I have just returned from the Graduate Law Fair held at the Barbican and sponsored by The Lawyer magazine. During the two days of the fair the Trainee Solicitors Group stand was besieged by hundreds of law students, all eager to receive advice on how to gain a training contract and also to hear our opinions on current trends within the profession.
All were enthusiastic, most were optimistic and yet many admitted to having only a sketchy idea as to what it was that the Law Society did for them. Few have any conception as to the role their professional body is able or likely to play in their future careers.
As I reach the end of my year in office as chair of the National Trainee Solicitors Group, I must confess that such ignorance is cause for the utmost concern. I suggest that it should also be of concern to all of those who worry about the future of our professional body at a time when many within the profession appear to believe that retention of its twin role as public regulator and solicitors' trade union is unsustainable.
In Tony Girling the society has a president who is genuinely committed to putting improved communication at the top of his agenda, but at a time when I hear talk of up to £3m being earmarked for expenditure on public relations, I believe time and money would be better spent in looking again at the whole approach of the society towards its communication with its law student and trainee solicitor members.
The group I have chaired this year represents some 27,000 trainee solicitors and law students registered on legal practice courses. It also, of its own initiative, has committed itself to communicating directly with the country's CPE students and first degree law students, and the Graduate Law Fair was a welcome opportunity to meet many of them.
Our membership represents the future of the profession and has a right to be informed of, and fully participate in, all the important debates concerning legal education, training and other matters that will affect the profile of the profession into which it hopes to qualify.
Girling, in his recent keynote address to the Solicitors' Annual Conference in Manchester, emphasised the responsibility we all have to "tell the good news" concerning the profession to the wider public. I endorse this view wholeheartedly, but I would suggest that good news, like charity, begins at home. Unless the Law Society is willing to commit resources to communicating more effectively with those about to enter the profession, then I believe the proposal to split its functions will ultimately succeed.
The society needs to be applauded for the support it continues to give to the Trainee Solicitors Group. Nevertheless, our resources are extremely stretched, both in terms of money and time. Certainly with regards to first degree law students and CPE students – whom we do not constitutionally represent – there is very little that we can do. Yet it is exactly these people who need to be made intimately aware both of the opportunities that lie ahead for the young solicitor and the obstacles, not least financial, that face anyone contemplating entry into the legal profession.
For this reason, perhaps the most short-sighted decision taken during the past year at the Law Society has been that to abolish the careers and recruitment service, amalgamating careers with the legal education division at Redditch and retaining only a weakened recruitment service in London.
Responsibility for careers advice is to be thrown back on graduate and law college careers advisors. Yet, as many students have said to me over the past couple of days at the Law Fair, is it not the responsibility of any professional body to guide and advise those seeking to enter the profession.
However, it is essential to capture the enthusiasm of law students and trainees at an early stage in their careers, before they become convinced that the Law Society is a body that does not deserve their time or their involvement.
We in the TSG know all about energy and commitment. Our members demonstrate a remarkable amount, giving up their own time to help and advise other trainees and students, to campaign and lobby on a huge range of issues relating to legal education and training and, yes, to do their bit to spread the good news that the Law Society is a body worth preserving.
But too often we feel that our views are welcome only when they accord with those of key opinion-makers within the society. Our strength lies in the fact that we are an independent voice, who see our responsibility as not only communicating to our members the realities ahead but also representing to our professional body the aspirations and concerns of those seeking entry into the profession.
The Law Fair has shown that the country's law students and trainees remain one of the most energetic and enthusiastic elements of the profession. We are nothing less than the future of the profession and our views must be encouraged and noted.