All tomorrow’s parties?

It’s been results day for our finalists in Warwick Law School today. Lots of smiley happy people… and some rather less so. The bustle of term is coming to an end and a bit of a holiday atmosphere is starting to pervade, well amongst the students at least. We laid on celebratory drinks in the reception area, another School was doing much the same on the grass below my office window, and there was live music outside the Students Union. All in all it seems a pretty good place to be – which got me thinking about what all those happy smiley faces might be doing in three, four, five years from now; whether they’d still be doing law, and still be happy smiley faces. (I’m really not a miserable git, honest!)

Yesterday I was fielding questions in an e-mail from Zara – an A level student wondering about her degree and career options. I don’t get a huge number of such e-mails (probably just as well), but I always feel a bit wary of doling out advice and opinions – not least because I think its getting increasingly hard to generalise about legal education and legal careers – and I’m never sure I’ve pitched it right. The big firms and chambers are great at putting out the glossy recruitment brochures (definitely happy smiley faces there) and doing the milk round to cream off the brightest and the best, and a lot of potential students are clearly happy to be seduced by the status and money. I’m not sure they get to see enough of the other side though – the long hours culture, and the pressure in those organisations, nor the changes we’re seeing to high street and legal aid practice, and its potential impact on access to justice. I’m not saying it’s all bad, but I do think, as jobs go, there is quite a lot about legal practice that borders on the dysfunctional – indeed sometimes seems institutionally designed to be dysfunctional (but then that’s probably why I’m an academic…). When I’ve taught undergraduates about the legal profession and legal ethics, I’ve always tried to draw on research that gives the whole picture, to present the problems and challenges involved in pursuing a legal career, as well as acknowledging the plusses. I have no doubt this is sometimes seen by students as an unwelcome intrusion on their perception of reality!

Anyhow, this is what I wrote to Zara. I’d be interested to hear what anyone thinks about my advice:

Dear Zara
Thank you for your e-mail; sorry it has taken a while to respond, but as you will appreciate this is a busy time of year for us.

There isn’t an easy answer to your question. The first thing is, whatever your degree, if you are thinking of entering the legal profession (particularly in a competitive, high status/high income, area of work, like corporate and commercial practice) you need a good class of degree – a minimum 2:i, plus relevant work experience and anything else you can find interesting and distinctive to put on your cv (a gap year herding lamas in Peru or whatever it may be!) that will make you stand out from the dozens of other bright and enthusiastic candidates for legal jobs. Consequently I think it is important to go with the degree subject that will interest and motivate you – simply because most people do better at studying things they like than things they don’t. That said, where you go to study can make a difference, and you would also be foolish to ignore that: Oxbridge, and a few other institutions probably do give you an edge in most situations. It is debatable how far down the “league table” that edge continues, however. Moreover, the legal profession is becoming more aware of equality and diversity issues in its recruitment practices and that is starting to reduce the power of the ‘old boy’ (and girl) network.

As for the Graduate Diploma (GDL) [the conversion course for non-law graduates who wish to qualify as lawyers], it’s swings and roundabouts. Most firms and chambers, so far as we can tell, don’t in any way discriminate against the GDL. Some people say it can give you an edge on the basics – eg you will have finished studying contract only a year before you start training, for most law graduates, that knowledge will be three years old, plus you will have the breadth that studying another discipline gives you. On the other hand you don’t get the same depth and range of legal knowledge from the GDL. It is more intensive and narrower than a law degree, and you may have to work harder under training to close that gap. Obviously be aware also that the GDL adds an extra year to qualifying and so adds significantly to the costs (unless you are lucky enough to get sponsorship). With university fees as well plenty of students today are entering training with debts of £25K-£30K+.

From what you say you are unsure at this stage whether to go for the Bar or the solicitors’ profession, and that’s not something you have to decide yet. What I would say is, don’t even consider a career in the law unless you are really motivated to do it. It is a demanding career, though one that many do find fulfilling. At the top end, as everyone knows, the financial rewards are substantial, but you will be expected to earn every penny. On the other hand the future for traditional ‘high street’ areas of work (crime, family, etc) is rather more uncertain and the rewards much more variable. There are a lot of regulatory and market changes in the offing, some of which will potentially increase competition faced by traditional legal practices. The Bar in particular is a high risk career path these days, with about three BVC graduands currently chasing each pupillage (training place). I’m not trying to put you off, but I think you should know the risks.
I hope this is helpful. Good luck!

One response to “All tomorrow’s parties?

  1. I think that this advice is excellent. The student in question is at the point where all she can imagine is having the fancy pants, intellectually stimulating degree and then afterwards the glittering, empowering, legal career. What you have done is brought home to her, in a thoughtful and sensitive way, the more reasonable picture. My salutations to you, sir.

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