How will the future for lawyers look like?

We hear it all the time. It’s all going to be different from now on. We’re near the tipping point – technology, client demand and liberalisation of the market are transforming law. ABSs and LPOs provide competition, giving clients more choice and heaping the pressure on law firms; we are unbundling, process-mapping and right-sourcing, and are thus enabled / compelled to offer alternative pricing and resourcing models. Traditional law firm pyramids are gradually giving way to more corporate structures and approaches.

So, if clients want more for less and partners want to keep their PEP up, something has to give, and investment decisions are inevitably scrutinised. One such investment is training contracts. Training contract providers (mostly law firms) are the gatekeepers to the profession, collectively defining the number of qualifying solicitors each year. Fewer training contracts will mean fewer newly qualified solicitors. So, if the landscape and opportunities are changing, are our law schools preparing students for what lies ahead and our regulators preparing the ground accordingly? reports that there were 3,690 applications for the GDL and 6,895 for the LPC in 2014, alongside the 16,120 law graduates stated in the Law Society’s 2014 statistical report. Many of these 25,000 plus will be competing for around 5,000 trainee places (although not strictly of the same cohort).

Experience suggests that these graduates, who have invested considerable sums in their legal education, have emerged with the same expectations of a legal career as their predecessors – they are destined to find training contracts, qualify and take their place in the tournament for partnership. Except now it looks like the vast majority of them are wrong.

Parental and personal expectations, accumulated debt and years of education point to one solution. Market realities point to another. This is a crushing dilemma, leading to a glut of smart, well-educated, training-contract-ready post-grads competing for jobs, with the numbers of competitors mounting year on year. These trainees-in-waiting take paralegal roles, many of them excellent jobs in their own right, providing challenging and interesting work, but ultimately jobs that they don’t really want; jobs they see as just a stepping stone to something else.

So, inevitably, these great graduates with stepping stone minds find it hard to flourish in these roles because their eye is on the training contract they deserve. And they compare their lot not to people in other paralegal roles, but to those lucky few who bagged the training contracts, and to the lawyers around them. And who can blame them?

So, does the SRA’s proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination offer them hope?

Its aim is to “ensure that all aspiring solicitors, no matter what institution they attended or pathway they took, are assessed against the same high standard of competence” (SRA Consultation paper ‘Training for Tomorrow; assessing competence). It certainly seems right that there should be no back doors; that all entrants to the profession should attain the same high standard, if that can be defined and assessed, but implementation of the SQE will have another implication for stepping-stone graduates: it will take the role of gatekeeper from the training contract providers and give it to the SRA.

Our stepping-stone graduates will flock to the SQE, armed with their excellent trainee-equivalent workplace experience, as surely we all would. They will qualify, buoyed by their long-established expectations of salary, progression and status that accompany the role of solicitor.

But what will they do? Our glut of smart, well-educated, training-contract-ready post-grads competing for jobs becomes at once a glut of smart, qualified solicitors competing for jobs. If our suppositions about the future of the profession made at the outset of this post are along the right lines, those jobs won’t be there. At a recent SQE consultation evening, it was suggested by the presenter that this greater supply would stimulate increased market demand, thus providing access to justice to those who currently cannot afford it; a suggestion that was met with some derision by attendees. The SQE will simply shift the problem of over-supply from this side of the qualification fence to the other, thereby potentially making it worse.

So, what can we do?

Make new, different jobs. Rather than providing new routes into the same old legal career, let’s focus on creating viable, attractive alternative careers within the legal sector. Get past the catch-all term ‘paralegal’ and beyond the snobbery about ‘non-lawyers’, and develop the roles that will be needed by the law firms of the future. These need to be carefully planned, with genuine career progression, growth and value, and remunerated accordingly.

Catch them young. Let’s reach those students who are interested in a legal career before they are inculcated into expecting it to be as it has always been. Tell it like it is right from the start, and encourage exploration of new opportunities and new ways of working.

Think about who best suits these new roles. If we only recruit red brick university 2:1’ers with partnership aspirations, we will struggle to avoid the stepping stone mentality. New roles mean new sets of skills – different and complementary skills; not lesser ones.

If we believe what we hear about the changing future of law, whatever its rate of change in practice, we need to be honest with those to whom it will matter most.

This article was also published on LinkedIn by Austin Milne and is re-published here with the permission of the author. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author alone.