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How to take advantage of a recovering legal market

14 April 2014 

Recovery large

 FLN identifies emerging trends which are creating opportunities for future lawyers

Recent research from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has shown signs of recovery in the UK legal market, with 60% of the law firms surveyed expecting to increase their revenues over the year ahead and half predicting an upturn in chargeable hours. This is good news for future lawyers, who are likely to find demand for their services rising in the years ahead. Indeed, if previous recoveries are anything to go by, there could well be a shortage of law graduates to fill trainee and junior associate positions as transaction volumes return to pre-crisis norms. But students beginning their careers would also do well to consider how the legal market has changed since the Great Recession. This change will, to a significant extent, define how it grows in the years ahead.

The push for diversity

The relative quietness of the last few years has given law firms an opportunity to reflect on their values. One of the things that has emerged from this period of introspection is a determination to cast off their (not always deserved) reputations as bastions of elitism. What has followed has been a raft of initiatives designed to broaden the profile of future solicitors, led by the 'CV Blind' scheme that is being pioneered by Clifford Chance, and has since been adopted by Macfarlanes and will shortly be rolled out by Mayer Brown. Underlining his firm's commitment to action, Mayer Brown Partner Dominic Griffiths said: ‘I think that we run a big risk of ending up with just middle class white males from Oxbridge – there's nothing wrong with Oxbridge whatsoever, by the way – but I think it's really incumbent on us to make sure we throw out the net much further and really appreciate people's innate talents.’

Other notable diversity projects designed to recruit from a broader pool of universities and social backgrounds include the video interviews introduced by DWF - which have enabled the firm to increase the number of applicants it interviews for training contracts from 220 to 400 -and the Aspiring Solicitors diversity network launched by former Norton Rose Fulbright associate Chris White.

While driven to a large extent by law firms' newfound commitment to better reflect society – a proposition that has sound business as well as ethical foundations – the push for diversity is also related to the 2012 trebling in undergraduate fees. In such an environment, if the legal profession isn't pro-active in opening up to students from non-traditional backgrounds, law firm leaders have calculated that it could come to resemble something rather detached from society. Accordingly, never has there been a better time to enter the higher echelons of law via institutions outside the traditional Russell Group and Oxbridge bracket.

New routes into the profession

Legal apprenticeships have been the big legal education news story of the year, as top firms including Kennedys, Eversheds and DAC Beachcroft have embraced the new school-leaver route into the law. Expect more to follow as, again partly motivated by diversity, they provide more options to potential recruits who may wish to bypass university. The University of Law has welcomed a role in developing the legal apprenticeships as part of the Government’s Trailblazer apprenticeship scheme.

It is also worth looking out for a new graduate path to qualification that has been launched by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), the organisation which accredits legal apprentices. The CILEx graduate fast-track diploma allows anyone with a law degree or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) to qualify as a chartered legal executive lawyer by completing three years of on-the-job study while they work as paralegal. However, if they want to subsequently qualify as a solicitor they must complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at a later stage.

Northern recovery

Recent years have seen a host of City law firms open up support offices outside London. For example, last year Ashurst launched a new legal and business support services office in Glasgow, with Allen & Overy opening up in Belfast in 2011. Meanwhile, Hogan Lovells is set to open a low-cost legal centre in Birmingham later this year. While these offices focus on lower value ’volume‘ work, they all employ solicitors and, as the economy grows, could provide a good launch-pad for future lawyers who don't manage to bag plum London jobs. When asked if ambitious lawyers in the firm's Glasgow office will enjoy the same opportunities as their City-based equivalents, Ashurst Partner David Carter told FLN: ’Yes. If they are good enough, they are good enough.’

Pinsent Masons, a firm with a much longer track record of regional offices, provides an example of how firms with these low cost legal offices could, over time, develop. As Pinsents Graduate Recruitment Chief Edward Walker explains, all offices have equal status. ‘The firm recruits the same way for trainees in every office. It shouldn't be difficult to move within the firm, with examples of lawyers who have begun training in Leeds, gone on to work in Birmingham, before qualifying into the same team in London, and others who have done it the other way around.’ Walker detects a growing ‘buzz’ in the north at the moment, with the lot of a junior lawyer in cities like Leeds – where Walker is based – made especially desirable by the much lower cost of living and better-value house prices.

The future

The University of Law's outgoing President, Nigel Savage, echoes Walker's words, advising future lawyers ‘not to be obsessed about working for a global firm’.

Speaking at Legal Cheek's 'If I knew then what I know now' event at Inner Temple, Savage suggested that the innovation being driven by the de-regulatory provisions of the Legal Services Act (LSA) is creating ‘some fantastic new legal businesses, particularly in the north, run by young people who actually understand how to run a business – not for maintaining profit per partner next year, but to build sustainable businesses.’

Beyond that, Savage suggested that developments in energy policy could have a profound effect on law over the years ahead.‘The solicitors' profession grew out of the boom in the railway industry in Victorian times: real estate, land disputes...they acted for the landed gentry when they were putting railway lines down. Now you see the beginnings of this process in US litigation relating to energy,’ he said. ‘Fracking is going to cover all sorts of disputes in terms of land ownership, rights and settlement problems. It'll be a boom time...I am being quite serious, it will be a goldmine for lawyers.’

However the recovery develops, the years ahead could prove an exciting time for future lawyers.


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