This article was first published in Private Client Adviser on 21 October 2013 and is reproduced by kind permission (www.privateclientadviser.co.uk).
Dear law students,
Please banish Ally McBeal from your mind. The closest you will get to that LA Legal dream is the look that you might get when you tell someone that you are training to be a solicitor, very occasionally accompanied by the approving “ooh.” If you are going into law with such aspirations, then please be aware, you can dine out on that momentary admiration born of someone else’s illusions; but do not be under the impression you will actually be able to dine out.
Do not mistake my warning; I am so very grateful that I got here. I have wanted to be a solicitor since I was fourteen, and that has not changed in ten years. However, the cost of getting here (and I’m talking about the finances and not the popular misconception that solicitors must sign away their souls), detracts somewhat from the glamorous legal lifestyle that some students undoubtedly anticipate. Under the new system of £9,000 university tuition fees each year, this reality only becomes starker. Also, if you don’t have the sponsorship and security of a training contract when you embark upon your LPC, you can add another £9,000 minimum (excluding any costs of living) to your estimated £45,000 university debt.
I feel that potential law students are being made aware of the risks they are taking at the wrong end of this process, that is, once they are drowning in debt and unable to secure a training contract. The result is a multitude of fiercely intelligent, perfectly proficient, but totally disillusioned young professionals. I remember being told at school that getting a law degree was a competitive business, but I was always under the impression that that was because you were fighting to secure a solid future. Now I, like many of my peers, am not sure that law is any longer the secure ‘profession’ that we were led to believe.
The risk that ‘Tesco law’ poses to firms has been widely debated. For those firms that are outside the magic circle, how realisable is the pipe dream of standardising processes in order to facilitate legal services being offered at more affordable rates? Even as a trainee I have witnessed the difficulties associated with fixed-fee arrangements. Inevitably clients and their cases do not always permit the expenditure of an exact amount of time on a matter. In order to be viable, fixed-fee work needs to be provided on a large enough scale to ensure a sufficient number of cases can be concluded in less time than allocated, thereby creating a buffer for those that run over.
The muscle behind ABS’ and large law firms provide this buffer and so allow for the margin of loss. But at what cost is this achieved? There is a risk of sacrifice associated with keeping up with the big players. The importance of the client relationship versus the value for money is the crux of this issue. Knowing your client in every aspect and not just with regard to the issue they bring to you, is imperative to establishing trust and a longstanding symbiotic relationship. My security comes from knowing that as long as solicitors recognise this and act accordingly, there will be clients who choose the quality relationship over a ‘bargain’.
Perhaps the argument to be made (as was utilised against the death of the high street practice) is that this ‘incentive’ will make trainees seek to be indispensable, driving us forward. However, we didn’t get here by standing still, in fact I think most of my peers would say we battled our way in and are hardly lacking the impetus to keep pushing. Like anyone beginning their working life, I want to feel that my fees and hard work have secured my professional future. I have friends who are trainees who have less than a 50% chance of securing an NQ position on qualifying. There are literally hundreds of graduates out there who I’m sure are much more capable than I am, and the fact that I was offered a training contract to sponsor my LPC, combined with my firm’s retention rates being historically very high, makes me feel exceedingly humble and exceptionally lucky.