It is no bed of roses being a junior lawyer amid the biggest economic downturn since the second world war. Just as it is not easy being ‘junior’, that is to say, young, or in the early stages of trying to forge a career, in any walk of life. The advantages enjoyed by aspiring professionals (and everyone else) in the wake of that conflict, including free tertiary education and a secure job, virtually guaranteed, have gone.

Meanwhile, in a profession that has doubled in size within 30 years, the engine of much of that growth, the rapid expansion of the City and corporate law, has stalled. Jobs and training contracts are scarce. The competition is fierce. ‘There are too many lawyers’ is an uncomfortably common refrain.

And soon, the coup de grâce: abolition of the trainee minimum salary. Once you have negotiated the taxing and expensive process of becoming a solicitor, there will no longer be a guarantee of a living wage. Few Gazette topics have generated as much heat in the last year as the trainee minimum. It seemed an apposite topic with which to kick off our second roundtable, which addressed the challenges facing junior lawyers.

Nick Ball, from Howell-Jones, was concerned about the ramifications of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s decision for diversity. ‘I was the first person in my family to go to university, which was expensive. The Legal Practice Course was expensive. Scrapping the minimum salary is going to be a serious disincentive for someone from my sort of background seeking to be a solicitor,’ he said.

There were no dissenting voices. ‘What’s the trainee minimum, £16,750?’ said Nehal Vasani, of criminal defence firm Stringfellow & Co. ‘I struggle to believe that even the smallest law firm cannot afford that. I was a paralegal earning £14,000, but by the time you get to trainee the work you are doing is bringing in far more in fees than £16,750.’

Annalisa Checchi, an in-house lawyer, believes it would be inappropriate were employers to regard trainees as akin to interns and pay them the same minimum wage. ‘The difference is the debt you have had to take on. In accountancy, they work while they train, but it’s different in law. It is a professional qualification that requires a lot of capital to get to the [employment] stage.’ All were exercised by the fact that there are now so many financial – as well as intellectual – hurdles one has to clear to become a solicitor. Claire Freeman, of magic circle firm Clifford Chance, also focused on the broader issue of debt.

‘I wouldn’t have gone into the legal profession if I hadn’t been sponsored by a law firm to do the LPC,’ she said. ‘I had my tuition fees paid for by the government when I went to university. So for me it would have been a huge risk to pay something like £7,500 plus living costs and then not have a living wage at the end of it. I would not have ended up a solicitor. After all I’m a lawyer – I’m risk averse!’

Coalition diversity tsar Nick Clegg would doubtless counter that student loans do not have to be repaid until a graduate reaches an earnings threshold, presently £21,000. But that is ‘university debt’, as Ball pointed out. He and others had to take out personal bank loans at stiff interest rates after graduating with a first degree. As Vasani stressed: ‘Being a lawyer is not like being a teacher for example - no one will help you beyond university.’

Afiya Begum of MTG Solicitors called on the Law Society to monitor whether abolishing the trainee minimum actually persuades more firms to hire more trainees. But Vasani observed: ‘The irony there is that there will be fewer people to take on anyway, with the increase in university fees and the lack of a minimum salary. It might all even itself out. I don’t think there are going to be that many people trying to become solicitors any more. It’s not financially viable, unless you come from a wealthy background.’

Increasingly, aspiring solicitors are being forced to consider other options, such as banking. Even if more people read law, and even enter professional training, fewer will actually become solicitors, it was averred. Checchi sees a related trend: ‘There probably won’t be as many solicitors. But there will be an exponential increase in paralegals, especially with alternative business structures. They don’t want that many solicitors and prefer paralegals to do the "grunt" work. There is a huge risk of creating a two-tier profession.’

Perhaps apprenticeships could be the way forward, it was suggested, moving the discussion on to what junior lawyers would like to see come out of the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR). Ellen Crabtree of Howell-Jones believes the review should not overlook older and more experienced lawyers in the context of continuing professional development. ‘We as junior lawyers are really aware of what’s going on in the profession, how we need to perform and serve clients. That seems to be lost further down the line,’ she argued.

Law Society senior relationship manager Jemma Ralph was concerned by the perception that solicitors become disengaged from ethics as they move through their career. Many senior solicitors that she encounters hold the contrary view; that it is junior lawyers who lack the ethical grounding that more experienced lawyers had and still hold dear. There was no consensus here. Checchi believes that ethics are not covered as well as they should be in the qualifying process and now ‘take a back seat’. But Vasani disagreed: ‘I am sick to death of ethics! I had it through the LPC, through the Graduate Diploma in Law, through the professional skills course. At every step of the way it’s drummed into you, ethics, ethics, ethics.’

There was agreement on the need for more vocational and specialist training earlier in the cycle, as suggested by Tadeh Hovanessian. Begum said: ‘I did my LPC part-time while I was a family law case worker and I actually found the LPC a bit of a hindrance because I could not get back to work. The LPC and training contract need to be brought together somehow.’

Checchi believes the qualification needs to be tailored to the type of lawyer you are, or want to be. ‘As an in-house lawyer, what I need to know is very business-focused, reading company accounts and so on. That’s different from private practice.’ Qualifying as a solicitor from the LPC, meanwhile, a scenario raised by Jemma Ralph, did not find favour. For one thing, said Checchi, it would be impossible to get insurance for such neophytes.

Vasani was blunt: ‘I think the concept of the LPC is useless and the day I walked out of [it] I certainly wouldn’t have been able to be a qualified lawyer. You need to do real work with real clients and learn how to deal with the pressures that arise.’ Crabtree observed that the best thing about being a trainee was actually ‘being thrown in the deep end’ and told to get on with it. ‘I loved that,’ she said. ‘It’s practical learning and that gives you confidence to be a solicitor.’

Returning to the topic of liberalisation, the discussion turned to whether these junior lawyers felt the law is now a profession or a business – or where the balance lies if it is both. Dragons’ Den star James Caan, a private equity investor, recently sparked fierce debate when he attacked lawyers for not prioritising profit. Perhaps it depends on where and how you practise. Vasani said: ‘It’s a vocation and a profession. If I wanted to make money and be rich I’d be a corporate lawyer. Tube drivers earn more than I do. But I am also painfully aware that it’s a business. The firm has to be to survive.’

At the table were:

Ellen Crabtree, Howell-Jones; Claire Freeman, Clifford Chance; Misbah Bhatti, MTG Solicitors; Afiya Begum, MTG Solicitors; Nick Ball , Howell-Jones; Annalisa Checchi, CMGRP UK Ltd; Nehal Vasani, Stringfellow & Co; Tadeh Hovanessian, post-LPC student seeking training contract; Jemma Ralph, senior relationship manager, the Law Society; Paul Rogerson, editor in chief, Gazette

Hovanessian said that the existence of billable hour targets suggests that the profit motive is very much to the fore at the larger practices. ‘What Caan is saying is that if you want to be successful, you have to be like them,’ he argued. All were conscious that the importance of pro bono work is going to increase as legal aid funding cuts take full effect next year. The number of hours undertaken is currently static or falling, as the Gazette reported last week, and some at the table believe it is not actually possible to be an ‘ethical’ lawyer unless you do pro bono.

Checchi believes compulsory pro bono hours should be among the recommendations of the LETR, while Vasani noted: ‘We are doing work that the government should certainly be paying for. In court, on a day-to-day basis, judges will ask me to assist someone when I will not be paid for doing so. And clients expect to get the type of assistance they have had previously but which is not there anymore. It would be unethical to turn away a client who needs assistance but cannot otherwise get it.’ Crabtree also considers pro bono a professional obligation: ‘Should there be a compulsory number of hours, across the board, for everyone? So many people out there do not have the luxury of being able to afford legal advice.’

The law may still be a profession, then, given the broad agreement that existed around this table about a solicitor’s wider obligations to society. But today it is a very uncertain one, with the practising lawyer’s traditional modus operandi facing unprecedented pressure from new ways of working.

Will new market entrants kick over the traces of the well-worn route to equity partnership? Checchi is unequivocal: ‘Outside, perhaps, the top 100 firms, the equity partnership model will die. External funding will replace it and outside that group no one is safe. And with people living longer, the way upwards is hard anyway. Unless you are in a firm where there is a willingness to give up equity, you are forced to wait for someone to retire or die.’

Freeman of Clifford Chance agrees the largest firms are unlikely to be affected immediately. ‘Why would you choose to lose your autonomy when you can source bank lending or [partner equity] if there is a need to inject cash?’ she wondered. Freeman’s attitude to her own career was typical of everyone around the table: when so much is changing in the profession so quickly, long-term ambitions are unrealistic. ‘Who knows?’, she added. ‘I am happy where I am and let’s see what the next five years brings.’

Ball reflected: ‘Historically, if you were half-decent at your job within 10 years or so you could expect to make partner. It doesn’t work like that anymore. There is more pressure on you and there are more career options.’ Those options include working in-house, of course, which Checchi recommended as a means to achieve that greatly sought-after ‘work-life balance’ that can be elusive in private practice.

Most were agreed that ‘presenteeism’ – the need to be seen at your desk at all hours if you want to get on, regardless of whether your presence is actually productive – is still a problem for solicitors who would prefer more flexible working. One solicitor has a colleague who gets up in the middle of the night to send emails, thus demonstrating how limitless is their devotion to duty. This drew wry smiles of recognition from others at the table.

‘In-house is a different world,’ said Checchi. ‘It’s much more flexible. It is crazy that in the 21st century you should need to be present 18 hours a day or however long to show that you are committed to your job.’ Ball linked this enduring bugbear to the obsolescence of the charging model. ‘Clients don’t care when you talk about hourly billing,’ he observed. ‘They just want to know what it’s going to cost them at the end of the day. It’s about what you recover not about what you record.’

It is a truism that women find it tougher to make partner; the statistics have been depressingly slow to register progression to parity. But this is not the whole story. ‘I have male friends with children who find it very hard in private practice. It is not always a female issue,’ Freeman stressed. Howell-Jones’s Crabtree observed that, once again, it often comes down to local circumstances. Her firm has women partners but they are enabled to work flexibly to the benefit of the business as a whole. But in an international firm, she added, if you are working across borders, on transactional work for example, it is not quite so straightforward.

Most of the junior lawyers at the roundtable considered themselves under-informed about alternative careers. And the Law Society’s Jemma Ralph has detected from her everyday involvement with solicitors across the profession a general lack of appreciation of how much they have to offer. ‘The skills instilled by being a lawyer can open so many doors,’ she stressed. Vasani agreed. ‘I know a 10-year-call criminal defence barrister who has just become vice-president of a finance house in the City. He said that we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the skills we have. Lawyers as a profession do not realise what they have to give and he is the living proof of that. You don’t have to be pigeonholed.’

Rounding off proceedings, those present reflected on whether their career choice has delivered what they expected. And offered advice to lawyers of the future. Afiya Begum: ‘I’d say it’s been a long road, but make sure you stay the course.’ Checchi: ‘It’s not what I expected at all, but it has prepared me for everything that can be thrown my way!’ Ellen Crabtree: ‘I did not really have any expectations; I just rolled with it. But I really enjoy my job and I wouldn’t change anything.’

Claire Freeman said: ‘It is similar to what I expected. Every year you become one year more qualified and just as you get comfortable they give you something new and harder to do! But I like a challenge!’ And Vasani added: ‘It is exactly what I thought it would be. It is pressurised, but I thrive on pressure.’

  • The views expressed by roundtable attendees are entirely personal.

For more about the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division, go to the website.