A year in the law

There's something about this time of year that prompts reflection over the previous 12 months. Courtesy of just published Best in Law, we offer you a synopsis of some of the biggest and most interesting legal toing and froing that 2014-15 had to offer.

The legal sphere has seen plenty of action in 2014-15, from a regulator set on redefining its role to new entrance routes and qualification methods gaining in popularity, a legal aid system disintegrating and moves to address the demographic make-up of the profession. As ever, practitioners have much to contend with and consider beyond the daily business of serving clients and righting legal wrongs

At least news on the global economy has been more consistently cheerful than in the past couple of years, with talk of a solid recovery, mortgage lending rates back to pre-recession levels and the possibility of rising interest rates. However, both the ongoing Greek crisis and China’s slowdown mean that the potential for another collapse is never far from people’s thoughts. The vicissitudes of global financial systems continue to have a profound impact on almost every sphere of professional life – see “The commercial year 2014-15” for a useful overview of the year’s big business stories.

For now, though, absorb this review of what has been preoccupying the hearts and minds of those who inhabit the legal world over the past 12 months and what may be on the cards for 2016.

To regulate or not to regulate; that is the question

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is on a mission to reduce bureaucracy and streamline its processes, including in relation to education and training. As such, it has introduced a raft of changes that reformulate its role and its position within an evolving profession.

One of its most significant decisions was to withdraw from the Voluntary Code to Good Practice in Trainee Recruitment in March 2015. Broadly speaking, the code sets out best practice guidelines for the recruitment of trainees, including deadlines for when applications can be received, when offers can be made and when they must be accepted by. Explaining its withdrawal, the SRA argued that, as a regulator, its role is not "to be involved in deciding the dates and processes by which individual employers and employees make recruitment choice". However, the announcement was received with dismay in many quarters, including from the two other principal signatories to the code: the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) and the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services.

Thankfully, the Law Society agreed to replace the SRA as a signatory in July 2015, joining the other bodies in continuing to uphold the importance of fair recruitment practices. However, the code was also revised at the same time to allow firms to offer training contracts to students from the second year of university onwards (previously, they could be offered only from the beginning of the final year). Arguably, this may increases the pressure and leave candidates feeling that any offer must be accepted straightaway; but only time will tell how the process will be affected in practice.

Other amendments implemented by the SRA in 2015 as part of its bid to become more hands-off were set out in its Training for Tomorrow programme. They included the introduction of the concept of qualification by ‘equivalent means’ (more on which below); the new phrase ‘period of recognised training’ to replace the term ‘training contract’ - although no one but the SRA seems to use it yet; and the end of traditional continuing professional development requirements, leaving it up to solicitors to instead “regularly reflect on their practice and implement a development programme accordingly”.

Beleaguered legal aid

This year marked the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, the cornerstone of one of the world’s longest-established and most revered legal systems. Ironic, then, that at the same time there has also been a sustained campaign by the Conservative government (strengthened in its resolve by a majority win in the May election) to brutalise the legal aid system through funding cuts, increased court fees and the proposed closure of some courts.  

Replacing former justice minister Chris Grayling, Michael Gove sparked controversy with his inaugural address in June 2015, when he urged wealthy commercial firms and lawyers to do more to make justice available for all by increasing the amount of pro bono that they do. The response was justifiable exasperation, given that commercial lawyers have no expertise in criminal and family law, while many firms already dedicate a lot of time to pro bono work. Gove's disapproval over “access to justice deficiencies” caused by his own government’s £600 million cuts did not go down well.

Slashed legal aid budgets have been a feature of the past couple of years and the onslaught continues; as of 1 July 2015, fees were cut by a further 8.5% - bringing the total over 15 months to 17.5% – and legal aid contracts to attend police stations and magistrates’ courts were cut by two-thirds. Solicitors refused to take legal aid cases in protest, but the strike was called off in August as a “gesture of goodwill towards the Ministry of Justice” following discussions over the implementation of further cuts. Whether this is a positive sign is hard to say; sceptics remain unconvinced.

Meanwhile, criticism continues to flow in from all quarters; in July 2015 the government's exceptional funding scheme for those who have been denied legal aid was ruled unlawful by the High Court. Mr Justice Collins called the programme “wholly deficient”, adding that it “does not enable the family courts to be satisfied that they can do justice and give a fair hearing to an unrepresented party”. Further censure came from none less than the government’s own consultants, Otterburn Legal Consulting, which advised the Ministry of Justice on the issue; and appeal court judge Lady Justice Black, who said that the cuts have actually cost more money than they saved in 2015 because of the amount of unqualified litigants now conducting their own cases in court.

All this uncertainty has had a devastating effect not just on the obvious victims who are now denied access to justice, but also on the lifeblood of the profession – those who are preparing to enter the workforce as solicitors. Research by the JLD in December 2014 found that only 4% of young lawyers are interested in working in legal aid. With no one to carry on the fight, where will things end up in five years’ time?

Paralegals: onwards and upwards

The march of the paralegal continues apace. Many firms increasingly use paralegals to do both support and fee-earning work at a much lower cost than solicitors, while some even require prospective trainees to have proved themselves as paralegals before being considered for a training contract. However, while this experience is undoubtedly useful, we would urge a cautious approach – it may be a boost to your chances, but it is by no means a guarantee of training contract success.

The biggest development on the paralegal scene was the SRA’s introduction of the ‘equivalent means’ method of qualification, which allows anyone to apply to be admitted as a solicitor if:

  • their skills and legal work experience are equivalent to those which a qualifying solicitor would have attained following a training contract; and
  • they have completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC).

This scenario applies to many working paralegals and in April 2015 Robert Houchill of Bates Wells Braithwaite, who had been employed as a senior paralegal at the firm for four years, was the first to qualify as a solicitor in this way.

Further cementing the importance of the paralegal role within the profession was news in July of the launch of the voluntary Professional Paralegal Register, designed as a marker of quality, with those paralegals choosing not to join likely to be viewed as less trustworthy by the public. In light of this, the register’s organisers - the National Association of Licensed Paralegals and the Institute of Paralegals - announced that they were certain that the vast majority of paralegals will sign up.

Appealing apprenticeships

Now a firmly established part of the legal scene – and offering a new entry route for many – apprenticeships are an attractive way to start out in a profession that can be notoriously hard to enter other than by very traditional means and with a very specific set of boxes ticked.

The new apprenticeship standards of the Trailblazers in Law initiative were approved in August 2014 by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education. As a result, an apprentice can now qualify as a solicitor, chartered legal executive or paralegal through workplace-based training. Firms including Addleshaw Goddard, Eversheds, Irwin Mitchell, Pinsent Masons and Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co, as well as educational and training organisations BPP, CILEx and The University of Law (ULaw), are all helping to implement the scheme. Gun Judge, resourcing manager at Addleshaw Goddard LLP, said in March 2015: “There’s never been a better time to start a law apprenticeship. The Trailblazer scheme enhances the alternative to the traditional route into law, opening the doors to a more diverse talent stream entering the profession.”

Many other firms have continued to take up the apprenticeship baton in the past year, including Mishcon de Reya, Withers, Bott & Co and Morrisons, all of which have rolled out their own schemes; others, such as Bond Dickinson, have continued hiring after successful pilots. Slightly different but still in the same stable, Reed Smith and Queen Mary University launched a law degree and apprenticeship qualification in January 2015, which combines an LLB with a year-long placement at Reed Smith.

In November 2014 ULaw began its own articled apprenticeship scheme, which will allow school leavers to become fully qualified solicitors after six years of on-the-job training. Participants are employed at Hillyer McKeown (which has offices in Chester, the Wirral and North Wales) straight from school and paid a "competitive salary". ULaw has also partnered with several London boroughs – including Hillingdon, Islington, Barnet and Harrow – to provide in-house legal apprenticeships.

Gender diversity hits the headlines

For many years the profession has been grappling with a major disparity in the stats: while just over 50% of law undergraduates and trainees are women, that percentage drops off sharply when you look at senior associate and partner numbers. In February 2015 Minister for Women and Equalities Nicky Morgan – herself a former solicitor – called for a culture change at law firms to address this imbalance, pointing out that while equal pay is important, it is just one element of greater equality in the legal sector: “Pay women as much as you like, but if they don’t feel comfortable in the working environment, we’ve only fixed half the problem.”

It seems that many firms are becoming much more willing to take steps to remedy the situation. In May 2015 Allen & Overy launched its ‘back to work’ initiative for women returning from maternity leave, which sits alongside its 20:20 programme – aimed at increasing the number of women in the partnership to 20% by 2020. Likewise, Hogan Lovells’ global diversity strategy requires that 25% women be in partnership by 2017, 30% by 2022 and 30% in management by 2015 (a target that it has already met). 

Staying in the magic circle, it was announced in April 2015 that women made up 32% of new partners in this year’s appointment round, a slightly higher proportion than in 2014 (which saw a massive jump from 14% to 30%).

The judiciary is also getting in on the act, with the High Court launching a new initiative in April 2015 to improve diversity at all levels. The pilot aims to facilitate the appointment of lawyers and legal academics with no previous experience as deputy High Court judges, focusing on the promotion of women, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and candidates from less privileged backgrounds (eg, those who attended a state school).

Law school shenanigans

The postgraduate provider space is unusually turbulent at the moment, with several seismic shifts occurring in the past year. In June 2015 Ulaw was sold to Global University Systems by Montagu Private Equity less than three years after it was first purchased. The provider also lost several big-name firms (Baker & McKenzie, White & Case and Dechert) to BPP Law School in its role as their exclusive provider, but picked up others, including Shearman & Sterling (London) and Trowers & Hamlins.

In a blow for competition, Kapan Law School announced in September 2015 that it would be closing in 2016, following news in August that it would no longer be offering the GDL and LPC, having pulled the plug on its BPTC in May 2014. It has instead decided to instead “focus on innovative new products which will cater to new legal education frameworks”. Watch this space.

ULaw took a bold step in July 2015 in offering its students a guarantee that they will get 50% of their tuition fees back if they have not secured “a training contract or [other] full-time position” within nine months of graduating (although in our view, this is the definitive example of needing to check the small print). This follows on from BPP’s offer a couple of years ago of a free course for any of its LPC grads who fail to secure a job in the legal sector (of any kind) within six months of graduating.

Tying the knot

The trend for consolidation continued in 2014-15, reflecting the intensified competitive pressure as alternative business structures nip at firms’ heels and clients increasingly demand value-added services. In November 2014 Charles Russell and Speechly Bircham united to create Charles Russell Speechlys, while Midlands firms Shakespeares and SGH Martineau merged in June 2015 to become Shakespeare Martineau. Ringing in the new year, Edwards Wildman Palmer merged with Locke Lorde in January 2015 to become Locke Lord Edwards, with much of the former’s tech practice leaving for Cooley (UK) LLP.  And hot off the press, as of 1 September 2015, Russell-Cooke has officially merged with Alan Edwards & Co.

At the other end of the spectrum, legal aid cuts forced several smaller firms to merge in order to survive, including Bristol firms Watkins Solicitors and Brain Sinnot & Co. They have now become Watkins Solicitors (incorporating Brain Sinnott & Co) – however did they did they come up with the name?

Looking ahead, there are several unions on the horizon, with Wragge Lawrence Graham teaming up with Canadian firm Gowlings in January 2016 and advance talks between Dentons (the world’s biggest law firm) and Matthew Arnold & Baldwin.

Just in case

Several headline-grabbing judgments in 2014-15 deserve attention - here are a few that caught our eye:

The future’s not ours to see

So what will be keeping the legal profession up at night and filling the pages of the legal press and broadsheet law sections in 2016? We can’t predict the future, but we can pose some relevant questions:

  • Legal aid – in the face of constant battering from a government set on destruction, will the system even exist in 12 months’ time? Will ever more practitioners formerly devoted to legal aid have to move into other areas of law? Or out of the profession altogether? Will students who would have pursued this as part of a fulfilling career be forced to look elsewhere? Will the clogged-up courts – especially if proposed closures are implemented – slow down even further?
  • With the growing popularity of alternative pathways into the profession (eg, apprenticeships and paralegal positions) and ways to progress once there (eg, equivalent means), will more school leavers choose practical, on-the-job training over years of expensive university education? Will more firms turn to apprentices and paralegals as a willing and practically focused workforce? Will other firms continue to value most highly those who approach the profession in the traditional way? Will more paralegals qualify as solicitors without ever doing a training contract?
  • Firms merge for different reasons – some to strengthen their position or add useful expertise to their stable of practice areas, others to stave off collapse. Will 2016 see more firms going down the consolidation route? What is the impact on diversity and availability of training experiences? And is there any stopping super-firm Dentons in its bid for global domination?

All these questions – and more – remain unanswerable, but the savvy among you will keep an eye on these developing topics as a way of learning more about the profession that you hope to join one day.

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