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21 November 2013
Go to any legal milk round event and you will be inundated by law firm and chambers recruiters pushing freebies, such as mugs, chocolates and pens with corporate branding on them.
But behind these freebie machines there is always a slightly more low-key set of people looking to try to grab your attention the recruiters from the Government Legal Service (GLS).
With only their serious-looking information packs to entice potential trainee solicitors and barrister pupils, you would be forgiven for perhaps walking straight past them. Possibly, however, it might be worth taking a second look. The GLSs stand may not be plush, but it could be your way in to an extremely interesting career within the legal profession.
The sales pitch for the GLS, which employs about 1,950 lawyers and trainees, may not start off as promising, with the first line being that it is the main provider of legal services to the Government. Sounds boring, right? Well, perhaps not. It provides legal assistance in areas from the armed forces to zoology, charities, commerce, constitutional issues, education, farming, finance, health and human rights, to name but a few.
Trainees who join the GLS will be able to get their teeth stuck into legal advisory roles that actually change the face of English law. Sophie Yule, a current trainee solicitor at the GLS, says one of the highlights for her was working on the Companies Bill, which is now the Companies Act 2006, during the Commons standing committee stage in Parliament.
Preparing advice for the ministers speaking notes and watching them debate was fascinating and probably the most invigorating introduction to my training contact that I could possibly have hoped for, she enthuses.
Elisabeth Noble, also a trainee solicitor, was able to get involved in the Scott Review, which was established by the attorney-general to investigate the appointment of an interim victims commissioner in Northern Ireland. I gained a valuable insight into the conduct of an inquiry, experience that I would not have gained in private
practice, she explains.
Comparing the GLS with working at a City law firm, Noble says: My peers from law school often remark that they are working on cases worth 2bn and so on. However, when I ask what theyve actually done on those cases, it provides a stark contrast to life as a GLS trainee.
While public sector cases may not always carry the same monetary values of those in City firms, as a GLS trainee one will have actually participated fully in those cases rather than just carrying out largely administrative or discrete roles as is often the case for trainees in City firms. In any event, public sector cases are often extremely high profile and frequently make the headlines.
So are you convinced that even though the GLS may not have the flashiest stand at the legal fair it could be worth a look?
If so, it is important that you get to that stand two years in advance of when you want to start your training contract
or pupillage, making sure you have obtained or are predicted to gain a 2:1 in your first degree.
The GLS last year offered 28 training contracts, with the most posts in HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Treasury Solicitors department both taking eight each. Other divisions that took trainees included the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform which was formerly the Department of Trade and Industry the Department for Work & Pensions and the Department of Health.
Of these trainee places, 18 could potentially have been pupillages, as some departments are flexible as to whether they have a solicitor or barrister. The most important point is that the trainee has the legal ability.
The number of vacancies varies each year between 22 and 30, depending on the needs of the various government departments. On average, for each spot on the GLS training scheme there are around 20 applicants. If you are talented enough to beat these odds the service will pay for the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Vocational Course (BVC), as long as it has not already been started. If it is the latter, then the GLS will pay a proportion of the fees and, like all trainees, successful applicants will get a grant of around 5,000 to 7,000 for the vocational year. But if a trainee first needs to take the graduate diploma in law (GDL/CPE), they must be exceptional to receive funding from the department they are assigned to.
Once the exams are out of the way a trainee will be ready to start their two-year internship on a starting salary of more than 21,300. Compared with, say, magic circle firm Clifford Chance, where trainees start on 35,700, the salary may appear low, but as Yule points out, overall it is not too bad.
Being a government lawyer is unlikely to make you a millionaire, but if you work it out on an hourly basis the pay still compares favourably to the City in more instances, as the phrase work-life balance does genuinely carry meaning in the GLS, she adds.
Those successful applicants that have not been put off by the salary will find themselves on schemes that have been tailored to their preferences.
Trainee solicitors, such as Yule and Noble, are allocated a home government department, where they will train and into which they will qualify.
The two years are split into four seats four six-month slots with one of these being in litigation. The remaining three seats are within the trainees own government department.
GLS pupil barrister Lee Ellis, whose home government department is HMRC, explains that for him the scheme is different.
I spent the first five months of my pupillage team with the tax enforcement and insolvency team, he recounts.
During this time I completed various pieces of legal research, wrote a number of advices and various types of legal documentation from skeleton arguments to grants of probate to affidavits.
These five months were followed by four months at the independent bar. Chambers, such as common law set 11KBW, which receives many instructions from the Government, will take on the GLSs pupils.
In chambers I was involved in lots of personal injury and negligence work, says Ellis. There was a very high turnover of cases and this was great as I got to draft numerous pleadings, write various advices and prepare a number of cross-examinations among other things.
Ellis has now returned to HMRC and is doing a short stint as a legal adviser in the European and international team.
Before getting carried away with the monetary perks and the actual scheme, the hurdle of getting the trainee position first has to be jumped.
The GLS calls the trainee recruitment scheme a competition and to enter you have to apply before 31 July. If the initial application is accepted then you would be required to sit an online verbal reasoning test and a written exercise. A group exercise, which is followed by a buffet lunch, and an interview then decide the fate of the potential trainees.
So after all this, is becoming a government lawyer for you? As Yule advises: If youre interested in politics and current affairs and are prepared to keep an open mind about the different areas of law that you are willing to work within, then yes, definitely.
Lawyer 2B asked three GLS trainees what advice they would give to students looking to train as lawyers:
Sophie Yule, trainee solicitor:
Get an early start on your training contract applications. This is difficult with looming university essay deadlines and exams, but the more practice you get the easier they are. It is so easy to be put off later on when faced with a plethora of daunting applications one week before the deadline.
Also, dont be swayed too much by glossy presentations, free lunches and gadgets and what your colleagues are doing. Just focus on what kind of career appeals to you and target your applications to the most suitable training contract providers first, saving your answers on a separate Word document so you can return to them and develop them.
Elisabeth Noble, trainee solicitor:
I think the biggest pitfall students fall into is to close their minds to an area of law without experiencing it in practice. A practice area may seem unappealing in the textbooks, but in reality it could well be as engaging, interesting and challenging as the next. Similarly, what may seem like a sexy area of law in reality may fall well below expectations, so I would advise students to avoid making preconceptions.
Moreover, the legal profession is inherently competitive, starting with the battle to gain a training contract.
Training contact providers want to see applicants demonstrate a genuine interest in the law, ideally through
experience academics alone are not enough to secure a training contract.
I also think many graduates decide to go into the legal profession without fully understanding what things are really like as a lawyer. The law has its glamorous moments, but students need to know that to keep going on a day-to-day basis takes a lot of hard work and enthusiasm.
Lee Ellis, pupil barrister:
My advice for somebody wanting to pursue a career in law would be to think about the type of legal questions or topics that they enjoy being involved in, whether they wish to specialise at an early stage in their career and what they want to get out of a career in the law.
The GLS is not necessarily for everyone, but it has a tremendous amount to offer and anyone thinking of a legal career should consider it. I would encourage everyone to speak with as many people as possible and ask lots of questions, including those that they may think a
little daft.What I can say is that my pupillage with the GLS has been everything I hoped it would be and more. I feel well equipped to handle life as a barrister on qualification.
The biggest thing to avoid is thinking that youre on your own when youve been given a complex legal question to
consider. There is a lot to learn, but you will not be expected to know everything. The important thing is to speak with colleagues and ask questions.