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Routes to qualification: The changing landscape

The legal sector has changed dramatically since I’ve been in the industry. There was a misconception that all lawyers drove expensive cars and were paid very well – or that you had to go to Oxbridge to become a lawyer. It really isn’t the case now. This is evidenced by the vast number of highly paid CILEx (Chartered Institute of Legal Executives), Licensed Conveyancers and apprentices now working in firms of all shapes and sizes. Many law firms we know are also going direct to sixth forms to talent spot and recruit people through apprenticeship programmes – there are now so many different options to go into many different roles.

It’s incredibly refreshing to see people from varied backgrounds and qualifications coming into law. Perhaps they are my favorite candidates because they have worked hard to be where they are, have overcome various challenges and perhaps don’t have the same (sometimes too high) expectations as those coming in though the traditional university / law firm / training contract route. As the landscape has changed over he years, a career in law is much more accessible than it ever has been and people shouldn’t be put off – whatever their background.

I’m all about progress. When they changed the qualification route for CILEx, it opened up the talent pool and made the market more competitive on price across many areas of law – this is especially good for consumers and it’s also great for the sustainability of law firms. Having a wide professional talent pool is helping to make legal services more accessible to the masses, which is important.

Experience is also key. Many alternatively qualified individuals have qualified on the job – putting their experience and hard work towards their certification. For those who can’t or didn’t go to university, this is crucial as it means you can ‘learn and earn’ rather than start your career with a pile of debt. For those looking to qualify through the traditional route, I would remind you to plan ahead and be determined to get to where you want to be. Make that debt mean something!

Some paralegals that have gone through the CILEx route and then perhaps decided to qualify as a solicitor have often got ten more years of experience in legal services than a traditional NQ solicitor. However, one thing that really upsets me is when law firms look to pay the ‘NQ solicitor’ role more highly than those with alternative qualifications who may actually be highly experienced. That’s when we see such individuals jump ship and add value elsewhere. Law firms are getting better at this but salaries are often still set on the PQE scale rather than experience and this can be soul destroying for hard-working candidates. Salaries should now be based on what someone can bill and contribute.

Recruitment is being shaken up by the changing landscape of qualification and I love that. Law firms should ask: what kind of talent is out there, how do we attract it and how can we reward professionals; rather than: ‘we need x qualified role with x year’s experience and we’re not budging’. No two people are the same and if the route to qualification is changing then so should the ways in which people attract talent to the firm.  

The respect gap is closing between solicitors, CILEx and Liscenced Conveyancers, which is great. At recruitment, anything other than the solicitor route is about the employer believing in that person and giving them the platform to qualify.

I feel the traditional trainee approach is actually quite old fashioned. To give someone six months on different seats…what value can they add as a trainee? Personally I struggle to see what value they would add to the business – even though you’re adding value to their career. It seems either the person suffers or the business suffers – in my mind anyway!

Lots of law firms are moving away from this model and we’re working with firms that do just this: employ junior lawyers as a paralegal for two years in an area of law and qualify through a different route. But it is changing, every day!

My top tips

You need to think about which route you would thrive in. Are you someone who would grow on the job and use your experience to count for your qualification – especially if you’ve already performed an administrative role in a firm?

I would speak to your employer or university – as well as law firms, to understand the qualification landscape post qualification. Universities should encourage you to get internships and work experience, help to prepare you for the next step but there is more you can do for yourself to help you identify which route you’d like to progress upon graduation. You can qualify as a CILEx with a post graduate degree and for some, who have taken roles in-house for some experience, this is a brilliant alternative.

I would take a step back and understand how you thrive best – be honest about your personality type (ask others!) and then choose and plan your route. Find out which employers support alternative route and help their staff to grow – ask the professional bodies for advice. See what works for you and follow that – from the traditional solicitor route to CILEx, Licensed Conveyancer or the Bar. For some, there’s not much difference in pay – especially in property and in the regions. It really does come down to billings.

 

Going back to misconceptions, we do see junior lawyers express their concerns about alternative routes to qualification but we don’t share those concerns, and neither do many of the firms we work with. In the vast majority of cases, those qualifying through CILEx, for example, have many more years of experience under their belt and value to add. There are of course important differences in the area of law you’re looking to work in too. There are more opportunities for and less of a stigma attached to alternatively qualified professionals in consumer areas of law.

Usually because alternatively qualified individuals have a lot more life experience to offer. I love seeing these candidates as they often have more grit and determination to rise through the ranks, using their experience.

Obviously it does come down to personal preference but we would highly recommend ding your research on all the ever-changing pathways and work out which one will get your where you need to be; supporting your personal and professional needs and ambitions.

Jason