what lies ahead for the profession


The panel at last week’s ‘How to survive in a changing legal market’ event at Gray’s Inn included three leading City lawyers, a former chair of the Bar Council, the president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives and two up-and-coming barristers.

As the audience of 120 law students fired questions at them, some interesting insights spilled forth …

1. Expect further blurring of solicitors and barristers

In certain areas of law, like tax, there is already frequent movement between the bar and the solicitors’ profession — as barrister-turned-City solicitor Andrew Roycroft noted during the discussion. The Norton Rose Fulbright senior associate gave a host of examples of tax lawyers who have switched between the two branches of the profession, including One Essex Court’s Malcolm Gammie QC, who began his career with magic circle firm Linklaters.

But in the more mainstream fields of civil and criminal litigation, swapping the bar for the solicitors’ profession (or vice versa) is pretty rare — although it’s worth noting that rising star Hardwicke barrister Jasmine Murphy reported that her chambers had seen an increase in applications from people who had opted to qualify first as solicitors.

Looking ahead, though, superstar media silk Desmond Browne QC, who is a former chair of the Bar Council, indicated that an overhaul of legal education could bring the branches of the profession much closer together.

“The real question of fusion comes with legal education,” said Browne. “What has been suggested by Sir Bill Jeffrey in his report for the Ministry of Justice is that those who wish to become barristers should do so after three years of practice [as solicitors]. This is fairly revolutionary, effectively fusing the profession at the legal education stage and is something that could still be on the horizon.”

2. The decline of legal aid is not about to be reversed

At the recent ‘Young Bar Conference’ former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge appeared to offer a ray of hope to legal aid lawyers when he advised them that “Things change, wheels turn”.

But at Gray’s Inn, Browne QC was having none of this, telling the audience:

“My experience of negotiating with the MoJ and even discussing the matter with an honorary bencher of this Inn, Chris Grayling, leaves me deeply pessimistic about the future of legal aid and the incomes that are likely to be derived from it. There will be further cuts in legal aid no matter who wins the next election.”

Listening to those words you got the feeling that the story of Browne’s fellow panellist, former wannabe criminal barrister Sally Davies (who is now a solicitor-advocate and partner at Mayer Brown), would become more common.

Davies was tempted by the bar, but the offer of City law funding saw her career take a different path — and, despite still making occasional lunchtime visits to the Old Bailey, she has never looked back as her specialist area of construction litigation has become a passion.

Those looking to tough it out in the quest for a legal aid pupillage were warned by City University law lecturer and barrister Andrew Worthley to brace themselves for “a decade of financial turbulence”. Worthley, who maintains an active door tenancy at common law set Magdalen Chambers, recalled his student days when he “lived off break rolls for years, even during pupillage,” adding:

“There are easier ways to make money than the law.”

3. Legal aid cuts will lead to a growth in pro bono

Already the government is trying to rope in more law students to help out the litigants-in-person who are flooding family courts. But this could be just the beginning as the legal system faces a major shortfall in expertise to handle the trickier aspects of cases that used to benefit from government funding.

Already, as Hardwicke’s Murphy pointed out, “many barristers do a lot of pro bono”. City lawyers are active in this area, too, with all the firms represented on the panel boasting very active pro bono operations.

But as time goes by, and the effects of the legal aid cuts worsen, the pressure on commercial lawyers to lend a hand to the smooth-running of social welfare justice will surely go up a notch. In the short term, this will mean ditching the fluffier corporate social responsibility initiatives — like painting railings and urban gardening schemes — and replacing them with tasks that require legal skill.

In the longer term, expect the UK legal profession to become more like the American one, where a flimsier social welfare net has led corporate law firms to incorporate free legal work into formal billable hours targets as they jostle for position in widely-published pro bono rankings.

4. The growing army of paralegals will need career paths

In a market where training contract numbers are around 20% down on their 2008 peak and pupillages in ever sharper decline, more and more law graduates are finding themselves in paralegal roles. Over the last few years, this halfway house between studentdom and practice has become entrenched as firms have got used to hiring an increasing proportion of graduates on short term paralegal contracts. Now, as the market picks up, specialist paralegal recruiters like the Stephen James Partnership and Baby Barristers — whose roles can be accessed through Legal Cheek Jobs — report that business is booming as firms meet demand with paralegals rather than more trainees.

The next step, predicted Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) president Frances Edwards, is for these paralegals to demand equality with lawyers who have entered the profession via the conventional trainee route. She thinks that the CILEx Graduate Fast-track Diploma route — which allows law graduate paralegals to qualify as chartered legal executive lawyers without doing a training contract or Legal Practice Course (LPC) — will rise in prominence over the next few years.

5. Anxieties about diversity are likely to increase

As a gap opens up between the elite end of law and the rest, top firms and chambers will find themselves under greater pressure to demonstrate that they are true meritocracies and offer opportunities to everyone.

Those with a shortfall of women lawyers, ethnic minority lawyers and lawyers from lower socio-economic backgrounds are already coming under pressure to alter their demographics, as demonstrated by the rise of organisations like Aspiring Solicitors and Rare Recruitment which help firms recruit more widely. And this trend is likely to accelerate, agreed the panellists.

Encouragingly, there was a determination among firms and chambers at the event to mould themselves to fit the needs of these groups, rather than vice versa. Among the speakers there was universal disapproval of the egg-freezing initiatives being offered to female employees by Apple and Facebook, which underlined how — when compared to many sectors — the legal profession is actually pretty respectful to its members.

Using her own career as an example, Hogan Lovells’ financial services litigation partner Louise Lamb argued that it was possible for female lawyers to reach the top at City firms where there is a positive departmental culture.

“In my immediate team we have eight partners — four men and four women. All those partners have children, balance their lives, and have all sorts of personal commitments such as elderly parents, with generally life happening around their job. We have a fairly equal balance of associates, several of whom are on maternity leave. So if you want to be a successful partner at a City firm and want to have children as a woman, that’s 100% an option. You have to juggle, you have to work hard, but you can do it.”

Lamb’s words were echoed by Mayer Brown’s Sally Davies.

“It’s all about your individual choices. You can achieve what you want to achieve,” she said.

Clearly, though, as is clear if you peruse the diversity sections of the Legal Cheek Most List, the legal profession still has a long way to go until there is full equality in its senior ranks.

Watch the discussion in full below:

Join the conversation