For Queen and country
8 June 2009 | By Corinne McPartland
With training contracts at City firms falling, the public sector may be a suitable alternative. You are toying with the idea of becoming a lawyer so you go to your annual university law fair. It makes sense, right?
You will go along, have a calm wander around and see what’s out there.
But from the minute you enter the fair you are bombarded with hundreds of freebies, questioned about your academic rigour and signed up for open days. Without so much as a blink of the eye, many get trapped on the legal conveyor belt, which usually starts with a training contract at a large commercial law firm and ends in partnership.
What students often fail to spot are the more modest-looking stands belonging to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Government Legal Service (GLS).
They may not be giving away alien-shaped alarm clocks or firm-branded slinkies. They won’t be trying to entice you with life-changing salaries and power lunches at the Ivy. But what they are offering is a diverse career path that will be as challenging as it is rewarding.
The recruitment process
The CPS legal trainee scheme is currently advertised one year before the start date so applicants need to have completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC), Bar Vocational Course (BVC) or be in their final year of study to start the following October.
CPS training principal Neil Holdsworth says: “The selection process has a number of stages including a practical test and an interview, and offers are normally made in about April of the year in which the trainees are due to start.”
Every year the CPS gets around 2,000 applications for between 25 and 50 vacancies. Holdsworth admits that the CPS has benefited from the economic crisis in terms of application numbers, with more candidates considering the public sector as competition for pupillages and training contracts continues to mount.
“It gets harder and harder each year to choose between candidates and as it gets harder to secure a training contract or pupillage so we have seen even more talented candidates choose a career in the CPS,” claims Holdsworth. “People like the security of the CPS as well as the opportunity to do advocacy and serve the community.”
The GLS recruits slightly differently to the CPS. Like many law firms, the GLS recruits two years in advance. But it can be flexible and offer some candidates the opportunity to start within 12 months.
The GLS recruitment team works to the motto, ‘Your background is unimportant’. Although the application form does ask you to disclose the university you attended and the subject you studied, it does not reveal this information to the interview panel.
GLS secretariat Jenny Underhill says: ”Interviewers don’t see where the candidate has been to university, what subject they’ve studied, or the grade they’ve achieved. So when we say where you have come from is unimportant to us, we really mean that.”
Candidates who meet the basic academic eligibility requirements are asked to take an online verbal reasoning test. A panel of GLS lawyers marks the written question submitted with the application form of those candidates who pass the test, and the highest-scoring candidates are asked to attend an assessment centre. The assessment day comprises three parts - a written exercise, a group exercise and an interview in front of a board of panelists.
Training for solicitors
“I knew that the GLS was for me as soon as I went to the interview and assessment day,” says Rebecca Hinton, a second-year trainee with the GLS. “We had a group exercise in which we had to advise on the implications of ministerial decisions, and a written exercise for which we were tasked to answer a problem involving interpretation of European law.”
The 26-year-old is now in her final seat at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) after completing seats with HM Treasury and the Treasury Solicitor’s Department (TSol).
Like all GLS trainees, Hinton had to choose a department to be attached to and she opted for the TSol, an executive agency that undertakes the litigation and advisory services for a number of central government departments and other publicly funded bodies.
Trainee solicitors can expect to spend six months in four different seats over the two-year period before qualifying. Where necessary, a period in another department may be arranged. For example, those in a department without a litigation team may spend one seat in TSol to gain contentious experience.
“Many of TSol’s cases are high-profile, often involving questions of constitutional importance, especially in the fields of judicial review, public interest immunity, contempt, national security and human rights,” says Hinton.
And nothing pleases Hinton more than seeing something she has been working on being discussed on Question Time, or being able to see the results of her work in everyday life.
“During my six months with HM Treasury, I drafted a statutory instrument relating to banking insolvency and drafted royal proclamations allowing new designs and specifications of UK coinage to be produced. Seeing my work appearing on the statute book was very rewarding,” Hinton enthuses.
If you do not think the TSol is for you, there are lots of other choices. The GLS offers placements with a range of government departments including the Home Office, Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR).
CPS trainee solicitor Joseph Stickings had not thought about a career outside of private practice until he did some work experience clerking before starting his LPC.
“It was great to go into court and see the CPS at work,” says Stickings. “I’m training as a solicitor, but when working with the CPS you get to do advocacy, which I really enjoy.”
Trainees are assigned to a CPS office and a trained supervisor is appointed to them. Trainees spend a few months shadowing prosecutors and caseworkers, and carry out the full range of pre-charge advice, case review and preparation under supervision.
After this initial shadowing stage, trainees undertake one or more secondments to gain experience in three distinct areas of law, including non-contentious matters. As the CPS can only provide training in criminal litigation, many trainees spend between six and eight months in another organisation or firm in order to gain the necessary experience.
Stickings spent his secondment at a high street law firm, where he practised in areas such as employment law, civil litigation and commercial law. “Working in private practice is a totally different experience to the one you get working in the public sector, and it really confirmed to me that the CPS was were I wanted to be,” claims Stickings.
After their secondments trainees return to the CPS and spend time doing advocacy work in court. They spend their last six months training to be an associate crown prosecutor, which means they get practical advocacy experience that trainee solicitors would not get elsewhere.
Holdsworth says: “The CPS is great because it trains both pupil barristers and trainee solicitors in advocacy and it’s a tremendously great learning ground for them.”
And because he cannot get enough of advocacy, Stickings has started to take his higher rights qualification, which allows employed solicitors to appear in some cases in the Crown Court and other higher courts.
“Being able to carry out advocacy in the Magistrates’ Court has provided me with lots of practical experience such as being able to think on my feet and the importance of being very organised. I think it will really assist me when I qualify as a solicitor,” says Stickings.
Training as a barrister
Would-be barristers complete a full 12-month pupillage with the CPS. Holdsworth says:
“In their first six months they spend a lot of time shadowing barristers at the Crown Court and Magistrates’ Court. We try to expose them to a wide range of cases from traffic offences up to more complex cases during this training stage.”
The fledgling pupils are then sent out to chambers for around four weeks to gain experience in the self-employed bar. When they return they are faced with the task of actually practising advocacy in the Magistrates’ Courts for the next six months of their training.
Holdsworth says that trainees are not just “dropped in at the deep end” and left to their own devices. “We bring them into it gradually. They go along with a supervisor who stays in court to watch them present cases at first, but then they slowly withdraw,” he explains.
Working as a barrister with the GLS is slightly different because the opportunity to do advocacy work is limited as barristers are required mainly to provide legal advice and prepare legislation rather than take part in tribunal work or prosecutions.
Uphill admits that the GLS started to take an equal measure of trainee solicitors and barristers only very recently. “In the past we’ve mainly taken trainee solicitors but in recent years we’ve been able to offer more pupillages,” she says. “It was almost a 50-50 split last year between the number of training contracts and pupillages available.”
Helen Roe is a pupil barrister in the BERR and the GLS and is currently located in a chambers as part of her training.
“Working with the GLS you get a lot of responsibility at an early point. You get a feeling that you are working as part of a team - something you don’t really get at the self-employed bar,” says Roe.
One major difference between working in the public rather than private sector is that you are not expected to slave away at your desk into the early hours of the morning just to show willing. As long as you have done all of your work, you can expect to work a regular nine-to-five day. But do expect the pay to be significantly lower.
CPS trainees start on around £19,500, which increases to approximately £27,000 on qualification. GLS trainees fare slightly better, with a starting salary of more than £22,640 for posts in Central London, which increases to more than £32,000 on qualification. A far cry from the life-changing salaries in the City, but a good wage compared with the average Londoner.
“I’d much rather receive a regular salary than have to cope with the unpredictability of the self-employed bar,” Roe says. “They’re better paid but you also get the security of being employed.”
Laura Matchett, a second-year trainee at the CPS, agrees. “You have a great work-life balance here and that’s really important to me,” she says. “At least you get a chance to spend your money. People who decide to work in City law firms are often money-rich but time-poor.”
And being a woman in the legal profession is often difficult if you want to start a family and continue carving out a successful legal career. The CPS and GLS offer employees flexible-working - even in very senior roles.
Underhill says: “The GLS has both male and female lawyers taking advantage of the opportunities to work on a part-time, job-share or home-working basis without this affecting their career progression. Around 17 per cent of the GLS total population currently works on a formal part-time or job-share basis.”
In these turbulent economic times getting a job and indeed keeping it is not easy, especially in the legal sector. So next time you go to a law fair and are about to get swept up in the drama and aggressive recruitment drive, take a step back and think about the other areas you could go in to. It’s always good to think outside the box, and this time you might surprise yourself.