updated on 26 May 2020
Around the country there will understandably be students and paralegals alike worrying about the impact the current covid-19 global pandemic will have on their prospects and legal careers. It is only natural in times of uncertainty to brace yourself and expect the worst but hopefully I can put the concerns of those going through these troubling times into perspective.
By way of background, I graduated university with a law degree in August 2010. Throughout my time at university I was of course aware of the global financial crisis, but on a day-to-day basis it had little impact on me, or so I thought.
The severity of the crisis did not become apparent until after I'd taken off my graduation gown and sought to kick start my job search. Throughout the summer I had committed myself to the laborious task of training contract applications. The problem was that the majority of law firms were either dramatically reducing their offerings or removing their application process altogether.
To make matters worse, in an attempt to stay afloat, firms began merging at a rate previously unseen. I would be half way through one firm's application just as they merged with another at which point both firms would halve their available places.
As with most people during that period, the common wisdom was to work as a paralegal prior to obtaining a training contract. This would serve two purposes; you would not only be receiving hands on legal work experience, but you would also be under the nose of the partners holding the elusive training contracts. Sure enough after a few years, the recession seemed long behind us all and I qualified as a solicitor.
So what relevance does a global recession have to those currently living through a pandemic? It is my honest belief that the two are not significantly different. The lessons learnt by those students over a decade ago, who are now practising solicitors, can be used again by the latest cohort entering the profession at this uncertain time.
The answer to whether now is a bad time to be graduating is invariably yes. Given the option, I imagine most would look to avoid graduating during such difficult circumstances but, as with those who graduated with me in 2010, it doesn't make the task of becoming a solicitor impossible.
One of the key lessons to learn and embrace is that of flexibility. It is likely that, through no fault of your own, your three-year plan has just taken an almighty jolt and I completely understand the frustration that can bring. However, the real test of your metal is how you respond.
In the coming months we will likely see law firms either reducing or deferring their number of available trainee vacancies. The upshot of which is that the already hugely fierce competition for training contracts is likely to intensify. The key thing to remember is not to be disheartened by the process or any rejection received. What is required is a recalibration as to when you will hit your goal and a steely determination to not give up on the process. It may take longer but provided you don't stop trying it will happen for you.
Another lesson to remember is that the landscape of the legal market is likely to change. It will therefore be essential to keep a track on the sector and any growing trends. As in 2010, a number of areas of work may see a drop off in instructions, such as real estate and corporate departments. Any lawyer seeking to qualify into these areas may have to really consider their options. If you decide to continue with these areas, it is essential to try to gain as much experience as possible and research the firms still recruiting in those practice fields.
As with all crises the status quo changes, but in its wake new opportunities arise. While there are areas of law which are likely to see a downturn, there will also be areas that see a spike in work, such as litigation, insolvency and family. During this period it is important to understand which area you may be interested in working in as it will allow you time to prepare suitably to the sector and types of firm you apply to. By knowing the difficulties faced by different firms and practice areas, you can adapt your expectations and skill sets accordingly.
This overall monitoring of the sector is more commonly known as ‘commercial awareness’. While many institutions and online articles stress the importance of this to fledgling lawyers, the meaning of the term will differ from what it means currently. Commercial awareness is presently often interchangeable with ‘current affairs’, the most recent example of which being Brexit. Commercial awareness going forward is likely to embrace its meaning from 2010 of ‘business acumen’. Junior lawyers will be expected to know and understand in closer focus the commercial decisions needed by firms in times of economic downturn.
Therefore, try and immerse yourself in understanding profitability, reduction of overheads, department structures and corporate restructuring. These are more likely to make you stand out in a training contract interview than simply knowing covid-19 and leaving the European Union will have an effect. Any interviewing partner will see your deeper understanding of how a law firm works.
My final comment would be that this period is a good time to take stock of what you want to do during your career. Working in the legal profession entails long hours, hard work and is hugely competitive, but it is also a hugely rewarding and engaging vocation.
Those who are lukewarm to the idea of being a solicitor, as in 2010, will likely fall away and pursue careers in other professions. The key point to take away, however, is that if you are dedicated and truly wish to qualify as a solicitor, and if you persevere you will succeed. That is a lesson which is true regardless of the economic period at the time of graduating.
Adam Hattersley is a member of the JLD executive committee and a real estate finance solicitor at Fieldfisher.