There are ways to make it to the top in law without a glittering academic record — or indeed hardly any academic record at all
Days after Ian Ashley-Smith had become the first chartered legal executive to be made a judge without having qualified as a solicitor, a rather sniffy letter appeared in the Law Society Gazette. “I read with dismay that a legal executive has been appointed as a deputy district judge,” the letter began, before continuing:
“I have been in practice as a solicitor for 41 years, following my father before me, in a firm that has served the community for more than 60 years. Solicitors have shared their profession with the bar for more than 150 years. Entry to both branches has always been stringent, calling for the highest standards in terms of academic and professional training… this unwelcome attempt to ‘dumb down’ the judiciary will only serve to diminish respect for the courts and the judicial process in general.”
Deputy district judge Ashley-Smith sighs at the memory of the 2010 missive — which was penned by David Kirwan, the senior partner of Merseyside law firm Kirwans Solicitors.
“Since my appointment, it’s the only negative comment I’ve faced,” he says.
Still, the sentiment expressed by Kirwan runs deep within the legal profession, and Ashley-Smith recognises that the next generation of chartered legal executives who are emerging through the increasingly popular legal apprenticeship route will have to fight it at some stage in their careers.
Even though there are now few meaningful differences between job titles — the latest move to place chartered legal executives on a par with solicitors will shortly see those with eight years post-qualification experience allowed to claim top level pay rates for court work — some of these young apprentices will probably go on to qualify as solicitors.
The additional hurdle requires chartered legal executives to undertake the time-consuming and expensive Legal Practice Course (LPC). This route has been the norm among ambitious non-graduates for some time, with June Venters QC probably the most famous chartered legal executive to have entered the solicitors’ profession this way — taking silk as a solicitor-advocate in 2006. However, the government’s approval of new standards that will allow apprentices to qualify as solicitors could see the LPC requirement dropped from 2017.
In any case, Ashley-Smith “never saw the point” of jumping through such hoops. Instead, he concentrated on proving himself simply by doing good work. He explains:
“If you are good at your job, you are good at your job. And the proof of the pudding is fee income. Of course, getting into a decent firm is important, because they recognise your potential. But if you are in the right place, doors will open. If they don’t, you should move on.”
Moving on has played a big part in Ashley-Smith’s career, with two stints working as an in-house lawyer — one in a civil engineering company and another in a computer software business — giving him an insight into the commercial world that many civil litigators never gain. When he put his application in to be a judge to the Judicial Appointments Committee, these experiences must have stood out.
“This broad experience of considering the law from different perspectives has made me a better lawyer,” says Ashley-Smith, who combines his judicial duties with a role as a senior fee-earner at East Sussex law firm Heringtons.
Not that it has been an easy journey. Ashley-Smith entered the legal profession as an 18 year-old when his brother got him a job as an outside clerk in a solicitors’ firm in Bromley. His main duty was to traipse around the High Court delivering correspondence between lawyers. “It was poorly paid, lowly work that is now done by email,” he says. Slowly, though, Ashley-Smith worked his way up, qualifying over six years as a chartered legal executive. This tough path has made him the lawyer he is, but even now Ashley-Smith looks back and wishes he had made it easier for himself.
“If I knew then what I know now I would have concentrated harder on my studies and probably gone to university. The trouble is that these days that involves taking on a lot of debt,” he reflects.
So what is Ashley-Smith’s advice to the next generation of lawyers as they assess a range of routes into the law — some much more expensive than others?
“A lot of it comes down to the area of law you chose, not the path into the profession you take,” he says. “In legal aid-funded areas, we’re seeing the rise of the litigant-in-person and a lot of work that was being done by lawyers no longer being done by lawyers. Employment law, on the other hand, is a growth area. When I started there was no such thing as discrimination in the work place, for example. Now it is a big area.”
At the same time, Ashley-Smith warns of a “shrinking group of lawyers doing high cost work” and a “growing pool doing low cost work”. Traditionally, gaining membership of the former group was all about ticking the boxes favoured by the David Kirwans of this world. But things are changing — not least because a huge growth in solicitor numbers over the last 20 years means there is not enough big-paying work to go around. As technology and outsourcing enable more complex legal tasks to be done for much lower prices, this trend is likely to accelerate.
In this environment, those with raw talent and a hunger to prove themselves, perhaps in an unconventional way that marks them out from the crowd, will probably find it easier to reach the top than before. By contrast, those who rely on professional titles could struggle. Expect the path that Ashley-Smith has carved out for himself to become much more widely-trodden over the years ahead.
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