It is not easy deciding on which career path to take when you finish school at the age of 16 with very few qualifications. Born and bred in Hackney, East London, this is the dilemma that I found myself in having finished school and not done well enough to even be eligible to take A levels.
I spent a year doing a business administration course and it was during this that I first got a taste of the legal profession, when I did two weeks work experience in a firm of solicitors. On finishing my course my choices were rather minimal but I secured a job as an office junior in a firm of solicitors (Green David Conway & Co, now known as GSC Solicitors LLP) and it is that firm of solicitors that I still work with today, some 25 years later.
Having been an office junior for a number of months, I was promoted to outdoor clerk and spent most of my time working for the litigation department, which included attending court to deal with administrative matters as well as attending hearings. This is really when my interest in the law began to develop.
I had heard about the legal executive course and explored the possibilities of pursuing that course of education. Having seen this as a real possibility to make something of myself I was encouraged by the senior partners to “go for it.”
With both the encouragement and support of the partners, the first two years of my ILEx [now known as CILEx] course was on a day release basis and for the remainder of the course I went to night school. This was by no means easy as I still had to put in the hours in the office.
As I went through the course I became more involved in actual legal work and became a fee earner, handling files of a nature that were within my skill set. I felt that there was a real advantage in studying and working at the same time as you not only got to put into practice what you were learning, but also had a better grasp and understanding of what you were being taught.
I was never the most enthusiastic student, but despite it being difficult to both study and work at the same time, found the drive to do so because it was my decision to pursue this path, rather than being told what to do. Being an argumentative character made me feel that being a lawyer, and particularly litigation, was perhaps my calling.
I finally passed all my exams and became a Member of ILEx on 31 October 1995. The transition from being a Fellow was easy and straightforward and this was finally achieved on 31 October 1997. Up until then, and from that time, I have improved and developed my legal skills and found myself being appointed head of GSC’s commercial litigation department in 2004, a position I still hold today.
After the introduction of LLPs and the SRA relaxing the rules on who could be a member, I was eventually admitted as a member at GSC on 1 December 2013 and can finally be called a partner.
Throughout my time as a legal executive, I have always felt that there was a certain stigma where legal executives were seen as inferior to solicitors who had been educated in the more conventional way by going to university, obtaining their degree and sitting the LPC. Because of this, I always felt that I had something to prove. Even today, there still seems to be a stigma out in the market in that legal executives cannot have the same level or charge-out rates or indeed command the same salary as solicitors, despite the fact that they do the same level and quality of work.
This can be demonstrated by the fact that when it comes to the court assessing fees, legal executives, no matter how experienced or how highly skilled, are considered Grade B fee earners, whereas solicitors of at least eight years’ experience would be considered a Grade A fee earner. This clearly needs addressing.
It is perhaps because of the lower rates and salaries that legal executives command that many law firms more readily employ them than solicitors, particularly in today’s market. Since I first started the ILEx course, becoming a legal executive has become a more popular route of pursuing a career in law, particularly when it is harder and more expensive to obtain a university place to pursue a law degree.
If legal executives want to be feel appreciated in the legal market it is important that they target employers who are used to having legal executives on board and understand that while they have not studied for a law degree in the conventional way, they are just as capable of doing an excellent job. Unfortunately, there are still law firms and lawyers from the “old school” who continue to consider legal executives as being less capable than solicitors.
When I look back over the past 25 years I look at what I have achieved and I am certainly proud of the fact that having left school with little qualifications, I have been able to overcome all the prejudice and stigma that have surrounded legal executives for many years and have got to where I am by working my way to the top.
Michael Shapiro is a partner at GSC Solicitors