Solicitors First

The hundredth post on lawyerwatch is a guest post from Nick Armstrong.  Nick is a practising barrister and a former solicitor…

I know a great many people who have tried but failed to establish careers at the Bar.  I know of virtually no former solicitors who have tried but failed.  I believe that only those with supreme confidence in their ability to make it through the lottery of the Bar’s recruitment process should try to do so direct.  Everyone else should be a solicitor first.

There are many advantages to the solicitor route.  First, there is the experience:  would-be barristers learn what their (professional) clients need.  They learn about funding and, in particular, the demands of legal aid.  They see, first hand, which barristerial working practices work and which do not.  They learn what annoys.  They learn about forms, about letter writing, and about litigation tactics.

I may already have lost, at “legal aid” and “forms”, a number of future Martha Costellos.  But listen:  the Bar is competitive.  Junior barristers tend to be instructed by junior solicitors.  Junior solicitors, like junior barristers, panic.  Junior barristers who have recently done the junior solicitor’s job and who can explain, simply and quickly, what needs to be done, may win an instructing solicitor for life.

Those are instructions the junior barrister has in their own name, and which the competition does not have.  And that is leaving to one side the work the new junior is already bringing into chambers from their former firm, and the work which the practice desk (“clerks” if we are being traditional) is able to place because it is easier to sell a barrister with relevant experience than one without.  Who do you think the membership committee is more likely to take?

Solicitors also, contrary to the belief of many at the Bar, learn the law.  They do so at much the same rate as the Bar.  The first three years of practice are chaotic on both sides of the profession, when both sides are spending the bulk of their time running to catch up.  But both manage to pick up some law along the way and the real divergence (where solicitors learn more about law firm management and the Bar becomes much more legally specialist) comes later.  Also, truth be told, my experience is that most solicitors firm train better than most sets of chambers.  I will get into trouble here, and must emphasise that I do not believe that this is true of my chambers (a beacon of modernity and commitment to the next generation).  However a depressingly large section of the Bar still seems to think that it is sufficient to give someone a seventeenth century costume and a sense of superiority and then push them out into court.

There are other advantages.  It is, I believe, still easier to get funding for training as a solicitor than it is as a barrister.  It is easier to find a job.  The would-be barrister can pick up all the relevant experience set out above, consider further whether the Bar is for them, whilst all the time retaining the fall-back position.  They can experience, at the expense of their training firm, different areas of law, finding out which is most likely to suit them.  And the beauty of it is that later, all this uncertainty can be dressed up as clear, sensible career decision-making.  If you like, you can even blame it on me.

I should also say that it is relatively easy to transfer to the Bar.  The Bar made it so in part to see off the perceived threat from solicitor advocates (why would you when you could simply become a barrister?)  When I did it, ten years ago now, there were no exams (you do more exams on the LPC than on the BVC) and a training period only (“pupillage” if we are still being traditional).  That is set according to individual circumstances.  In my case it was six months, with two months non-practising and four months practising.  Solicitors are, like everyone, almost always paid in arrears.  I therefore drew my last month’s salary just as I started.  That got me through the first month.  I did a little work (including teaching work but also lower level advocacy work using my solicitor’s practising certificate which remained intact until I received my Bar certificate).  That and a small training grant got me through the second month.  Thereafter I was practising full-time.

I confess I do occasionally discover things that I do not know and presumably would know had I gone directly to the Bar.  But much of that seems to be of dubious value.  I still do not understand (and ignore as obviously mad) the supposed rule against shaking hands.  I also ignored the advice of the well known legal tailor who advised me, early on, that I was not sufficiently “established” to be attempting to buy a coloured shirt.  Perhaps the Inns run courses on this sort of thing.  I do not feel I am missing much.

As I say a lot now, my advice is therefore clear:  the solicitor route has a lot to commend it.  It may be best.  The risks the other way are just too great.  The would-be barrister who seeks to qualify direct pays a lot of money, enters a huge lottery, and as with any lottery, may lose.  If they do and still wish to practise law, they must now go back, try to find a job probably as a paralegal, and do the qualifications they could have done in the first place.  It is however much harder to do it that way round.  More to the point, it is much harder to pass off as having been a deliberate choice.

You can follow Nick on twitter: @njbarmstrong

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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