Contempt of Caught? How the ICC upheld the Rule of Law

Two of my main passions collided last week in the latest instalment of the cricket “spot-fixing” scandal (the background to which is summarised brilliantly by cricket website ESPN Cricinfo), and it was pleasing to see the cricketing establishment being so respectful of the English legal system. The International Cricket Council (as opposed to the International Criminal Court) took a decision to ban the three Pakistani cricketers involved in the scandal for what is, once suspended bans have been taken into account, a period of 5 years each. However, it was the ICC’s decision to only publish an edited version of its spot-fixing ruling and making even that edited version “unavailable to readers in England and Wales” for fear of influencing the case which will be coming to the UK courts in March this year that was so impressive.

The ICC’s exercise of caution is excellent news in the wake of the media reporting of the Joanna Yeates murder case, which led to thousands of tweets about a suspect who was portrayed in many newspapers as being guilty by virtue of not being what fits into their definition of “normal”.

The Guardian sought to talk about whether the coverage of the Yeates case was rendering the Contempt of Court Act 1981 “threadbare” and “in disarray”. It is reassuring, therefore, to see that when the CPS is proactive in its protection of the justice system, as it was in this instance, that the public and the organisations who are affected will respond.

The CPS’ charging statement contained the following:

“I would remind everyone that these men are entitled to a fair trial and should be regarded as innocent of these charges unless it is proven otherwise in court. The International Cricket Council tribunal is due to announce its decision tomorrow, but criminal proceedings are active now.

“It is extremely important that nothing should be reported which could prejudice the trial.”

(Source: CPS blog)

This will not be a long post because, amongst other reasons, I won’t comment on the case itself and thereby contravene the very direction that I am commending the ICC for adhering to.

However, what I will say is that I am pleased that in, the wake of the “trial by [mainstream and social] media” that occurred in the Yeates case, the English legal system’s principles are being upheld once more.

Of course people will have opinions on these three cricketers (and the agent who was the subject of the News of the World sting operation), and will air them privately to each other and may even broadcast them publicly via the internet. But they must express them in such a way that it cannot influence the outcome of a case which has yet to come to trial. The CPS is doing the right thing in setting this example. The ICC has done the right thing in responding accordingly.

———

As an aside, I wonder if this article by Roy Greenslade, about the overturn of convictions secured after so-called “Fake Sheikh” sting operations run by the News of the World, is relevant to the Amir/Butt/Asif/Majheed case. I am unfamiliar with the rules pertaining to these kind of attempts to draw out incriminating conduct, and would be interested to know if convicting these men is likely to be impossible even before the trial has begun simply on account of the methods used to obtain evidence.

Newsflash: Legal Bloggers are real people! Reflections on the #LawBlogs seminar

This week, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a seminar about the future of legal blogging held at One Crown Office Row, home of the brilliant UK Human Rights Blog.

In his post entitled “That was the future of legal blogging”, Adam Wagner of the UK Human Rights Blog gives a good run-down of what was covered.

Legal blogging is certainly alive and well if the #LawBlogs event is to be a barometer. There are new blogs springing up all the time to augment the body of older ones – one member of the panel, Carl Gardner, set up his blog in what he called “ancient history in internet terms” (2006) – and covering all aspects of the market.

It took being in that room with a large number of people who blog for me to realise just how many varieties of law blog there are.

At the moment, I’m not in a position to write about the finer points of law; I don’t feel sufficiently qualified. I tweeted a while ago about this, saying I was a frustrated law blogger because despite my desire, I don’t know enough law to blog authoritatively. But that doesn’t matter – even those who clearly do know enough to blog in that way don’t always do so; for every blog like Carl Gardner’s, Adam Wagner’s, David Allen Green’s (although his New Statesman blog is less about legal intricacies) or the fantastic LawThinkUK blog, there’s one like Legal Bizzle’s, Tim Bratton’s or mine (not that I’m in their league, of course).

I intend, as I progress through my career, to keep up my writing. Whether that is to continue writing about the process of studying & working in law and its impact on me, like Barry Gross or Tim Bratton do, or whether I’ll move into doing more complex analyses, I don’t know. But whichever one it is, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.

One of the questions that was discussed was “who do you blog for?”. One of the things I took away from the evening about blogging is that whoever your intended audience may be and whatever effect you hope your writing will have, you are ultimately blogging for yourself. Blogging is unpaid and, as was agreed in the form of much nodding and murmuring when it was mentioned at #LawBlogs, can be very time consuming. It’s not something that any of the legal bloggers would do if they didn’t enjoy it. And I think it’s that enthusiasm that comes across when you read a blogpost – even when Legal Bizzle’s at his most irritated I can sense that, even if he’s not enjoying the work or the people with whom he has to interact, he is enjoying telling the rest of us his story. Blogs aren’t written entirely for the writer’s benefit, though – if it was just about the writing, we’d all be writing diaries – and the more legally-focused blogs rely on their audience in a different way to the ‘therapeutic’ blogs.

It’s sometimes easy to forget – or rather, it’s sometimes difficult to comprehend – just how many blogs you read in the course of any given time period. I was surprised to sit in a room with 30 people on Thursday night, each of whose blogs I have read at least once this week, in some cases many more times than that. There are also plenty of bloggers who were not in the room whose blogs I have also read this week.

#LawBlogs was marvellous because it confirmed to me that there really is a “blogging and Tweeting community”. It was great to meet in person the people who before now had simply been Twitter account names, especially those who use alternative names and photos, and to talk about things we have in common. The main tie binding those who were present was an enjoyment of law (although some might say it borders on an obsession with law).

There were people from all stages of qualification, from lowly, GDL-studying me to those who have made it to the very top of the profession; people who work in all areas of law, and those who write from the outside about the law and its practitioners. It was great to find common ground about blogging with people whom I’d never have met were it not for Twitter, talking about self-censorship in blogposts and the value we’ve found in tweeting about law.

Without the invention of the internet, there would never have been an invitee list like there was at #LawBlogs. Being there was a great pleasure, and there are plans afoot to hold a bigger version of the seminar later in 2011. For me, it was yet another great illustration of the power of the network. Long live legal blogging, in all of its many forms.

The place of ethics in legal education

There is a discussion happening currently in legal education circles about the suggestion from the Law Society that ethics should be taught to law students. Professor Richard Moorhead of Cardiff University wrote an excellent blogpost on the subject in December, around the time that the Law Society’s report was published. He wrote that he supported the basic premise of teaching ethics to law students, so long as certain things were taken into account. I shan’t go through them now, because that would be effectively regurgitating his entire blogpost, and I wouldn’t do it justice; I advise you to read it for yourselves.

I tried writing this post a couple of weeks ago, but couldn’t seem to find an angle for it. That angle was presented to me by a friend of mine a couple of days ago. She attended the Student Law Conference this week, where she attended a talk by Lady Hale, a Justice of the United Kingdom Supreme Court. After giving her presentation, Lady Hale invited questions from the gathered mass of law students.

One of the questions asked was “How do you balance integrity with achieving your clients’ objectives?” I studied some ethics at University and found it very interesting from a philosophical point of view. But I don’t expect that it will have any practical bearing on my career as a lawyer.

The student’s question to Lady Hale is exactly the type of issue that legal education, if it is to attempt to bring ethical teaching to bear on the future lawyers of this country, should attempt to answer. Navigating the shades of grey and working right up to the boundaries of legality in order to achieve a client’s objectives are what some people would say denotes a good lawyer. But how is this taught?

This week, I finally read the Law Society’s report on the teaching of ethics to law students, which contains a draft syllabus for the teaching of legal ethics on Qualifying Law Degrees (QLD), as one of the foundation subjects. I was linked to it from Neil Rose’s article on Guardian Law about the effect that the new Alternative Business Structures might have on legal ethics, in which Neil recounts his time working on the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) legal ethics helpline. “My experience,” he said, “is that solicitors are generally seeking reassurance they are doing the right thing rather than looking for ways around the rules.”

On the face of it, it appears that to teach ethics as I was taught it in my philosophy elective during my degree, or even how the Law Society intends to do so (if the draft syllabus I linked to earlier is adopted), is not quite the right way to go about it. It seems to me to be a practical aspect that needs to be taught. One would hope – though sadly, experience tells us that a mere hope is all this remains – that those who wish to enter a career in the law have a moral code that they wish to adhere to. I don’t believe that learning the theory of ethics will benefit students, certainly not as one of the foundation subjects on a QLD or on a Graduate Diploma in Law (the so-called “law conversion course”).

What can be inferred from Neil’s experiences on the SRA’s helpline is that the guidance lawyers sometimes lack is that of interpretation. But is this teachable? Is it practical to do so? After all, each situation faced in practice will differ, and it is impossible to cover all possible eventualities of every law that is taught on a QLD. Perhaps that is the thinking behind teaching ethical theory; if you cannot teach every situation, at least attempt to arm students with a framework from which to approach those situations. The problem is, I doubt that the proposed framework is practically applicable.

I wonder whether this ethics debate is really addressing the heart of the problem. At University, the ethics module I took was worth 10 credits, so I chose another module worth 10 credits to complement it. That module was Critical Thinking – how to form valid arguments, and how to identify when a conclusion does not logically stem from the reasons given. It is that module which I believe will have greater practical application in my career; it was those skills which led me to question the validity of using ethics to solve this problem.

If it really is just a problem of interpretation of laws, as I suspect it might be, does that point not towards the need to add ethics to the syllabus but simply to improve the standard of legal education as a whole? Isn’t interpretation one of the core skills that legal training is supposed to provide? Of course, once a lawyer begins to practise they should be taught about conflicts of interest and money laundering and other practical ethical elements. But, in my opinion, those should not be compulsory subjects on a law degree.

‘Extended trial periods for workers’ proposal: a call for opinions

Recently, I watched an interview that the Financial Times carried out with The Confederation of British Industry’s new Director General, John Cridland. It was very interesting, and is worth watching if you have the time and inclination to do so.

Cridland  asserted that with the consumer being “chastened” and the government concerned with the public sector, the private sector had to take the lead in the recovery. He said that there were three things that business needed to do – invest, export and create jobs – and that in each area, there was a key role for the government to play.

When probed further about what the government needed to do in order to promote these, Cridland said of the job market that the government must “remove any barriers that get in the way of businesses, and particularly small businesses, employing people. There are key changes to employment law, like giving businesses a couple of years to judge whether they’ve got the right person, which will make a real difference to whether a business is prepared to take the risk of taking somebody on.”

I was intrigued by this statement. I’ve been learning about the EU employment regulations recently as part of my GDL (which was interesting in itself, as I’d previously covered them from a political perspective as part of my degree) and have seen the feelings they inspire from all quarters.

I have spoken to people who employ workers, who have said that a move in this direction would indeed be useful for them, as would a relaxation of other employment laws such as those covering maternity and its related areas.
I’ve spoken to some employers who accept that it can be difficult on occasion, but that an equal and fair society is worth the inconvenience and that competent hirers and managers should be untroubled by employment law.
I’ve spoken to employment lawyers who feel that despite regulation being weighted slightly in favour of workers, the business world can cope and needs to be regulated against to maintain fairness.

I agree that fairness is the ultimately desirable goal, and that the concept of a two-year trial period probably goes against that ideal. But is pragmatism required in times of struggle for business? If enterprises are being asked to lead the recovery, should they not be given every help to do this? On the other hand, consumer spending will also be a trigger for recovery. For consumers to spend, they’ll need to feel secure in their employment, and therefore long trial periods might not be the way to encourage that feeling.

It’s a fine line to be drawn, and it’s the CBI’s job to argue solidly in the interests of its members. I’d be interested to hear the opinions of people to whom this might affect, to see if they think it would make a practical difference to their work. I nearly didn’t publish this blogpost because it’s not a field where I can give opinions that are based on anything other than observation. I’m applying for Training Contracts at the moment which are two years in length and, in effect, give law firms the very flexibility that the CBI is asking for - the ability to test whether someone is worthy of a permanent role during the first two years of their service. But I decided to on the grounds that I doubt that many people have watched this interview, and I’m  sure there will be opinions around once people have seen it.

The government’s financial plans are taking a tremendous pounding in many quarters at the moment, and if you watch the Cridland interview you’ll see how careful he is not to say anything negative about his ally, the Conservative party. Socio-economic policy is probably the area over which the two ruling parties will have to compromise the most. I could not envisage a ruling party adopting this theory as a policy, even at the best of times; given that there’s a coalition in power, the CBI have two hopes of achieving their aim – and Bob Hope is no longer around.

Legal trainee recruitment from an applicant’s perspective, Part 2: The Application Form

In Part 1 of my guide to the applicant’s view of legal trainee recruitment, I wrote about some of the questions and tasks that applicants must negotiate on their way to the reaching holy grail of a training contract offer. I realise, though, that I may have inadvertently given the impression that similar things could be expected from all law firms.

To a certain extent, this is indeed the case – they each have an application process involving you writing something down followed by seeing them face-to-face. Most of the time there’ll be a question about why you have chosen that particular firm (which is why that is the example I used when mentioning application forms in the previous piece). Apart from that, however, the process is often as different as chalk and cheese.

I’d like to say by way of a disclaimer before I begin that I’m only writing this to give people a sense of the process, rather than because I believe that wholesale changes to the system are necessary – they aren’t. As I concluded in the last piece on the topic, we know that recruitment processes are imperfect, otherwise there wouldn’t be much deviation from 100% trainee retention rates and there wouldn’t be trial periods in most jobs. The fact is that there’s no way to truly know what someone is like at work without actually working with them.

Different firms use different systems to create their application forms. Some use central form systems, such as CVMailUK or Apply4Law, which applicants like because they allow you to enter your education records into a central website database and simply import them into each application form. This may not sound important, but when you’ve done more than 20 modules at university, 3 A-Levels, an AS-Level and 10 GCSEs as is standard across the country (with some doing many more), it can become a mite repetitive to enter the same data into multiple forms. Especially when some applications ask for the marks as pure marks (University marks in this country are out of 90) and some ask for them in percentages, often requiring conversion.

Once you’ve hurdled the education section, the next part you’re confronted with is often – but not always, obviously – the employment section. Again, the requirements of this section vary from firm to firm. Some firms are very generous with their word allowance in this section; one firm I know allows unlimited space for you to elaborate on the tasks you performed and the knowledge you gained whilst performing them. Other firms prefer slightly more curt responses, with one firm allowing a mere 50 words; by way of illustration, the start of this paragraph to the first semicolon (i.e. two-and-a-half sentences) is 46 words. Most firms settle somewhere in the 100-300 word bracket for this answer, which is still not an immense amount, and requires a new answer to be written for every form because of the different constraints. The gulf between a 200-word answer and a 100-word answer is vast.

The firm-specific questions (for want of a better description) are always bound to differ by virtue of their very nature. Some of them are the standard, “explain your decision” questions, whilst some are more competency-based. Just to give you a proper idea, the standard questions can include:

  • Why you want to be a lawyer
  • Why you want to work for [X] firm
  • Why you want to work in the City
  • Why your skills make you suitable for a career in the type of law you’ve chosen
  • Why you think the firm should hire you over anyone else

Meanwhile, the competency questions often ask about things like times you’ve been involved in a successful team, when you’ve shown resilience or an occasion you overcame a problem. These also come in different formats: some firms ask for the competencies outright, whilst some are more circumspect in their questioning. Some firms ask each of the “explain your decision” questions with a 100-word limit, whilst some lump two or three in together and give you slightly more. This is the real core of what a firm is looking for, so it makes perfect sense for the firm to tailor this section to its individual needs.

Of course, there are also the firms who don’t require you to fill in these kind of forms. Some firms merely request a CV and Covering Letter, which requires a different set of skills entirely. Again, if firms feel that this is the best way for them to find and hire the right candidates, then there’s no problem with it for me.

I know that the process isn’t designed to make life easy for candidates, or for us to be able to copy and paste answers from one form to another – I’m aware that the purpose is to test the applicants’ abilities. The recruitment processes are there for the firms themselves to hire the people they find to be the best for their firm, and they have the freedom to do that in whatever way they like.

I can’t help thinking, though, that applications would be made simpler and perhaps of a higher standard if firms accepted that certain things could be standardised. The ability to pre-load education results is, as I mentioned, a wonderful thing when it comes to making applications, and in my opinion should be the norm for firms. Perhaps the same could also be done for the employment questions, which would enable applicants to answer the competency and justification questions without having to worry about the standard elements. Sometimes it seems that the only thing the application processes have in common are their uniqueness.

If your form is good enough, you may be invited to have a telephone interview. Or have a face-to-face interview. Or have an assessment day. Or undergo psychometric testing. Or all of the above. This part of the process is so individual to the firms that it would be impossible to comment. You just have to hope that none of the unexpected elements of the process resemble this interview: 

Many thanks to fellow GDL student, Yihsin Wang, for her help with this blogpost

New-Fangled Commerce – or how Apple may take the cash from consumers’ pockets for good

It’s January, so it must be time to count down to a new product from Apple of some type or description. At the moment, the hype is surrounding the iPhone 5, which is likely to become available around the middle of the year if precedent is anything to go by.

Bloomberg reports that amongst the features of the new smartphone, which will probably include 3G and 4G connectivity, there will also be Near-Field Communication. Near-Field Communication, or NFC, is technology that many of us are already familiar with. We may use it to access public transport or our local gym, and perhaps some of us also use it to pay for goods in small transactions.

The technology clearly already exists in the marketplace, and is slowly gaining user numbers, although transactions have been hampered thus far by a lack of retailers who have invested in installing the necessary terminals. This is about to change though. Slowly but surely, retailers and payment companies are moving towards this payment method. McDonald’s is to accept the “pay-by-wave” cards from Summer 2011, which is likely to mark the start of a new era of adoption of the technology, so long as it is not prohibitively expensive for smaller companies.

Placing NFC into mobile phones, as Apple, Samsung, Research In Motion, Nokia and Google are doing, could increase its use exponentially. If the system works as conceived, the mobile phone would simply contain the technology which would then be able to be used by any type of reader. Gone might be the days of carrying around change for a newspaper – just use your phone. Do you really need that wallet full of cards? No – your phone can get you onto the bus or into your office.

So long as the security concerns are dealt with adequately – no mean feat given that this technology will probably make mobile phones even more sought-after by those who seek to acquire them nefariously – the technology has the potential to revolutionise the way commerce is handled in everyday situations.

The major US cellphone providers have co-operated to form ISIS, a new mobile commerce company. If that is a success, the next generation of transactions will be almost unrecognisable, even from those we currently use. Cheques and credit cards that require signatures rather than PINs are already collectors’ items. It might not be too fanciful to think that credit cards themselves could join this list. Visa certainly thinks so; they quote a Forbes magazine article in which the author writes that “it’s possible for the phone itself to replace a card“. Tech Crunch also believe that the sky is the limit with this.

Prepare for your pockets and handbags to become lighter – your phone may now genuinely become the centre of your life.

Some FAQs answered for those considering a law conversion course

I recently received an email from someone I know who was thinking about converting his degree through the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), more commonly known as the law conversion course. He asked me some questions so that he could have as much information as possible on which to base his decision.

His questions were practical ones about the course, how I was finding it, and how I was funding it. They’re the sort of questions I wish I’d had answers to before I left university, and answers from a student on the course rather than from one of the course providers. I decided, having read and answered his questions, that to publish them might help others make a decision. My reply is extensive and, I’d like to think, thorough, but it won’t be comprehensive and my experiences will have differed from those of others, so please feel free to comment with your own thoughts and opinions if you have anything to add to the information.

The email I received read thus:

Hey Ashley,

I understand that you are currently taking the law conversion course. I’ve decided to look into it and see if it’s for me, and would just like to ask you a few questions about it, if you don’t mind?
Was it easy to get into with your degree?
Are you self-funding…and are most people on the course self-funding or are there lots of people already with law firms paying for them?
How difficult/intense etc is it, are you struggling or finding it a manageable challenge? Since we did similar subjects at the same uni I assume we’ve got a relatively similar skill set!
Are you in the process of applying for/have you got a Training Contract (TC)? From reading about it, this seems to be absolutely crucial yet also very difficult. How are you finding it and what would you do if you can’t get one? How easy do people seem to find it in general on your course, and do you need much previous law experience to help you get one?This is the one issue that really confuses me as I’m worried I wouldn’t be able to get a TC and hence waste a year!
Have you secured any work experience etc/ how difficult was that to achieve?

I know there are lots of questions, but any help will be really greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

A Prospective GDL Student

I gave the email due consideration, and thought about my experiences, both on the course itself and beforehand. I replied as follows:

Hi Prospective Student.

I’d be delighted to answer your questions.

1) The only true entry requirement is obviously that you hold a degree. Beyond that, if they have space available and you are able to afford the fees, you are likely to be accepted. By way of example, I know people who applied in March or April, well after the deadline for first round applications, to three law schools (which is as many as lawcabs.ac.uk allows you to apply to) and received offers from all three. The law schools were also still advertising places on the GDL well into September 2010 for the 2010/2011 Academic Year.

2) I am self-funding and so are many of my classmates. As I write, out of our class of 20, there are only 3 people who have secured funding already. I took a job straight from University, having thought that the training fees in law would be prohibitive for me, in order to work out what to do. It took me no time at all to realise that I didn’t want to do anything other than go into the legal profession, and so I used that year to earn the money for my GDL and apply for Training Contracts. There are ways to finance the courses – Nat West, for instance, do a specific “Professional Qualifications Loan” which some people here have taken up [11/02/2011 - I have just read that Nat West have withdrawn this scheme. For more details, click here] – and I will need to find a way to fund myself through the next stage if I do not manage to secure a TC this year. Whatever happens, though, the investment has been one worth making, as far as I am concerned. Some people said that it would be worth it back when I was worrying about it, but it seemed easy for them to say that, as they weren’t people who’d been through it. Taking the year to work gave me the perspective on my ambitions and the perspective on funding the course to be able to take the risk of funding it myself. I was surprised to find out how few people on the GDL have Training Contracts already.

3) There’s a lot of work for sure, but it’s manageable. I haven’t had any problems so far, although the volume increases between Xmas and the end of the course, with two pieces of coursework to do as well as the regular lectures and workshops (and revision for mocks). The trick is to keep on top of it. At uni I left most things until the last minute, even exam revision. With this, it’s impossible to do that; I think you’d quickly sink like a stone. So it’s just about being responsible and working consistently. Once you do that, it’s comparatively simple. Yes, our similar backgrounds are useful but law has so many disciplines in practice that it requires people from all backgrounds – the most common are social sciences, humanities, philosophy graduates, but there are two former musicians in my class as well. The course is open to holders of all kinds of degrees, so whilst your essay-writing skills may stand you in good stead, they’re not all that you need and they certainly won’t carry you through on their own!

4) I haven’t got a training contract yet, and am applying for them at the moment. In my opinion, the greatest importance placed on attaining a TC at the stage you’re at is in the funding. You obviously need to complete a 2-year TC if you want to qualify, but the immediate need is the money. If it’s possible to do the GDL and even maybe the LPC via another means of funding then I would do so. If you need to take a year or two to earn money to pay for it and apply for training contracts then that makes sense – I did it – but it helps to get on the path as soon as possible, in my opinion. The other important thing that a Training Contract gives you, though, is the security of knowing that you have somewhere to go after finishing your studies.

5) Firms like you to have experience because it shows that you have a commitment to law, but also because it shows that you know what to expect. [I wrote about this at length in my blogpost entitled "So, Candidate, why do you want to work at a City firm?"] More than just “any legal experience”, they want it to be relevant. They’re not looking for their trainees to know exactly what area they want to qualify into – and in many cases they prefer trainees not to know. But they’d like you to be sure that the type of law is what you want. For instance, if you’re applying to City commercial firms, having some work experience in a high-street family practice will only be useful up to a point. You can sell it on the basis of knowing you don’t want to work in that environment, but a big firm wants its candidates to be certain they want to work in the city world. It was explained to me recently that it costs roughly £250,000 to recruit each trainee at most of the big firms, so obviously for that investment they want to make sure, as far as they can, that the person is right for the job and will stay there for a while. The entire process is fairly arbitrary, I think, as what one firm wants, another firm may not. Also, it depends how the recruitment is done. Many systems are imperfect, especially in firms who give applications to busy lawyers to read.

6) Training contracts are, as I’m sure you know, recruited two years in advance when it comes to the big firms. They do this because that’s the amount of legal training that their students have to go through if they get them at the earliest stage. I know many people who have secured contracts with firms after they have started their training, and the years in between are not wasted, I can assure you! Sometimes the firms take their future trainees on as paralegals so they can gain experience and earn some money. Some take it as a gap year opportunity and go travelling, or undertake more study such as an MBA. Of course, there are also smaller firms who recruit for trainees from the pool of people who already have their LPC qualification, so even if you go throughout law school with no Training Contract, you may still be in a great position to apply to firms like that afterwards.

7) As I mentioned above, work experience is a real help when it comes to securing Training Contracts. In order to get the experience, though, sometimes you already need to have experience – it can be a bit of a vicious circle with Vacation Schemes in the City. My advice would be to write to law firms and to make as many contacts as you possibly can. Think of everyone who you know who might be able to give you some help or advice and ask them. Even if you don’t know anyone directly who can help, there are bound to be people around who can. Sometimes it’s useful to think laterally: for instance, most of us know people who have been divorced; ask someone for the contact details of their solicitor. Even if they can’t help you themselves, they may have contacts in the industry who are able to. Networking is absolutely vital. Recruiting firms don’t expect everyone to have extensive experience though, so don’t worry about filling a CV chock-full of it. Just enough to show that you have thought about the profession seriously will suffice.

I hope that this has been of help. If you have any more questions, you know where I am.

All the best,

Ash

Now, comprehensive though this may appear, it omits at least one major piece of advice that I wish I’d had – that of how to decide which provider to study with once you’ve made the decision to do the GDL. This is a difficult decision for many prospective students because of the dearth of information on the subject. The four major postgraduate legal education providers are BPP Law School, City Law SchoolKaplan Law School and The College of Law.

When looking to choose a university for your undergraduate degree, you can decide based on the surroundings, based on teaching league tables, on research, on course content, and many other factors. When the course content is identical, as it largely is with the GDL, the decision becomes more difficult. The majority of the information available comes from the providers themselves, rather than any independent source, and leaves a great deal to the imagination.

It’s difficult to make a wrong decision on this, and each of the major providers is regarded equally by most firms (some have agreements with a particular provider but studying elsewhere before securing a TC doesn’t preclude you from joining them in most cases). My advice would be to contact the providers and find out the full details of the teaching and any extra benefits: how many contact hours you would have, what materials would be made available online (are lectures recorded, for instance?), how big are the class sizes, what’s the careers service like, and so on. Then, once you have this information to hand, work out what is most beneficial for you. If you’re someone who can’t take notes easily in lectures, having recordings of them available online might be just what you need, for instance.

Once you’ve decided on a provider, you may find that they have more than one branch in the same city, as I found with the College of Law. Again, almost no information on which to base a decision over where to study exists, even less for deciding between the Moorgate and Bloomsbury College of Law centres than there was for deciding which provider to opt for. I chose the College because of their course structure, because I knew a larger number of people who had studied there than at any of the other providers, and because, if you do GDL and either the BPTC (the practical course for future barristers) or the LPC (the equivalent for future solicitors) with the College, you receive an LL.B at no extra cost and with no further exams, which is in contrast to other providers. I figured that if I didn’t get a training contract, I’d like to come out with an LL.B to show for my two years; if I secure one and the firm wants me to study for my LPC elsewhere, I’m happy to make that trade-off!

This was a personal decision, and the lack of information meant that it wasn’t built on the strongest of foundations, but I did as much research as I could and made my decision based on as much knowledge as I was able to acquire. I hope that through this post, some people will be able to be more certain of their options.

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As I said earlier, I am certain that I have missed some absolute gems of advice, and that people who have had different experiences to me will be able to provide valuable insights into other areas of the decision-making process. If you have anything to add, please do comment. Feel free also to comment in order to ask any questions.

An edited version of this blogpost was published on the AllAboutCareers.com website

Podcast with Charon QC

Over the Christmas period, I was approached by Mike Semple-Piggot, better known (by some) as Charon QC, and invited to join him for a podcast about my experiences on the Graduate Diploma in Law.

The podcast has been recorded and is now available by clicking on this photo:

The link to Charon’s blogpost, which has links to other Lawcasts in the series, can be found here.

I hope you enjoy listening to it!

Legal trainee recruitment – an applicant’s perspective

For a candidate, the recruitment process is daunting, uncertain and often unclear. For a recruiter, I’d imagine it can on occasion seem exactly the same. Any recruitment is an inexact science for a number of reasons; graduate recruitment more so than usual, on account of the applicants’ dearth of experience (in most cases). I’ll use two parts of the recruitment process to show this uncertainty from a candidate’s viewpoint, and explain how the circumstances of recruitment lead me to have sympathy for recruiters (although they can test this sometimes!).

The nature of recruitment is not the fault of the applicant or the recruiter. It’s not even the conscious fault of the system – it’s merely that, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, the current system is the worst system ever tried, apart from all the others. As far as I can see, there is no way to alter this. The things that recruiters ask for are all perfectly reasonable and desirable in a candidate.

The written portion of the application process is tricky enough. Each firm is like a prospective romantic partner – they like to be smiled at and told how special they are, so the candidate must find new ways to compliment each one without being too general or too sycophantic. Candidates must also show their “commitment”, both to law and to the firm in question. I mentioned last week in my blogpost about why law students wanted to work for City firms how recruiters need to be certain that their investment, which in some cases is more than £250,000 per candidate recruited, is spent wisely and will net their firm a return. The trouble with this, of course, is the knowledge of the candidates is limited and the medium they are using to communicate that knowledge is similarly constrictive. One can only gain so much from reading about a firm’s atmosphere or “personality” – after a while, reflecting the image that the firm’s marketing team puts out just becomes nauseating for a recruiter (or so one told me). Commitment, as I was discussing recently with @LegalBizzle, is more to do with increasing the odds of candidates being suitable than a criteria in and of itself. In reality, it’s very difficult to convey commitment and enthusiasm accurately through an application form. One of my friends told me that at the American university at which she gained her first degree, there would be students who would lurk around the computer rooms waiting for opportunities to either steal people’s homework off the printers or to quickly sit in someone’s place when they got up from their PC in order to email that person’s CV to themselves. I’ve heard of embellishing a CV, but stealing aspects of someone else’s had never occurred to me. This just serves to make recruiters’ lives more challenging – as sure as I am that what I write is true, how can they, without knowing me, be as certain? What position must a recruiter take – one of trust or mistrust in their applicants?

Now to move on to the second part of the process I wish to focus on. If you are lucky enough to pass the application stage – and statistically, most people who apply for any job will not enjoy that success – then you are faced with either an interview or an assessment day, and sometimes with both. The assessment day contains what all employing organisations know as the “group exercise”, to see whether individuals can work well in with others. This is generally a round-table discussion where there are contentious issues at stake and an agreement must be reached. There’s a fine balance between being too loud and being overbearing, and between being thoughtful and being too quiet. I recently raised the point with a recruiter that being part of a team means working together, and that if you are sat round a table with three people whose personalities are loud and forceful, it is sometimes actually good teamwork not to add a fourth brash personality into the mix. She conceded that this was a very artificial process and was the best they could do. Group work at law college or university helps to give candidates practice with situations like this, of course, but the trouble is that very few people are able to be natural on assessment days, and those that are natural are often the ones being drowned out. Obviously, recruiters know this and have developed techniques to spot the candidates who will be the best for them in the long run, but yet again this is not an exact science.

These examples show how difficult the process can be for both applicants and recruiters. As applicants, we have to deal with the vagaries of the system and the not knowing quite what each individual recruiter wants (for, as we are constantly reminded, all firms are different). For recruiters, they must unfortunately view each application with scepticism, for the stakes for potential trainee lawyers are so high that embellishment will naturally occur.

Even at the end of the process, the recruiter cannot be certain they have made the right decision. I have heard stories of people leaving the day after their training contract finished at their own behest, of those not being offered an NQ job, and seen people let go before their contract has even begun as a consequence of sub-par performance in law school exams. It seems recruiters really don’t get it right all the time. No blame can be attributed though – if only there was a way to remove the element of guesswork, life would be easier for both recruiters and applicants.

Part two of the applicant’s perspective on legal trainee recruitment is available here

“So, Candidate, why do you want to work at a City firm?”

In the course of my regular reviewing of the legal media, I was reading Lawyer2b, the prospective lawyers’ area on TheLawyer.com. They have an interview with Alex Brown, graduate recruitment partner at Simmons & Simmons, in which he talks about various aspects of his job and offers some insight into practice.

He’s asked the question “What top tips would you give to students who want to break into the legal profession?”. He answers this by saying that students should work out what would suit them rather than simply where they want to work. In a similar vein, the question “What are the most common mistakes you’ve seen candidates making?” prompts the response that applicants don’t stop to think about why they’re giving a particular answer and that it’s “easy to say that you want to work in a large international firm, doing large-scale transactions for big businesses but candidates need to address why that appeals to them and what skills they have that lend themselves to that environment”.

What is the lure of the City to law students?

He makes a good point, because without seeking to delve deeper into the reasons, it’s difficult for them to know that the candidate is genuinely interested in the work. Charon QC drew my attention to this issue the other day with an interesting blogpost about an article he’d seen in the Law Society Gazette. The article talks about how the majority of law students are seduced by the corporate/commercial work undertaken by City firms, based on the preferences expressed on their All About Law website profiles. So why is that? It’s the opinion of many, typified by the commenter that Charon identifies from the Gazette article, that most students simply wish to head for these firms because they offer to pay for legal education, which can amount to more than £20,000, and promise high salaries. It’s these applicants that Alex Brown and his counterparts want to root out when they ask about the deeper reasons behind a choice.

So why do people choose a particular option? Given that we’re all different, it would be crazy of me to try to speak for an entire generation of future lawyers. However, there are some noticeable patterns.

The first thing to note is that the survey data does not say what the article alleges it says. The survey data shows that law students want to know about commercial issues, and are likely to be more inclined to become City lawyers than to practice other types of law. As law students, we are bombarded with information about the City firms. They’re the ones who spend big money on recruitment, they recruit two years in advance, and they’re the ones who do presentations in the law schools and at law fairs around the country.

The motivation for many a student’s ambitions comes from this duality of the City being presented as the primary option because of the massive recruitment drive firms embark upon, coupled with students being conscious of the large debts they’re racking up going through law school. It’s difficult, too, to watch classmates fire off applications for Vacation Schemes and Training Contracts to top firms and sit there doing nothing, both because it may appear to others as a lack of ambition (when of course, the opposite may be true) and because it feels as though you should be doing something prior to leaving law school.

The result of this is that hiring partners like Alex Brown receive a flood of applications from candidates who might as well have been told to work in the City via subliminal messages from Derren Brown. There’s an idea placed in people’s heads and not everyone has the opportunity to develop it. Those who make it through the Vacation Scheme application process get the opportunity to experience life at a City firm, but without that experience it’s very tough to answer the question convincingly, hence the importance of these Schemes and the fierce competition for places on them.

I was talking with the Graduate Recruitment Manager at a City firm recently about work experience, and asked her how much work experience a candidate needed to have to be considered seriously. She responded by saying that it wasn’t a question of volume, and that she looked at work experience for two reasons:

1) To see a candidate’s commitment to the legal profession – she wanted to ascertain whether candidates had shown a drive to work in the industry;

and

2) To see whether they understood what working in a City firm was all about – this was the crucial one for her; the work experience had to be relevant. It was no good saying in an application form for a City firm, “I have legal work experience” if that experience was in a high street firm practising family law. She told me that because of the massive investment made by her firm, there was a need to be certain that those chosen for a Training Contract knew what they were getting themselves in for.

It may be slightly unfair of me to generalise in that way, and I will qualify my statements by saying that I know people who have already decided they don’t want to work in the commercial side of the City, eschewing that option in favour of the high street or niche legal practices. But those are the people with experience. As difficult as securing a Training Contract is, it can also be difficult to gain the experience which brings the wisdom over what area of law to practice.

Personally, I am very fortunate to have grown up around West End and City lawyers. It’s enabled me to see the kind of work that is done, and to see the lives that they live. Whilst to some, “seeing the lives they live” might mean the house they live in or the car they drive, to me it’s the time spent in the office or away on business, the stress and being unable to switch off when not at work, a mobile phone or BlackBerry that never stops going off. That’s what recruiters want to be sure that candidates know about – the realities of City life.

I can assure you that I would never be so arrogant to suggest that I am in one category and the rest of the students are in another category like some pompous idiot. I don’t have a training contract and so am in the exact same position as most of my fellow students. All I can say is that it is not coincidental that most people exit law school with the idea that going to the City is their ambition.

I’m not saying this to do my contemporaries a disservice, far from it: I feel that the system as it is can actually stop people from pursuing a career path for which they are well-suited. Alex Brown’s advice to students was to think about what area of law was right for them. Perhaps the system needs to be rethought to allow that to happen.

This post was re-published in its entirety on the Legal Week website on 7th January 2011.
On 16th February 2011, it was revealed to be the 3rd most-read blogpost out of the 50 published up to that point by Legal Week.
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