Careers

‘There are not as many jobs for traditional lawyers as there used to be’

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Chartered Institute of Legal Executive president Fran Edwards expects more students to follow her on-the-job route into the profession over the coming years

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I left school at the age of 16 with six O-levels. Most of my friends went to university but I had absolutely no interest in going. I didn’t have a burning ambition to go into a profession, or be a marine biologist, as one of my friends did. I’d had enough of school and exams and no end goal but I knew I wanted to work, earn a wage, buy nice clothes and go out and enjoy myself, which is what I did.

My first job was in a solicitors office working as a secretary where my employer did a range of work including debt, conveyancing, matrimonial and crime. There are not many lawyers today in private practice who cover this spread of work as most will specialise in one area of law. I just remember enjoying the variety of work and helping clients.

My boss told me about a course that was available for me to qualify as a Chartered Legal Executive lawyer. At that time studying and taking exams were not on my agenda. I had just left school and there was no way I was going back to college.

Eventually, I settled down, got married and had children. I returned to work again in a solicitors office, this time in the family department. Working in family law means that you need to be able to speak to clients who are often anxious and distressed and I wanted to be able to help and advise them. So I decided to study with Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) Law School to become a chartered legal executive. I was 33, bringing up two young children and working meaning I didn’t have time to go to college, so I studied by distance learning.

This was ideal for me; I could study at my own pace and take exams when I was ready whilst putting into practice what I had learned. I was lucky that my employers paid for my courses too (although I had to buy my own law books) but, I finished my studies without any debt.

I didn’t get to do the fun things associated with being a student. My student life was spent studying at the kitchen table in the evenings and at weekends after my children had gone to bed. I suppose I was a “mature” student in every sense of the word.

I was 39 when I took my last exam. It took me six years but that suited me too. CILEx gave me the opportunity to kick-start my brain cells. I have no doubt that without CILEx, I wouldn’t have studied law and achieved all that I have to date.

I have been in the same firm now, Caswell Jones Solicitors, since 1995 and I am an associate. I have my own caseload dealing with a range of family proceedings for separating clients, including divorce, financial disputes and disputes about children. Family proceedings in court are mainly dealt with in chambers, so I can attend court as needed. I don’t believe I have been treated any differently than any other fee-earner in my firm, or by other lawyers or judges in my area. I think the reason for this is that chartered legal executives are regulated specialists and have a great reputation for professionalism and work ethic.

I don’t know that I personally would have done anything differently. My advice to the law students of today would be to take opportunities as they arise as you don’t know where they will lead. Times are changing and we are living in an age of austerity. There are not as many jobs for ‘traditional’ lawyers as there used to be which is why CILEx’s Paralegal Enquiry is taking place — looking into how the sector is made up and how sustainable it is going forwards, focusing on the role of the paralegal.

Legal aid cuts are also taking their toll and with fewer clients being able to get legal aid or afford representation, fewer lawyers are needed so competition is fierce.

I think students of today need to be open-minded, prepared to be flexible and be diverse in their outlook. Lawyers in my firm have diversified, by re-training in another area of law or training as a mediator, thereby obtaining different skills making them more employable.

When looking for work, it is important to be aware of the market and research work options whether in private practice, local government or legal departments. Think about joining student groups or committees, or volunteering for pro bono work — you’re certain to meet other people in the legal profession, work with qualified lawyers, learn new skills and obtain a wealth of experience.

Consider the cost of studying too, as many law students are left with huge amounts of debt. That’s obviously a big draw of route that I have taken. With the approval of independent practice rights in the not too distant future, CILEx members will soon be able to set up their own firms and practise independently, placing them effectively on a par with solicitors. So school-leavers and students could reach their goal to become a lawyer, partner, advocate, judge or coroner without debt and with a job.

*Fran Edwards is the president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx). She will be among the speakers at Legal Cheek‘s latest careers advice event at Gray’s Inn on the evening of Tuesday 21 October. To reserve a place before the general release of tickets later this week email events@legalcheek.com, giving your name and quoting quoting ‘Legal Cheek at Gray’s Inn’ in the subject line.*

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