Review of the year 2004

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Steve Hoare and Brendan Malkin sum up the key events of 2004

Review of the year 2004The last 12 months made for a mom-entous year in the legal market, with international mega-mergers and domestic regulatory overhauls in the shape of the Clementi review.

By the end of 2004, national law firm DLA had merged with two US firms to become DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, now one of the worlds largest firms. Whether that will raise its reputation with UK law students remains to be seen. At the star of the year, DLA was the single top 10 law firm missing when students were asked to name the countrys top law firms.

A Lawyer 2B survey revealed that the top 20 firms remained defiant in the face of recession, holding steady on the amount of trainees recruited. Law firms appeared to have learnt the lessons of the last recession, when they cut back on trainee intake only to find they were understaffed when the economy picked up.

The College of Law kicked off an eventful year by accusing the Law Society of lacking strategic direction and operating its training review in a vacuum. Moving at a surprising pace, the society responded a mere four months later. In the summer, the Law Society Council revealed it was considering a revamp of the training process, and was exploring “new and innovative” routes to qualification, which could spell the end of the two-year training period for solicitors.

The Young Solicitors Group called for a dedicated legal aid LPC to stem the recruitment crisis facing publicly-funded law firms. The College of Law would go some way to stemming this crisis later in the year.

Young barristers had their own crisis to deal with. A survey of the junior bar revealed that trainee barristers were being hit by mounting debts and cuts in legal aid rates. Just under a third of the respondents had 10,000 of debt at qualification, while for one in 10 the figure was 20,000. While most commercial barristers were able to recover from their financial difficulties, those in common law or criminal chambers were having problems due to the level of fees available to the publicly-funded bar.

March saw the biggest shake-up in legal education since the City LPC was introduced. The consortium of eight leading City firms that had provided them with LPC courses since 2001 split. Allen & Overy (A&O), Clifford Chance and Linklaters decided to develop radical bespoke courses with the College of Law. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May will continue to run the City LPC, but exclusively with BPP Law School in London, leaving Nottingham Law School and the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice out in the cold.

The Law Society conducted a survey which revealed that less than one in 10 trainees believed that the publicly-funded sector offers good career prospects. But when asked if they would consider legal aid if it offered equal prospects to commercial law, 50 per cent of trainees and 59 per cent of students said they would.

One law student had overcome a harrowing courtroom experience of her own. Louise Woodward talked exclusively to Lawyer 2B about her US manslaughter conviction and her decision to become a solicitor. Woodward had just finished her law degree and was embarking on a trainee contract with North West firm North Ainley Halliwell. “Ill admit that initially I was on a bit of a crusade to say I wont let this happen to another person,” Woodward said. Time, however, mellowed her. “I didnt want to be noticed, I wanted to be like any other student and fall out of bed, run a brush through my hair and run to a lecture,” she said.

Woodward managed to graduate before the full horror of top-up fees became clear. A Lawyer 2B survey revealed that law degrees at Englands top law schools would be among the most expensive should the fees be introduced in 2006. Prestigious law schools such as Bristol, Cambridge, Durham and UCL said they were either definitely or likely to cost their law degrees at the maximum 3,000.

BPP Law School continued its rapid expansion, announcing plans to open in Manchester, placing it in direct competition with the College of Law.

The College of Law announced an innovation of its own, teaming up with the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to create the first legal aid-orientated LPC. Called the Public Legal Services Pathway, it will be available from 2005 at the College of Law and Cardiff Law School. It will offer two new modules: advanced criminal litigation and housing (subject to Law Society approval), as well as a bespoke curriculum-related programme, including legal aid masterclasses run by experienced practitioners.

In the summer, the Law Society Council rejected proposals to divest professional legal bodies of regulatory powers as it debated its response to Sir David Clementis legal services regulatory review. Many saw the review as an opportunity to improve the current regime. A variety of models were proposed, but by 15 December all was clear: day-to-day regulation would continue to be handled by the Law Society, but a new body of independent lay officials the Legal Services Board would oversee the way it is carried out.

For those hoping to achieve partnership, Lawyer 2B had some bad news. The top 10 law firms made up fewer partners last year than in 2003. All of the magic circle recorded drops in partnership promotions except Linklaters, which promoted 12 more partners than in 2003 and, with 31 promotions, made up the most partners in 2004.

Indeed, Linklaters was on a bit of a charm offensive with the young and ambitious, becoming the first magic circle firm to break the 50,000 benchmark for newly-qualified salaries, upping new lawyers pay to 51,000. The week before Clifford Chance had announced it would return newly qualifieds pay to 50,000 after it briefly cut salaries to 48,000.

Cash is not the only way these firms want to attract your attention. They also want to pour booze down your neck, sweep you onto the dancefloor and, if youre lucky, you could get to spend the night with a Clifford Chance trainee. Lawyer 2B published a guide to the best ways of getting free booze and whatever else a law firm might be prepared to throw at you.

But spare a thought for those non-EU students, who face a tough time after qualification. While non-EU students outnumber their UK counterparts by as much as two to one, an LLM does not ensure a UK work permit. While some firms offer help obtaining a permit, many students are left to fend for themselves. It can be notoriously difficult to justify a legitimate business case for recruiting a non-EU trainee.

As the year progressed, an exclusive survey by Lawyer 2B revealed that in 2004 law firms took on nearly eight out of 10 trainees as newly-qualifieds, reversing the previous years cost-cutting policies.

According to the October survey, out of 1,385 qualifiers in September 2004, 1,097 were retained and just 288 parted company. Burges Salmon, Salans and Wragge & Co were the only firms to keep all their trainees. Bevan Ashford, Macfarlanes, Osborne Clarke and Simmons & Simmons all said they intended doing the same for their trainees in spring 2005. Magic circle firms also came out well with retention rates, in percentage terms, in the 80s and 90s. The worst performer was Lawrence Graham, which retained just half of its 16 new qualifiers.

In the same month as this survey was published, new statutory disciplinary regulations were introduced which made it easier for trainees to sue firms that did not recruit them once they were qualified.

The regulations state that a three-stage procedure must be undertaken before an employee can be dismissed. Any less than this gives the employee an automatic case for an unfair dismissal claim.

Meanwhile, Exeter University announced plans to hive off its LPC training centre in 2006. A spokesman for the university said it wanted to focus on legal research, one of its main strengths. The 12 LPC staff at the universitys Centre for Legal Practice are likely to move to Bristols University of the West of England.

There was, however, some brighter news, with several law schools having their Law Society ratings upgraded: the Inns of Court of School of Law wnt from very good to excellent; De Montfort and Northumbria went from good to very good; and Nottingham Law School achieved an unprecedented eighth consecutive excellent rating.

Nottingham Law School also came under the spotlight when Lawyer 2B examined the impact of the legal education shake-up that will come from A&O, Clifford Chance and Linklaters spliting from the City Eight and leaving Notting-ham Law School out in the cold. Its head of professional legal studies and managing director Phil Knott remained optimistic. “What we feel we can do is be more responsive because were going to be independent of any grouping of firms.”

The elevation of many law schools to higher quality ratings had an impact on students grades. The College of Law reported having the best pass rates for its LPC course in both 2003 and 2004. A whopping 97 per cent of its students passed during these years more than at both BPP Law School and Nottingham Law School. The Oxford Institute of Legal Practice hit back, saying it had matched these figures although only after some second sittings.

At the joint Solicitors Pro Bono Group Student Challenge Awards & Attorney Generals Institution Awards, run in association with Lawyer 2B, student Stephen Bartlet-Jones won first prize for his work for Toynbee Hall Free Legal Advice Centre and the College of Law for its pro bono schemes.

Law schools went on the warpath after the Bar Council announced it would defer call from 2008. Rather than being called to the bar once they have completed their BVC, trainees will be called only after completing six months of pupillage.

Inns of Court School of Law dean Adrian Keane called for special provisions to be put in place for overseas students from jurisdictions where call is given once they have completed their BVC equivalent. Nigel Savage, College of Law chief executive, went further, calling the decision a “disgrace” and saying it had “pulled the rug from under loads of hard-working kids”. He predicted it would lead to a drop in student numbers, pointing to a survey of its BVC students conducted by BPP Law School, in which 9 per cent of students said they would not do the BVC if they did not get the title.

The Bar Council, which had been considering the reform for several years, could not have announced the change at a more inappropriate time. It coincided with plans by the Law Society to allow trainees the right to call themselves solicitors once they have completed their LPCs, bringing its policy in line with the bars current practice. This put paid to the Bar Councils main justification for the change, as represented by Michael Brindle QC, the chairman of its education and training committee. “The bar is one of the few professions which confers its title upon persons before they have completed the training required to practice,” he stated.

However, Brindle had another reason up his sleeve. Members of the public, he claimed, often mistake those in their first six months of pupillage as being fully qualified barristers. They had a right to know, Brindle urged, that this was not the case.

Life got harder for solicitor trainees last year. The Law Society announced plans to introduce an external test for trainees that they must pass before admittance to the roll. Law Society education and training officer Melissa Askew said there had been concerns that the signing-off of trainees at the end of the training contract sometimes happens regardless of whether partners or the trainees themselves felt they were ready for practice.

Testing was also an issue for those seeking entry to begin their law studies. Selwyn Lim, a director of Cataga, a provider of support for the National Admissions Test for Law (LNat) (a new compulsory exam for students wishing to study law) branded a consortium of universities that operate the test as “naive” for claiming that the test could not be “coached”. The universities claimed that reading a quality newspaper and practising sample questions was sufficient preparation.

Summer vacation schemes are the way forward, it appears. According to a Lawyer 2B investigation, getting a place on such schemes is now more of a challenge than getting a traineeship. This is particularly the case with big City law firms, which have just a handful of summer vacation places for at least 1,000 applicants.

It was a year of big law firm mergers, although just one of them has meant any considerable financial change for trainees. The merger of Masons and Pinsents to create a 150m firm means trainees from both ends of the marriage might get the same pay. At present, first year Masons trainees earn 25,000 compared with 28,000 at Pinsents, while newly-qualifieds at Masons earn 48,000 a year again slightly more than their Pinsent counterparts.