QuaTtlifying as a legal executive means you can become a lawyer without paying university tuition fees. But it probably isn’t for those chasing a big salary
“Train to be a Lawyer in just 1 yr,” began an advert for The London College of Law in the Evening Standard a couple of weeks ago. “Amazingly Low Course Fees available!! No need to go to Uni,” it continued. Too good to be true?
While you can complete legal training in a year, qualifying to practise as a lawyer takes longer. Fellowships from the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) require candidates to complete not one, but six years of law-related work and study – though the tutored element of the qualification need only take one year. This involves 14 hours a week of intensive study, plus another ten of homework, which together meet CILEx’s requirement for the Professional and Higher Professional Diplomas. You also need five years of qualifying employment to become a fellow of the Institute. Some other course providers require the diplomas to be studied over at least two years, but LCoL offers a fast-track option. The advertisement was quite correct to assert that you don’t need a degree to become a lawyer.
Traditionally, alumni of the non-graduate CILEx route, which culminates in the title of ‘chartered legal executive’, have been regarded as the poor relation to solicitors and barristers. But the combined effect of three major recent developments in the worlds of law and education means diplomas earned at the likes of The London College of Law, which operates from a business centre in Tottenham (and is completely separate from the College of Law, which has eight centres around England including two in London) could soon be put on an equivalent footing with the qualifications awarded by the mighty Inns of Court.
The first of these developments is the Legal Services Act, which in 2009 removed the barriers preventing legal executives from becoming partners in law firms. In a related move, the judiciary opened its doors for the first time to members of this long-overlooked branch of the profession. Almost overnight, one of the major advantages solicitors and barristers held over legal executives disappeared. “There are no longer any meaningful distinctions between the job titles,” says the first ever CILEx judge, Ian Ashley-Smith, who reckons that the changes will see fewer legal executives will find cause to re-qualify as solicitors – a fairly common move up until now.
Also proving disruptive is the government’s decision to treble university fees. Concerned about the effects of the increases on the socio-economic diversity of their employees, while also keen to foster a reputation for innovation and unstuffiness to fit the mood of the LSA era, a number of big corporate law firms have launched apprenticeship schemes to train up school-leavers via the CILEx route.
The icing on the cake has been the decision to award CILEx chartered status (hence the ‘C’ that now appears at the front of the old ILEX acronym). In the past, legal executives often found themselves lumped in with paralegals and other support staff as second tier legal professionals. As of last month, though, when the body officially received its royal charter, the title of ‘legal executive’ has enjoyed the same protection as other chartered professionals like surveyors and accountants. Put all this together, and it’s no wonder that many believe legal executives’ time to have finally come. “This is a terrifically exciting time in the history of our Institute,” said CILEx president Susan Silver after taking receipt of the charter.
Amid all the excitement, though, there are concerns about how those who have entered the law through this route will find themselves treated further down the line. “I hope a generation of bright young minds don’t fall for this ruse,” wrote one commenter on a legal website recently in the response to the news that yet another big firm has launched a CILEx apprenticeship scheme. “Kennedys’ [the firm in question] are just capitalising on the tuition fee fear amongst the young (and remember, we are talking about impressionable 17-18 year olds here) to get students who have the grades to be a ‘proper lawyer’ to settle to a lifetime of mediocrity, and a salary ceiling of about £30k. Ideas like this one are breeding a future of discontent. Any young people reading this, if you have the grades to get onto this scheme, and you want to be a lawyer, take the hit on the student loan and fulfil your potential. Be a lawyer, not a scared wannabe.” Many lawyers privately share this view.
However, Nick Hanning, one of around 200 legal executives to have become partners in law firms over the last two years, strongly disagrees. He dismisses the £30,000 salary ceiling claim, and emphasises that graduates’ fears about racking up debt are well-founded. “I don’t think the university and solicitor route is a safer bet. You are committing great expense to getting your degree, more expense getting your Legal Practice Course (LPC) qualification, and then you still can’t qualify unless you complete a two year training contract. That’s four years of risk.”
But for an 18-year old with the financial backing, grades and inclination to go to university, who has a decent shot at securing a training contract with a top firm in advance of the completion of their studies, is taking the CILEx apprenticeship route really a good idea?
“To get into a megafirm like, say, Slaughter and May, you still need a degree, but the reality is very few of the thousands of law graduates end up at such firms,” responds Ashley-Smith. “Put it this way,” he continues. “You can have a very good career as a legal executive.”