Brexit crept up on 48% of the population, much like how Donald Trump secured the presidency. “It’ll never happen,” said the remainers. And then Britain voted to leave the EU, and President Trump took his seat in the White House a few months later.
It’s been some time since the surprise result, but there’s still uncertainty about where it’s going to leave us. So, with Theresa May’s deadline to invoke Article 50 set as the end of March, we asked: how is Brexit going to affect law students and trainee lawyers? Where will the opportunities be, and which sectors should law students look to move into?
Richard Tromans, founder of Tromans Consulting, has spent the past 17 years examining law firm strategy. He says that students should keep an eye on developments in commercial property. “This sector is always very sensitive to economic pressures, and activity has certainly dropped after Brexit. It can recover as quickly as it slows, and so by the time ‘leave means leave’ it’s possible that it’ll be booming again. But, at present, a niche West End property firm might not be so good a bet as a large, international and multi-disciplinary practice.”
Jane Drew is a specialist graduate recruiter who set up Jane Drew Consulting in December 2015 after nearly 19 years working as head of graduate recruitment and trainee development at Nabarro LLP. She echoes Tromans: “Post-Brexit, there will be a number of challenges facing the legal sector. In the short to medium-term, there will be a slowdown in the corporate and banking sectors, as well as real estate. There could also be a general decline in transactional work.” But Drew also sees opportunities, saying: “Brexit will likely mean an increase in advisory work so, for example, seats like financial regulation, compliance, tax and employment could be much busier.”
Caroline Kean, a partner specialising in media litigation with Wiggin LLP, is even more optimistic. “If it is correct that the government will focus investment on our strengths, on doing the things we’re good at even better, then this is likely to be to the benefit of the creative and tech industries. Time and again, inbound investment comes to these areas, because Britain is a world leader in them. So firms like ours specialising in media, IP and tech aren’t anticipating a drop in work – quite the contrary. What with new models of publishing, apps and gaming companies springing up all the time, these are sectors that could be even busier.”
Nigel Tait, managing partner of libel specialists Carter-Ruck, is a little more cautionary, though he too believes that the future is not as bleak as many students – a largely pro-remain constituency – may have first assumed. “The financial impact of Brexit will undoubtedly affect the world of media,” says Tait, “but changes in media law are likely to be modest. For us, a predominantly claimant law firm, a major turning point could be the repeal of the Human Rights Act and the resultant effect on defamation and privacy. Data protection, a symbiotic area of practice, is likely to remain unaffected as the UK will be eager to preserve the benefits of the harmonisation of data protection and the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation regime. In other areas of our practice, such as intellectual property, we are likely to see opportunity, with the UK gaining flexibility in interpretation of existing regimes and the shaping of remedies and exceptions.”
Uncertainty, indeed, is the name of the game. The truth is that no one knows what Britain will look like, post-Brexit. Peter Morris, managing partner of independent UK law firm Burges Salmon LLP, says: “We do not yet know what Brexit will look like. Until we know the outcome of the negotiation with our European partners and our trading partners around the world, we will not know how this will impact both positively and negatively on the legal sector.” Morris continues: “Secondly, most commercial law firms do well when the UK (and global) economy is doing well, so it is the economy which is the biggest determinant of activity levels and the work we do in our sector. Against this background, Brexit hasn’t impacted on this aspect of our strategy, which is to recruit and retain excellent lawyers (or lawyers-to-be), not least because recruitment – particularly of trainee lawyers – is a long-term play as most are recruited several years before they join us. Nearly 40% of our partners are trained at the firm and we want to continue recruiting high-calibre people who have the potential for a long career at Burges Salmon. For us, this means continuing to recruit the best trainees so that we are ready and able to deal with the issues that Brexit will present, whatever they may be.”
Business as usual? Definitely, according to James Furber, senior property partner at Farrer & Co. “You can sense nervousness in the market, and there are stories of firms laying off property lawyers, but we’re not one of them. There are still plenty of deals, albeit that they’re trading at a discount, and so far as we’re concerned it’s far too early to panic. I don’t see a reason for our firm not to continue as it has always done, offering trainee contracts and having an excellent record of keeping people on.”
Also sanguine is Tony Williams, head of Jomati Consultants and formerly worldwide managing partner of Anderson Legal. “Short-term, there is confusion because no one knows what’s going to happen, but law students looking longer-term can look forward to busy lives as lawyers. If Brexit means Brexit, there will be analysis and rewriting of huge swathes of legislation, especially in employment, health and safety and the environment sectors. This is good news for younger lawyers, free of the baggage of the past. Then there will be a lot of work on renegotiating trade treaties and managing the competition landscape. The bottom line is that we can expect a lot of change – and change is good for lawyers.”
Associate Professor Trevor Tayleur, ULaw’s resident Brexpert, agrees with Williams’ thoughts on short-term uncertainty, especially in relation to practising with EU countries: “A legal qualification in one of the UK’s three jurisdictions provides a gateway to providing legal services or working as a lawyer in other EU member states, so the loss of these rights could be a severe blow to the legal profession. But the government is optimistic that it should be possible to sort out a mutual recognition deal for lawyers.”
A version of this article, written by Alex Wade, appeared in our Verdict magazine.