Leaving behind Big Ben for a career in the City

As lawyers from the private sector take key posts in the Blair Government, David McCahon relates his experience of moving out of Westminster and into the City. David McCahon is a barrister in the consumer and retail finance group at Cameron McKenna.

It is a short walk between Westminster and the City, but the two spheres are often worlds apart. Before joining Cameron McKenna, where I have just started my sixth month, I worked for the Consumers' Association, followed by six years in the Government Legal Service (GLS).

Six months is a short time in any career, but a number of things stand out on first impression. The level of lawyers' expertise and the knowledge and understanding they have of their clients' businesses is impressive. The level of investment and commitment to training is high and there is an efficient system in place for keeping lawyers up-to-date with information relevant to their own and other practice areas.

But the differences between working in the GLS and in private practice are not always as straightforward. Government lawyers are of a very high calibre. They have to become experts in the work of their department very quickly. This may happen a number of times in a government lawyer's career as they move between departments and, as such, they need to be extremely adaptable.

The GLS gives lawyers a great deal of responsibility. They can be working on a major piece of legislation, drafting statutory instruments, advising ministers or conducting high profile litigation at an early stage in their career. They have a great deal of exposure to European law and can get involved in negotiating directives in Brussels and attending hearings in Luxembourg and Strasbourg. The opportunities for involvement in high-profile work affecting a large number of individuals are hard to beat.

But the route to the top is slow. Whereas partnership is a realistic prospect for solicitors in private practice once they have been qualified for seven years or more, very able lawyers in the GLS can remain at grades seven and six (the grades below the senior civil service grades) for far longer.

If things go well, government lawyers can hope to be promoted to the senior civil service in their early forties. Often this is their first experience of management.

There is a wide gulf between government lawyers' pay and that of their private practice colleagues. In the 1980s, GLS salaries were reviewed to reduce the gap between the two sectors. However, a similar gap still exists and is widening. A recent survey suggests that due to the influence of US firms in London, a newly qualified solicitor at a City firm can expect a starting salary of £30,000 or more. A newly-qualified GLS entrant can expect a salary in the region of £25-30,000.

On promotion to grade seven, which can take between one to two years, the pay rise is normally 5 per cent and the grade range is in the region of £27-£42,000. Promotion to grade six takes at least three years, often longer. This promotion brings an additional pay rise of 5 per cent and entry into the pay band of £31-£51,000. Only after grade six is promotion to the senior civil service possible.

One could argue that the shortfall in pay is balanced by shorter working days and less pressure, the absence of chargeable hour targets, and the chance to see the heart of government in action.

But government lawyers are increasingly having to work long hours under great pressure as the ever-increasing workload falls on but a few shoulders. The Home Office has 23 lawyers – that figure speaks for itself. When advising on bills, GLS lawyers are often in the Houses of Parliament until the early hours of the morning.

The pressure of targets for billable hours is not an issue, but time recording has been a feature of the Treasury Solicitor's Department for a number of years – and, more recently, at the Department of Trade and Industry – enabling them to invoice their clients.

Government lawyers are encouraged to be free thinking, practical and to take on responsibility. Customer care and understanding the needs of clients are as important as they are in any private practice. Government lawyers are also encouraged to be proactive in identifying areas in which legal services could be improved.

The ability to look beyond the case work and to recognise aims and purposes of departments or ministers – as well as looking for ways to provide a cost-effective legal advice service – are part and parcel of what is expected of government lawyers.

Private practice is not that different. The ability to provide legal advice within budget, tailored to the business aims and systems of the client is a familiar theme.

Ministers and administrators can be as demanding as any commercial client. The pressure of knowing that your work may be scrutinised by the courts, the Parliamentary Ombudsman or a select committee, that your draft statutory instruments may be criticised by parliament, or that the policy you have advised on might face criticism in the press, should not be underestimated.

Deadlines are increasingly set by Europe, published commitments and, of course, by litigation. Cases must be turned round as soon as possible, especially when they affect an individual's livelihood or personal freedom. These pressures are just as real as the targets set by corporate clients.

So what of commercial awareness? Government lawyers must apply the law in a practical way – suggesting workable and cost-effective solutions to the often complex problems faced by their clients. The lawyer needs to assess all the risks and provide the client with clear advice so that informed choices can be made.

Finally, it has been the exception rather than the norm for government lawyers to specialise in a particular area. They tend to move from department to department gaining skills and experience throughout their careers. A solicitor may move between firms, but it is unusual to move from one speciality to another.

Perhaps the main differences lie in the marketing and profile raising that lawyers in private practice are required to engage in and the pressures imposed to achieve targets.

And the freedom to develop a practice which is not bound by the requirement to advise a defined group of individuals is refreshing.

It was a new – and stimulating – experience to sit down and write a business development plan, work out a marketing budget and discuss targets within two weeks of joining the firm.