It is possible for an able solicitor who possesses both the academic and personal skills required to find good, interesting and satisfying employment, although this varies depending upon the specialism practiced and the state of the economy. Many solicitors have earnings comparable with those of other graduate professions, but the profession has - like many others - been affected by the impact of the recession and demand in some areas has reduced with commensurate loss of earnings and even redundancy in some cases.
The Law Society provides advice about qualifying as a solicitor and the opportunities available, including (for England and Wales) the concise and very useful leaflet The Law Degree Route to Qualification as a Solicitor, which has provided valuable source material for this book and is highly recommended. Brochures and information issued by the Law Society are available from most local authority, school and college career services. There are now also detailed requirements with regard to continuing education after one has been admitted to the Roll of solicitors. Again, details are available from the Law Society.
Working In Private Practice as a Solicitor
It is worth considering well in advance what you would like to do when you have qualified as a solicitor. It may take from three to six months to find the sort of job you want in the type of firm you want to work in, so do not leave it too late.
Some trainees and apprentices are offered work by the firm they train with, but since most firms will have several trainees qualifying at the same time, you cannot count on this happening. Nor should you view the lack of such an offer as being a reflection on your abilities.
Those who move firms on qualifying have to start on the round of replying to advertisements and attending interviews. In England and Wales, legal periodicals and several newspapers carry advertisements for solicitors' jobs. In Scotland you should consult the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland, and also The Scotsman and The Herald. In Northern Ireland your starting point may well be the Belfast Telegraph, the Belfast Newsletter, the Irish Times, or local newspapers.
The Law Societies of England and Wales and Scotland have an appointments registry to which you can add your name and from which you can obtain the names of firms who have registered vacancies for qualified staff at all levels. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are also commercial agencies that match applicants to the jobs on their files. Their service is free to the employee but commission, which is related to the employee's salary, is charged to the firm once the employee has successfully served a probationary period (usually three months). Some firms rely heavily on agencies; others respond favorably to approaches made by applicants themselves.
Having been a trainee or apprentice you will have come into contact with a number of people in the profession: other trainees, barristers, advocates and their clerks, court clerks, etc. Don't forget your contacts when looking for a job. Tell people in the profession: they often hear of vacancies that might not otherwise be advertised. Later chapters deal with alternatives to private practice which you may find interesting.
Assistant solicitors are employees and, as such, have little or no control over the organization in which they work. Not all assistants want the responsibilities or ties of being a partner, and some remain assistants throughout their careers. This may occur more in the future, given the increase in the numbers qualifying.
Private practices are sometimes run by sole practitioners, but are more often partnerships of solicitors. If you are offered a partnership it may be as an equity partner, that is a partner with a share in the capital of the firm who takes from the profits in proportion to his or her share. Particularly in larger firms, it is more usual these days to be offered initially a salaried partnership, whereby you are still paid a fixed salary and do not usually take part in any significant decision-making, but would be more involved than an assistant solicitor in the day-to-day administration of the firm.
Being a salaried partner is usually regarded as a stepping stone to a full partnership, allowing both parties a probationary period, since it is generally anticipated that when you become an equity partner you are making a commitment to the particular firm for the rest of your working life. That commitment is usually sealed by a capital contribution made by the new equity partner.
Occasionally, equity partnerships are offered which do not require the new partner to make any further contribution other than his or her continued efforts, but usually, if you want to be a full partner, you will have to be prepared to pay for the privilege. You may have to borrow money and it has been known for solicitors to earn less in the first few years as equity partners while they are repaying the loan than they did as salaried partners or assistants. Equity partners are, of course, self- employed.
Commitment to a partnership must be more than just a financial one. A partner in a small provincial firm has summed up the key issues:
The most important things to ask yourself when you are offered a partnership are whether you trust those who would be your fellow partners and, second, whether you respect them for the work they do. You must like the geographical location of the firm, as you are going to be there a long time, and of course you've got to enjoy the type of work you'll be doing there. If those aspects of the deal are OK, you then go on to examine the financial proposals.
Where to work
The differences between city and country practices reflect, to some extent, the differences between large and small firms. But this is not always the case: towns sometimes boast relatively large commercial firms, and all cities have their 'family firms'. However, some people prefer to work in a small community, of which they can become a part, where they can be closer to clients and come to know them and their families socially. Country solicitors often establish closer co-operation with other professionals, such as doctors, social workers, bank managers and the police, and this can be helpful in achieving quick and efficient results for the client.
As a very broad generalization, the pressures of a country practice are less, if only because the working environment is more pleasant and work is more integrated with the rest of life. Some people may find working in the country too confining for their tastes, and certainly, whatever you do, it is difficult to remain anonymous. If you want to keep your options open, it is probably best to work in a city at first and move out to the country later.
The type of firm
When choosing a firm at any stage in your career you should think carefully about what sort of firm you want to join; large or small, specialized or general. Larger firms tend to be more departmentalized which means that solicitors working in them tend to be more specialized also. Specialization may appeal to you, and certainly it follows on from the academic background that many solicitors now have. Some, however, prefer their work to be dictated by the clients for whom they work, so that they deal with whatever problem the clients bring in. Large firms tend to be more bureaucratic but they can afford to provide employees with modern office equipment, extensive libraries, and additional backup services that may prove necessary for cases that are too large for one person to manage without help. However, you might also find a large organization impersonal: it will take a long time to get to know everyone else in the firm, and unless you are a partner you will seldom be involved in the way the organization is run.
Medium-sized firms can have the best (or worst) of both worlds, allowing you to specialize while keeping a fairly broadly based case-load. In a medium-sized firm, each partner will tend to have his or her own clients who will dictate the type of work to be done. In a small firm there are none of the problems of getting to know all the other staff, and many solicitors enjoy feeling that their work contributes to the profitability of their firm. You may also find that, in fact, you are given great responsibility earlier in a small organization, because there are not a number of other assistants employed who are just as competent as you are.
Sometimes whole firms are specialized, and while they may provide an all-round service to their clients, their reputation is built on their work in one field in which the major part of their work is undertaken. Specialist firms come in all sizes and tend to be based in cities.
On the whole, salaries are lower in firms of two to four partners, and highest in firms of more than 20 partners. The size of a firm may, therefore, not only affect the type of work you do but also the amount of money you can expect to earn. The place where you practise is also relevant; earnings tend, naturally, to be higher in central London than in the provinces.
The type of job
Within private practice there is a great range of types of work you can do. Solicitors tend to be divided into those who undertake non-contentious cases, which do not involve any court work (conveyancing, both domestic and commercial; probate; trust work; company and commercial; tax) and those who deal exclusively with contentious or litigious matters, which result in court cases (matrimonial work; criminal and civil litigation). To some extent the sort of job you do will be dictated by your experience in articles, but you can change direction at that stage or later if you are sufficiently determined and can persuade an employer to give you the chance to branch out into a new field.
Vincent is a 41-year-old solicitor who has been qualified for five years, following two changes of career path.
"I am a late arrival to the legal profession. I took my degree in languages and worked as a teacher for some years and as a translator in the Civil Service for a further six years. I was in my mid-thirties before I decided to try to qualify as a solicitor. I was successful in the CPE course and the Law Society Finals course and was offered employment as an assistant solicitor by the firm in which I trained.
After working for about 18 months exclusively on personal injury litigation, I gradually became more involved in the work of the firm's commercial department and I am now wholly engaged in that line of work. It is largely concerned with general business matters, such as formation of companies. I have been required on a number of occasions to "tailor-make" the company for the very specific requirements of the client. This will include drafting the Memorandum and Articles of Association and, in certain cases, where the company is seeking charitable status, ensuring that both the practical requirements of the client and the stringent legal requirements of the Charity Commission are complied with. There can often be a conflict between these two aspects and the ability to come up with a practical compromise acceptable to both client and the Charity Commission is necessary.
The drafting of contracts of employment, terms and conditions of sale of goods, business agreements and contracts forms a major element of my work. This aspect of legal work is perhaps most closely akin to my previous linguistic work and I have certainly found that the two disciplines are complementary.
The job is demanding and I will usually need to work for longer than the official hours of 9am - 5pm and sometimes at weekends. Time pressures can often be intense and many clients have high expectations as to the speed of service provided (particularly since the advent of the fax machine!).
All the work involves contact with people. It is obviously important that the advice that the solicitor gives is correct but it is just as important that the client understands why that advice is being given. It is the solicitor's job to guide the client through the procedures and also to explain them, ensuring that often complex matters are fully understood.
I have been able to make direct use of my languages to some extent in my work as a solicitor, and the teaching techniques which I acquired in my former job are often directly relevant when explaining a legal point to a client. I am pleased to say that any professional experiences and skills that I may have acquired before my change of career from linguist to lawyer have not been wasted."
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