updated on 21 February 2019
Every few years there is a seismic change in the recruitment of trainee solicitors. The current training contract has been around since 1990 and before that we had articled clerkships known as ‘articles’. In the 1960s and ’70s there were more articles than people who wanted to qualify and the Law Society had to have a recruitment drive. Back then, there were no tuitions fees, maintenance grants were available and you could even claim unemployment benefit during the university summer breaks. Everything has to be considered in context and the era that we are now in is far away from those times, with those now entering the profession with tens of thousands of pounds of debt and chasing training contracts where there are literally hundreds of people applying for the same position.
The last seismic change in the way trainees were recruited was on the back of the financial crisis of 2008. In 2008, there was a high of 6,303 training contracts, yet the following year this number was reduced to 4,784, a reduction of 24%. As with the crash, this wasn’t something that was predicted.
Before the crash, most trainee solicitors in large firms were recruited as future trainees at the end of their second undergraduate year (law), and those future trainees would complete their degrees, followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and thereafter start at their respective firms. The qualification age would be 24 or 25. People qualifying in their late 20s to early 30s was not the norm.
Following the crash, as firms had already recruited their future trainees, those future trainees were offered cash incentives to defer and encouraged to use the time to travel if they so desired. Deferments of six to 12 months were becoming more and more common and this was also affecting the number of future trainees being recruited further down the line.
The firms had a dilemma; they still wanted to recruit future trainees at the end of their second undergraduate year, but given the unpredictably following the crash, they weren’t sure as to how many trainees they would require. So firms adapted how they employed trainees; it was now becoming more commonplace to see firms making future trainees complete one or two years as a paralegal before being offered a training contract. The purse strings were tighter and firms wanted to be 100% satisfied with the aspiring solicitor, their abilities and loyalty to the firm before investing.
For many firms, it became policy to recruit trainees from the pool of paralegals currently at the firm. All of these changes had an impact on the average age of qualification; rather than the point of entry being in the mid-20s, this was now shifting toward the late 20s.
The numbers are working against those entering the profession and even more so when the number of training contracts on offer are becoming fewer and fewer. This is a perfect storm for exploitation. Paralegals wanting training contracts work tirelessly to give themselves the best chance of securing a training contract. Paralegal salaries on or just above minimum wage are not unusual, neither is the practice of employing paralegals with the golden carrot of a training contract dangling, only for the paralegal to be told they didn’t quite make the grade and be replaced by another paralegal, with the same carrot being dangled, the same low wages being paid and the training contract never materialising.
In some firms, paralegals do work equivalent to that of a newly-qualified solicitor but on half the wages; would a head of department really want to lose such an asset? While this is still an issue, it is pleasing to note though that we are seeing changes, some firms now have policies that you can only apply for training contracts on one occasion – this leaves removed the hypothetical carrot. There is also the opportunity to qualify through ‘equivalent means’ if an individual can evidence that their experience matches that of a newly qualified solicitor.
Taking into account all of these changes over the last 10 years, it is not a surprise to see that the average qualifying age is now 29. Qualifying as a mature junior lawyer does not make you a failure, or that you are not cut out to be a good lawyer or that this isn’t the right career for you. Rather it is a reflection of the profession and the times that we live in. Everything has to be taken into context.
Across the pond in the United States, law is a four-year postgraduate course following a three-year undergraduate course, so lawyers will not complete their studies and take the Bar exams until they are 25-26. The average age of those entering the profession in the United States would therefore not be too dissimilar to the 29 here in England and Wales.
At the recent JLD Forum in Liverpool, we presented a session entitled ‘What I wish I knew as an inspiring lawyer’. The question was asked, “How do you know what area of law to qualify into?” There are many factors to take into consideration rather than looking at a practice area in isolation.
For instance, commercial litigation can vary greatly depending on the location, firm and clients. A training contract, with typically four seats, is designed to help you get to know the firm, the practice areas they offer and give you an idea of what is suitable for you.
One thing that is just as important as the quality of work is the people who you will be working with and the opportunities to learn. These factors differ hugely, not only between firms but also between departments in individual firms.
If you are not 100% sure what is right for you, don’t panic and worry that you are effectively going to be left behind. Be reassured with the knowledge that the average qualification age is now 29, with many aspiring solicitors qualifying into the profession much later.
This statistic was live tweeted from the forum: “Even if you qualify at the age of 30+ you’ve got a lot of years ahead of you, so it’s ok not to come straight out of law school and be qualified by the age 25 – the average age of a qualifying solicitor is now 29.”
This tweet attracted the most engagement on Twitter from that day; to date it has had over 350 impressions, 100 re-tweets and an endless thread of encouraging comments. The following Monday the tweet was featured in ‘The Brief’ by The Times as their tweet of the day.
This issue has clearly resonated with aspiring solicitors, further emphasising that you are not alone in your worries and that this is a common concern. Here are some examples of solicitors who qualified later than their mid-20s.
“My route to qualification wasn’t the easiest. I worked as a paralegal for five years before securing a training contract. In my last firm, I was promised a training contract after passing a probationary period when the current trainee had finished their contract approximately two years into my contract of employment. When I approached the subject after this time had elapsed, I was told that they only gave training contracts to people with a first-class degree and I was therefore not eligible. I had always met and exceeded my target and so I was very disappointed.
“I handed my notice in and found a job at another firm and I have now qualified. After six months of working as a paralegal, I had a conversation with the senior partner who advised that he was more than happy to offer me a training contract. I started my training contract on my one-year work anniversary.
“I was 32 when I qualified. I have now been qualified for over six months and can honestly say that it was the right decision not to give up. In the year that I secured my training contract, I gave myself a deadline that if the training contract was not secured by the end of that year, I would quit law completely as I could not see myself working forever as a paralegal. I am so glad that I didn’t.”
“At university I studied international politics and strategic studies, and subsequently undertook an MSc in human rights. I came to law after studying law modules during my master’s.
“The advice from my tutors was to try to qualify as quickly as possible. I couldn't afford to complete the GDL and LPC full time, so I worked as a paralegal to fund my studies. Although it was a means to an end, I would not recommend this if it could be avoided, as juggling was really difficult and I did receive some negative feedback from colleagues and at interviews. I was routinely asked why it was taking me so long to qualify (as if it was my choice). I was also told expressly that I was too old (at 30) for some firms and to re-assess my ambitions. After five years of paralegal work, and four of those while I was studying part time, I secured a training contract with a high-street firm and qualified at 32. I now work at Sherrards Solicitors LLP who value the experience I can bring to the role, and who appreciate the work ethic that comes with taking such a long-winded path to qualification.”
“People worry that there is a certain ‘shelf life’ to law and if they haven’t made it by a certain age then it’s too late, but that isn’t true.
“I graduated from university at 21 and worked as a paralegal for six months afterwards. I really didn’t like it and questioned my career choice. I went on to spend seven years in legal publishing before completing my LPC part time, taking redundancy from my job, spending a year in Australia and then starting my training contract, which I found via LawCareers.Net’s jobs board. I was 33 when I qualified.
“It was hard going from being largely autonomous in my career back to the beginning, but I think my ‘real world’ experience gave me confidence and a pragmatic approach to problems.”
"Having practiced as a paediatric nurse for almost 15 years I qualified just after my 40th birthday.
“I made the decision to leave the NHS and study law, but took the part-time academic postgrad route as I had young children and I needed to work nights to help fund my studies. I can’t pretend it was easy, as I look back now and don’t know how I or my family survived!
“Having completed my post-grad course, I left the NHS to study the LPC full time. I applied for a couple of training contracts but I was rejected, but being truly honest, looking back I didn't fit their profile and I knew at that stage that I really wanted to practice childcare law.
“I managed to secure a training contract in a firm that specialised in this field. I believe that my previous career as a paediatric nurse really assisted me in getting this due to the knowledge and experience I brought to the firm. I was lucky enough to obtain a training contract without undertaking an extended period as a paralegal first.
“I qualified into child are law and went on to achieve Children Panel status. I now mainly represent young people with claims relating to their time in care. Both my nursing and law careers are rewarding in their own way and I have certainly utilised my interchangeable skills, while my focus has progressed from caring for sick children to helping vulnerable young people achieve justice."
"I graduated in 2009 with a computer science degree and was subsequently closed out of that industry due to the recession. I therefore decided to pursue a career in law. Following some informal work experience at a couple of high-street firms and saving the course fees by working in a call centre, I decided to take the plunge with the GDL, which was quite a contrast from web-design and video production!
“During my GDL, I applied for training contracts and I was successful in securing a TC with Shoosmiths, where I later qualified at the age of 29 as a corporate lawyer and practiced for several years. Having realised I didn’t aspire to partnership, I subsequently made the move in-house and now act as legal counsel for a multinational conglomerate in logistics.
“Having a non-legal undergraduate degree, in my view, has been beneficial - it afforded me an in-depth understanding of the technology industry, and has helped when pitching to – or representing – clients in that sector. Unfortunately I’m not as useful when colleagues have IT issues.”
So when will be the next seismic change in the way solicitors qualify? The truth is it’s not that far away with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination, which is coming into effect in 2021. But until then, if you qualify at 29, 35 or later, you are still looking at many years in the profession, so it’s more important to take your time and do what is right for you, rather than rushing to qualify, putting unnecessary pressure on yourself and ultimately causing ill-health.
And finally, if you’re a career changer, just think of all the experience and transferable skills that you bring to the table.
Amy Clowrey is the chair of the Junior Lawyers Division and a child abuse solicitor at Switalskis Solicitors.
Hekim Hannan is a former chair of the Junior Lawyers Division and a costs solicitor at Browne Jacobson.