My advice to law students about their future careers

About Jonathan Lea

Jonathan is a specialist corporate and commercial solicitor who has over 11 years of experience at both large international City firms and smaller practices. For the last two years he has worked on a self-employed basis with a network of other freelance lawyers focused on entrepreneur-led businesses. If you'd like a competitive quote for any legal work please send an email to the address on the home page. You can also follow him on Twitter @jonathanlea

The other day I received an email from a recent law graduate asking for advice on whether they should continue to pursue a career in law.  Like many, the person in question has previously studied the LPC (a ridiculously expensive but completely unnecessary one year course required by the Law Society’s pen pushers before you can join a law firm) but has since struggled to obtain a training contract, while only managing to gain experience from a few temporary legal positions so far.

I thought I would write my response in this blog post and hopefully open up the discussion on the web and get some more contributions to this thread.

Academic background

Unless you have a fantastic CV including relevant experience and a 1st or 2:1 from Oxbridge or another highly rated university, my view is that it is not worth studying law if your aim is to join one of the top 200 UK firms of solicitors (and you can also forget about joining a barristers’ chambers).

Although there are so many other things that determine whether someone will be a successful lawyer, almost every law firm discriminates on the basis of academic history because grades are the easiest objective measurement to rely on and every firm receives so many good graduates that they are prepared to let the odd ‘rough diamond’ slip through their net because of such categorisation.  Sure, there are a few people who don’t fit the aforementioned criteria but they will become increasingly rare.

Sponsorship and experience

Further, I would also suggest that students should not do the LPC without being sponsored by a law firm, or having secured a TC beforehand, unless they can somehow afford the course fees and living expenses, rather than risk incurring a crippling debt in return for a qualification of questionable value.  Otherwise, If you are prepared to incur the substantial debt involved in taking the LPC, only do so if you have already made the effort to build up a good portfolio of legal work experience and have received positive feedback from legal employers and mentors about your suitability for a career in law.

If you have completed the LPC and have not received a training contract you should start to seriously consider alternative careers.  There is a constant new stream of very well qualified law graduates coming through the system all the time, while training contract opportunities will continue to decline.  Law students should keep in mind that the prospect of gaining employment in the industry to which your degree relates is one of the worst (if not the worst) out of all degree subjects.

A rapidly evolving legal market: the state of play

We are about to see a wave of disruptive business models in law that will impact heavily on the traditional way that legal services are currently provided and lead to a dramatic decline in the number of qualified practitioners.  From stripped down and low cost new ABSs that will employ mostly non-legally trained staff supervised by solicitors, to free open and crowd sourced intelligent legal solutions online like Docracy (a US startup with plans to cover every jurisdiction), a plethora of new market entrants will become ever more popular and at the same time will drive down the cost of legal services and leave traditional non-innovative partnerships looking ever more unattractive to clients.

I recently got to deliver a presentation at Law Tech Camp London where the headline speaker was the legal soothsayer Richard Susskind.  Susskind predicted that big law firms will continue to become leaner and reduce their headcount accordingly in response to clients’ reducing legal budgets as economic stagnation continues to bite.

At the same time the rapid evolution of technology and business practices will mean that clients of all sizes will find smarter and more cost-effective ways to minimise their legal spend. As a result, look out for new market entrants who are well financed and adopt a more modern approach like Co-op Legal Services and Riverview Law.  There are also an increasing number of virtual forms of law firms like Setfords, Lawyers on Demand, Axiom Law and Cubism Law where lawyers work on a self-employed basis through a central administrative and regulated hub, although none of these models seem to involve developing graduates through a training contract programme.

Corporations will also continue to concentrate their legal work within their own in-house departments and increasingly resist outsourcing work to law firms.  Some of these in-house law departments will offer training contracts, but opportunities will not be as plentiful or as well paid as in the past.

Another relatively new trend that communications technology helps facilitate is the outsourcing of legal work to cheaper countries.  Most of the time incurred by lawyers and billed to clients has historically been on completing due diligence exercises on deals and going through the document intensive disclosure (‘discovery’ in the US) exercise for litigation work.  Both of these types of work are increasingly being done by teams of contract lawyers (usually paralegals paid by the hour) or outsourced completely to low cost legal teams in jurisdictions such as Northern Ireland, South Africa and India (you’ll see I’m involved with SKJ).

Technology itself will also start to impact on the currently time intensive processes of due diligence and disclosure.  It will eventually become commonplace for disclosure to be run by artificial intelligence computer programmes, while the success of Crowdcube (which will soon be followed by many other online equity crowdfunding platforms) demonstrates how due diligence will be done in a more open, crowdsourced way in the future, negating the need for individual lawyers or law firms to be expensively retained to pore over documents and write reports.

At the same time as the market for legal services is being shaken up, the twin parasites of the insurance industry and the regulators (principally the Law Society and SRA) increasingly bedevil traditional law firms.  Over-regulation and extortionate professional indemnity insurance premiums lead to disproportionate overheads and an overly cautious and non-client focused approach to the business of practising law which all help drive clients away from traditional legal practices.

Non-wired ‘old school’ lawyers make up most of the partnership at big law firms and are strongly resistant to any change in the way that their firms are run, not least because they are principally only interested in maximising returns in the short term before they retire.  To significantly restructure their law firm to survive in the long run would not only drastically impact profits initially, but would also be seen as too much of an obstacle to overcome in their years left in the business, especially when partnerships like to make decisions by mutual consent.

In any case, most partners and law firm leaders are non-digital natives who are proud to be pre-modern analogue luddites and are therefore generally clueless about disruptive technology and what the future holds.  Many of the managing partners of law firm live in a world where the internet is still a relatively unknown and exotic thing which young people seem to be very good with, but they can’t possibly see how it might benefit a lawyer, while if they aren’t typing the odd email with their two forefingers then they’ll be dictating to secretaries, marking up documents by hand, getting secretaries to retype their amendments (following a lengthy review of their handwritten changes to work out what they mean) and then getting trainees or paralegals to again study their messy handwriting and compare it to the new version of the document the secretary has produced to see if it is accurate. This sounds absolutely crazy, but a lot of the time billed at some firms will be down to such incredibly inefficient working practices.

In short, the prognosis for big law firms doesn’t look good.  Successful businesses, now more than ever, need to be nimble and able to read the tea leaves. However, most law firms will continue to ignore disruptive technologies and remain unable to innovate in any meaningful way.

Career pivot

So, if trying to start and build a career as a lawyer now doesn’t sound like such an appealing prospect, what should a law graduate do?

Most law graduates, wherever they have studied, are very capable and ambitious individuals who would likely thrive with their skills set if they pursued careers which offered them more potential, not least if they take the step to self-employment and entrepreneurialism.  My view is that most of these talented people are wasting their time bothering with a declining legal sector in a state of flux and would be better off performing a career pivot and spending their time building a career in more relevant growing industries where there will be fewer obstacles to becoming a successful and fulfilled individual.  Although not otherwise advocated, it may be that, as far as a legal career goes, ‘if at first you don’t succeed, just give up’ is very good advice.

The skills gained from a law degree are very valuable for a lot of other areas of business.  Constructing well developed arguments, managing people and heavy paperwork and being able to communicate clearly, concisely and in an articulate manner are all critical for any business.

Entrepreneurship

As legal journalist Alex Aldridge recently wrote, if you can’t get a training contract law graduates should seriously consider becoming an entrepreneur. Generally, law graduates should build their network and online profile and see where it takes them.  Whatever industry sector or business you are interested in, at the click of a mouse you can now follow the top people in that particular market wherever they may be in the world and gain access to leading insight and information from their blogs and online conversations. Further, with a bit of social savvy-ness and over time, you can build relationships with interesting and experienced entrepreneurs and other useful people online which one way or another will lead to you being offered exciting opportunities in the future.

Self-employed law graduates could use the skills they’ve developed to offer services in legal and general research, administrative and business concierge tasks, social media assistance, copywriting, events management and any number of other possibilities, including building their own blogs and web portals with multiple revenue streams around something they’re interested in.

As the internet becomes ever more important every brand and their dog are getting into content marketing in a serious way.  A guy I know, when aged 19 and with no journalism experience, started his own content agency writing posts for small companies’ web properties in Cornwall.  The service was very popular and he made some great connections as a result.  Two years later he is an established journalist in London writing for the Independent, as well as building his own PR business.

I think many young law students would be better off retraining themselves with modern software programming, graphic design and online marketing skills.  As leading silicon valley figure Marc Andreessen wrote in his piece on ‘why software is eating the world’‘, I think these skills are absolutely critical to everyone if they want to find their way in the modern business world.

Forget University

I have touched before on the increasing irrelevance of a university education (here and here).  The inept and out-of-date university education system increasingly wastes students’ time and rips them off.  Despite not having evolved since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press (non-interactive lectures in a physical room still being the favoured pedagogical approach) and all knowledge being readily and freely available on the web, the cost of a university education has gone up astronomically to absurd levels that for most students will not enhance their prospects but will leave them with a crippling debt (just google ‘university debt bubble’).

The traditional education system just does not deal with the skills needed to survive and thrive in a digital age.  You can learn about anything on the internet and the majority of entrepreneurs and developers working in the tech startup scene in Shoreditch are completely self-taught.  People can now access courses from Harvard and other leading universities for free on the internet, while free websites like Udacity and Coursera offer better, more useful and more relevant online courses than any traditional university.

There is also a growing scene of tech and digital classes, such as those run by the likes of General Assembly and Decoded, in Shoreditch and Clerkenwell, as well as any number of independently organised meetup groups such as my own one, that people pay to go to in order to develop their skill set, partly as a result of the failure of traditional education.

From my own experience, I feel comfortable with the assertion that the knowledge and connections gained from using Twitter over the last few years have been far more beneficial in respect of my personal development than the three years I spent at Bristol University or the two subsequent years endured at law school.  Yes, the piece of paper I received from Bristol had the tangible effect of helping me get jobs I would not have otherwise got, but over the long term I believe my use of Twitter and other social media tools will be of much greater benefit.

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