Taking the alternative route

Set for a Big City firm and big pay packet? Not neccessarily. Daniel Holden looks at the options for those not entering private practice. Daniel Holden is a freelance journalist.

Private practice for solicitors and barristers is the most sought after career choice for students having completed a Bar Vocational Course (BVC) or Legal Practice Course (LPC). But an array of vastly different career choices are open to those with legal backgrounds who do not want to, or who are unable to, get into private practice.

The Law Society's Annual Statistical Report 1997 identified some 58,378 solicitors (81 per cent of those qualified) as working in private practice. A further 10,753 (15 per cent) are employed in legally related work, while 4,356, (6.1 per cent) are employed by industry and commerce. Around 2,737 (3.8 per cent) work in local government, with over 1,500 (2 per cent) working for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The burgeoning number of the legally trained, as well as legal aid cut backs, has increased the pressure on finding alternatives to private practice. Simultaneously, the movement towards greater "access to justice" and more rights of audience for solicitors, has reduced the volume of work at the Bar.

For many, alternative choices are temporary to bide time until re-applying for pupillage or articles. For others, they are seen as an opportunity to take a different route that can provide a long-term career path into related fields.

One option is to become an employed solicitor. The Bar Association for Commerce, Finance and Industry (Bacfi) represents the interests of the "employed Bar" – the Bar Council's definition of anyone not practising at the private independent Bar. Figures indicate around 2,450 work at the employed Bar, which includes in-house legal departments for companies, as well as firms of solicitors, accountants and government services.

One attraction is that a period as an employed barrister is a valid alternative mode of serving pupillage for those interested in returning to the independent Bar. "The employed Bar has great flexibility," says Susan Ward, chairman of Bacfi. "They can be totally legal or use their legal training in other more, commercial contexts."

The Association of Non-Practising Barristers represents those coming under the looser definition of "non-practising barrister", totalling around 3,000 in number, and including those in public service industries, part-time legal advisers, academics and retired barristers.

"Many of our members work either on a full or part-time basis, advising and representing clients in industrial and immigration appeal tribunals, where no formal rights of audience exist," said Dr Peter Gray, secretary of the association.

But because of the open rights of audience, no formal legal training is compulsory. In fact, Gray admitted that, at least for this type of work, advisers "could do almost as well without legal qualifications".

Law Centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) offer fertile ground for interested parties. Funding through BVC or LPC is available, if limited, from charities, local councils and trade unions, and this ultimately leads to similar rights of audience.

Many students, either before or after academic training, seek work as "paralegals" in all sizes of companies, usually having approached recruitment agencies. Positions are either indefinite or fixed for a period of several months, to assist companies and firms in current and future litigation. Many of the large accountancy and solicitors' practices employ such paralegals and particularly in insolvency and local authority work.

Allen & Overy employs around 50 paralegals, mainly in its litigation department. Of those, a "high proportion come from LPC or BVC backgrounds," a spokeswoman says.

Paralegals tend to be less well salaried, but the positions give valuable experience and an entry level into the company which can prove useful.

The CPS is becoming more attractive to trainees. However, 1993 marked the end of the period in which the CPS was prepared to sponsor people through pupillage or articles.

But, as of October 1997, the recruitment freeze, which stood since 1994, is over and the CPS is looking to recruit and train high quality lawyers in anticipation of the internal restructuring. One CPS office will cover one police force area, increasing the current 13 offices to 42.

"With around 90 per cent of CPS work taken up in the Magistrates' Court, the restructuring reflects the policy of putting our resources to frontline legal work, instead of managerial staff," said Edward Bowles, Senior Crown Prosecutor.

Careers are also available in central and local government, either through the Government Legal Service (GLS), or departments such as Education, Social Services, Housing, Highways and Planning.

Local government salaries for newly qualified lawyers in London start at between £23,000 and £25,000.

The GLS makes up 30 central government departments, agencies and public bodies which employ between them around 1,100 lawyers.

Regulatory bodies such as the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and Health and Safety Executive are also staffed through the GLS.

Those interested in working for European Union structures such as the parliament or the commission may find access more difficult.

The European Staffing Unit, which recruits for the European Fast Stream and helps applicants train for the European Open Competitions into the institutions, is currently seeking around three qualified lawyers for 1998/99, but no longer offers funding for trainee solicitors and barristers through articles or pupillage.

The Lord Chancellor's Department recruits for positions such as associates in the Royal Courts of Justice, who are responsible for running the court and preparing interlocutory and final court orders.

An equivalent in the Magistrates' Court is the court clerk, who also advises the magistrates on the law and their sentencing powers. The Association of Magistrates' Courts organises staffing requirements.

Angela Grant qualified on the BVC in 1997. After a period of paralegal work at a US law firm, she started as a Magistrates' Courts clerk. "My interest in criminal law drew me to the job and the work gives you a very realistic view of the court process," she says.

Legal publishing companies, such as Butterworths are often overlooked as a career choice. Butterworths has writing and editing positions, in particular in updating practitioner works such as Halsbury's Laws.

Academic positions such as university teaching are available, but competition is tough. The Law Commission accepts applications from BVC and LPC students and appointments are usually for one year, although they can be extended to three.

Other opportunities await those with legal backgrounds who are sought after by many of the mainstream graduate employers outside. Banks and insurance companies are high on the list of recruiters and many with an interest in finance would do well looking at these options.

Many of the jobs, including local government and para-legal work, are advertised in the national press as well as in the legal press.

But the key move towards further opportunities is to get a foot in the door.

Bacfi can be contacted on 0171 711 6200 and the Association of Non-Practising Barristers' number is: 01795 890 162

An RCJ Associate's view

Tolani Azeez is a fee-paid associate in the Chancery Division at the Royal Courts of Justice for around eight hours per week while studying on the Bar Vocational Course at the Inns of Court School of Law.

The role requires taking detailed notes of the case and drafting any interlocutory and final orders that the court makes.

"The work itself is challenging but not beyond those who are legally trained,"she says. "It is especially interesting for trainee barristers who want experience in court.

"Full-time associates go through the civil service route via the Lord Chancellor's Department. This provides a structured career path for those interested in pursuing this type of work," says Azeez.

"Some of the full time associates have gone on to other areas in the Government Legal Service. Internal circulars also alert you to other opportunities within the Lord Chancellor's Department."