Where do lawyers come from…?

From a number of directions, there is a lot of son et lumière at the moment about the relationships between legal education and law firms and law firms and their in-house clients. As someone who has sat on two of the three sides of these fences, I naturally have a view.

Before I started working in a law firm eight years ago, I spent nearly 13 years teaching law — for the greater part of that time at the University of Bristol. During that period there was considerable debate (fostered for the most part by the late Peter Birks) about the proper relationship between the legal academy and the profession (I speak of a singular profession, although there are actually two in England and Wales — solicitors and barristers). Birks was adamant that the legal profession should prefer law graduates to non-law graduates, but that the profession should leave the question of defining a suitable law degree to the universities. I thought he was wrong about the former question, but right about the latter. My view has not changed in the years I have spent since then observing lawyers at work.

As a law teacher, I saw many students who had clearly signed up for a law degree solely for the purpose of smoothing their progress towards a lucrative career in a commercial law firm. Some of them really resented the subjects that they were required to complete in order to get a qualifying degree, but which they saw as irrelevant to legal practice. Since I taught two of those subjects (Public Law and Jurisprudence), this resentment was plainer to me than it might have been to some of my colleagues. (Since then, many of my former students have said that in retrospect they value the wider perspective on the law that those courses gave them.)

At the same time, I knew many young lawyers who had studied law, but who spent much of their time wishing they had been able to read further into subjects that interested them more, whether that be History, Physics, or Underwater Basket Weaving. That made me wonder whether the right approach would be to turn Law into a postgraduate degree. (In the Anglo-Scottish tradition, Law is an undergraduate degree, with a postgraduate professional component for those intending to go into practice.) I do not now think that would be right — such an approach would effectively exclude from legal studies those with a genuine interest in law as a human and social science, but who had no intention of becoming joining the profession.

The natural conclusion of these views is that the legal profession should be open to those with law and non-law undergraduate degrees. That is the position in England and Wales today, as it has been since the profession became closed to non-graduates. Certainly, non-law graduates should be required to take a postgraduate course in law, but I do not think they should be excluded altogether. My observations of lawyers in practice has not changed this conclusion — without knowing someone’s academic history, I have found it impossible to tell whether or not they have a law degree. That does not prevent those with law degrees being convinced that they have a right to priority entry into the legal profession, as some of the comments on this report in The Lawyer illustrate.

One of the reasons why a law degree is not an essential prerequisite to a legal career in the England and Wales is that the vocational training of lawyers takes place entirely after the degree is obtained. I have been intrigued by the discussion of the value of a JD in business and the subsequent discussion between Ron Friedmann and Doug Cornelius, captured on Ron’s blog. Historically, only 70% or less of English law graduates enter the legal profession (I wish I had a citation for this, but I haven’t been able to track one down — it was certainly my recollection of Bristol graduates). In some other European countries, where Law is also an undergraduate degree, the proportion is even lower. In Italy, for example, there is a long-standing tradition (exemplified by Gianni Agnelli — nicknamed “l’Avvocato”) of law graduates going directly into commerce and business. Ron and Doug’s discussion makes it clear that European assumptions about the merits of legal study are not shared by our North American counterparts.

And what of that vocational training? Toby Brown has argued powerfully that BigLaw contributes significantly to the development of lawyers who can then turn their back on those firms and strike out on their own. This argument is even stronger in England and Wales. Once our fledgling lawyers leave the classroom and the lecture hall, they still need two more years (in the case of solicitors) before they can call themselves qualified. That two years on a training contract is typically spent in medium-sized to large law firms. (A search on LawCareers.Net suggests 180 firms in that category, which will typically have 5-100 places on offer each year. In addition, another 750 small firms are listed, but most of these will have less than two places on offer.) The solicitors’ profession therefore depends heavily on large commercial firms to train their new blood.

Which brings me to clients. My guess is that all clients of all law firms everywhere are pressing for lower fees (or at least reduced legal costs). If those fees are considered to be solely reimbursement for services rendered, law firms run the risk of short-changing themselves: of failing to be recognised for the wider benefit that they offer to the legal profession — especially its future. Many in-house legal teams in commerce, industry and the public sector add to the pool of qualified lawyers by offering training contracts. However, their contribution is small compared to the training work that law firms do, and to the numbers of qualified lawyers employed in those teams. My guess is that there is a net flow of qualified lawyers from private practice into in-house teams. The problem for those businesses is that their short-term cash-flow concerns might cause a shortfall in the pool of available talent in the longer term by making it more difficult for the firms to offer as many training contracts as the market will need in the future.

At the beginning of the year, I read a powerfully-argued polemic comparing major law firms to a dysfunctional coffee-shop.

Then I notice a coffeehouse that I had never seen before. It’s surprising because it’s bigger than normal and has a very staid, conservative name. More like a string of names, actually, followed by a “P.C.” I take this to mean “professional coffeehouse,” or something.

The first thing I notice inside is that the décor is heavy on the mahogany and expensive modern art. A sign on the wall talks about how they have stores in 30 states and eight countries, and that they just opened a location in Shanghai. The sign suggests that they’re very excited about this.

I go to the counter and I’m greeted by a tired-looking twentysomething. Her nametag says she’s a “Coffee Associate.”

When I’m all but delirious from my lack of caffeine, my barista finally tells me that my latte is ready. It seems well made, and it tastes fine, although I would have preferred to have it more quickly. The young woman thanks me and wishes me a good day.

“But I haven’t paid you yet.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” she says. “We’ll send you an invoice.”

Nearly two months later, I receive an envelope with the name of the coffee company on it. By now, I’ve already forgotten what I had gotten. I open the envelope and nearly faint.

And so on.

In fact, I don’t think major law firms are coffee shops. They are more like the motor dealer servicing departments. When one buys one’s luxury car new or nearly new, the need to maintain its resale value as far as possible means that one tends to go to the most expensive (but hopefully most up-to-date) place for regular servicing and repairs — the franchised dealer or service outlet. As the car gets older, and knowledge of the technology in it is more pervasive, it makes more sense to save money by finding a local mechanic who can work on it. But the local mechanic can only do that if he can tap into the expertise coming out of the main dealership. He and, by extension, you the customer depend on that expertise. You have paid for it in the past by using the main dealer, and now you can reap the reward by using a cheaper alternative. This analogy is still not perfect, but it is not as pernicious as the coffee shop one. Making coffee is not as complex as maintaining a modern car, which is nowhere near as tricky as training a lawyer.

4 thoughts on “Where do lawyers come from…?”

  1. Mark –

    Thanks for highlighting some of the differences in training lawyers in the UK as opposed to the US. It seems to me that law schools in the US teach you about the law, but do not teach you how to be a lawyer.

    What sort of pay does the graduate receive during their vocational training? I would argue that the vocational training for US lawyers in bag law firms happens during their first two years earning $160,000 (I think that is about 100,000 UK pounds).

    1. Our trainee solicitors are much less well remunerated than that Doug! There is a table at http://www.thelawyer.com/l2b/useful-resources/salary-index.html which shows the salaries paid to trainees in the top 100 or so firms. Those range between £22K or so and £40K or more. (There is of course a significant difference between London and the rest of the country.) Once they qualify, the table suggests that they can look forward to an uplift of about 50%. After that first year of qualification, market forces and individual performance start to have more of an impact so the analysis has to stop there!

  2. In New Zealand, where I did my undergraduate BA/LLB(Hons), about three quarters of law students do a double degree, usually arts or commerce. It takes an extra year (the law degree on its own is a four-year degree; the double degree extends that to five), but it gives you the opportunity to pursue interests beyond the law. Doing a double degree was enriching, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m surprised it’s not more common in the UK.

    1. I think you are right about joint degrees, Nicola. Unfortunately, many people have a jaundiced view of them. My experience of running the Chemistry and Law degree at Bristol was that we had really intelligent students, motivated to do well in both subjects, who have gone on to great things — not just in the law.

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