Taking a bus up Oxford Street this week I did a double-take as we passed department store John Lewis – there was a window display dedicated to students heading off to university. I’d always rather assumed that JL was a place you didn’t understand if you were under 30, but after 30 couldn’t function without.
The department store’s customers may or may not be getting younger, but I predict the age at which these students, with their stylised anglepoise lamps and simple-yet-well-made furniture, start a career as a solicitor is going to rise in all parts of the profession.
Law firms have for a while looked for more experience from trainees than they routinely did 15 or 20 years ago – as Alan Milburn and Nick Clegg have correctly concluded, failing to have completed a formal internship is a strong barrier to even being considered as a trainee at a leading firm.
But look at how the bar has responded in many quarters to the changed economics of legal services. Here many sets want ever more – including aspiring counsel who begin pupilage having made connections, at whatever level, that are already useful to chambers. This they do by such things as, on the criminal side, open clerking through an agency for law firms.
The economic pressures on law firms are tending to squeeze in the sides of what was a ‘pyramid’-shaped firm – so that some firms are starting to resemble a pitched-roof house. There are not the frenetic level of deals that once supported armies of trainees and junior assistants learning on the job, and in any case, clients are getting fussier about paying top-dollar to subsidise the opening stages of people’s legal careers.
In the commercial world, would-be trainees who’ve worked, in whatever role, for Barclays or the Crown Estate, Hanson or, while they’re there anyway, John Lewis, for long enough to make a few connections, and to gain an insight into those businesses, will be the ones with the edge.
In the public sector, time spent in a council, the NHS or a government department will likewise be good. A year in a charity or an entrepreneurial start-up would be a good thing too – a residential estate agent, even.
Raised requirements are the almost-certain outcome from lopping the sides off our pyramids. But I realise the feeling that the bar to entering the profession is being set ever higher can feel like a profoundly unjust development.
However, unlike other features of the modern legal profession that lawyers naturally kick against – marketing and ‘tweeting’, standing at stalls in shopping malls, installing customer relationship management systems, cross-selling services, big-brand ABSs, over-regulation – this development is all about the clients, and closeness to the clients.
The relationship to clients and their world will, I predict, be something lawyers get ever-more responsibility for from earlier on in their careers – ideally boosting their standing within any law firm.
News of a longer professional slog may feel like the latest hammer-blow to a profession that has become, in so many of its parts, more challenging.
But even if it is unwelcome, this change can at least be about an improved professional standing for lawyers at a point when other factors have eroded this.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor