120 law students were given an hour to ask a panel of top lawyers anything they liked. FLN summarises the most interesting things they learned
When asked by discussion chair Alex Aldridge whether future fusion of the Bar and the solicitors' profession was likely, Desmond Browne QC gave a response that saw the ears of audience of 120 law students prick up:
"The real question of fusion comes with legal education," said Browne, one of Britain's best known media law silks and a former chairman of the Bar Council. "What has been suggested by Sir Bill Jeffrey in his report for the Ministry of Justice is that those who wish to become barristers should do so after three years of practice [as solicitors]. This is fairly revolutionary, effectively fusing the profession at the legal education stage and is something that could still be on the horizon."
Such a change, were it to happen, would be some way off. But the willingness of a senior figure like Browne to discuss the possibility of overhauling the current training model shows that nothing is set in stone.
Despite the separation of the British legal profession into two distinct branches, there is a fair degree of traffic between the Bar and the solicitors' profession as practitioners swap between them according to their skills and ambitions.
Another panellist, tax lawyer Andrew Roycroft of international firm Norton Rose Fulbright, told the audience how several solicitors at his firm (including himself) had gone from the Bar to the solicitors' profession.
"I’m pleased that I began my career at the Bar," he wrote in an article on Legal Cheek that ran before the event. "Despite my time there being relatively brief. As with many aspects of life, if you experience things from a different perspective it equips you well for where you end up."
Similarly, there have been many moves between law firms and chambers, with, for example, leading tax silk Malcolm Gammie QC beginning his career with magic circle firm Linklaters. At the junior end of the profession, Roycroft's fellow panellist Jasmine Murphy, a barrister at Hardwicke, noted that her chambers had seen an increase in applications from people who had opted to qualify first as solicitors.
3. The legal world is committed to improving gender diversity
As the discussion turned to diversity, panel and audience members alike expressed their horror at the recent news that Facebook and Apply are offering to freeze female employees' eggs as part of their benefit packages.
"The risks to women with these policies would be horrendous. It's a benefit to employers, not women," said Fran Edwards, president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx).
Louise Lamb, a partner in Hogan Lovells' financial services litigation team, emphasised how City law firms have a different approach to gender issues than their technology company counterparts when she explained:
"There are four male partners and four female partners in my team in London, and associate numbers are about 50/50. Several are on maternity leave and I expect that they will take a year off work. We have to get away from this sense that you are on a defined career track that is set in stone the minute you join a law firm."
She added: "If you want to be a successful partner at a City firm and a woman, that's 100% an option. You have to juggle, you have to work hard, but you can do it. Don't be held back."
Lamb's words were echoed by Sally Davies, a partner in Mayer Brown's construction litigation team. "It's all about your individual choices. You can achieve what you want to achieve," she said.
The three City lawyers on the panel emphasised how their firms often recruit candidates who have entered the law from previous careers, such as banking, engineering, science and even music. The attitude to recruitment was summed up by Hogan Lovells' Lamb:
"What we are looking for are excellent candidates. Where they come from and what their route is doesn't matter, as long as they are academically very bright and are interested in working in a business environment."
Students who have completed their Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and are still searching for training contracts and pupillages were urged to look on that time as an opportunity to gain skills to help differentiate themselves.
"Be creative," urged Mayer Brown's Davies, suggesting that law graduates look beyond conventional paralegal roles to jobs in, for example, the claims departments of the big insurers that the litigation teams of City firms regularly work with. "Gaining understanding of the client in this way would really impress us," she said.
Browne QC had similar advice, telling the audience of members of his chambers, 5RB, who had worked in regulatory body Ofcom, newspaper legal departments and done media law masters courses before beginning pupillage.
As the Guardian reported last week, the difficult outlook for legal aid is leading to a surge in litigants in person. One way that the government is hoping to mitigate this problem is by enlisting law students to assist people who are going through the court system without legal representation.
Corporate law firms, too, are looking to help out by mobilising their already considerable pro bono teams to provide assistance at the points where the legal system is most vulnerable. Event chair Aldridge predicted that over the coming years UK firms may step up their efforts even further to include pro bono in their billable hours targets, as is common in the US where government funding for social welfare is lower than on these shores. "Alongside helping to fill the legal aid gap, the formalisation of pro bono into big firms' structures of working would allow junior corporate lawyers to gain some valuable experience," he said.
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