The law – as lucrative as ever?

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Diversifying the routes to qualification doesn't create any more jobs. What's a young lawyer to do, asks Laura Clenshaw

When the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) equivalent means qualification was introduced last summer, many, including myself, dubbed it the 'paralegal shortcut.'

Horrified was the profession that those pesky paralegals, the background, foundation pillars of the legal workforce, who for so long held a subservient position to the more effervescent and glittering trainees and newly qualifieds of the legal world, could bypass years of distinguished training in the form of the LLB, the legal practice course, and the prestigious two-year training contract. The breaking news that admission to the profession via a paralegal route topped the Solicitors Journal charts in 2014 and became its most read story of the year.

Yet, as the story developed, as with most things, all was not as it seemed. The SRA unveiled one of the first applicants to qualify through said route, Robert Houchill, who explained the pathway was anything but a shortcut.

Five years spent working as a paralegal, an administratively heavy application form, and endeavours to source old contacts for references. The paralegal 'shortcut' appeared anything but a walk in the park. In addition, and in the words of Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) chair, Max Harris, the route should have had the potential to shake up the legal market. Harris believes many paralegals unfortunately do not know about the alternative route, and there is concern over how firms will perceive the new pathway. Note well: Law firms are notoriously risk-averse.

Meanwhile, amid the shrinking number of training contracts - the latest Law Society statistics found that, from August 2013 to July 2014, 5,0001 training contracts were registered, a 6 per cent decrease from the previous year - and panic over whether to stick with laborious training contract applications or to be a modern-day-maverick with an equivalent means qualification, Young Lawyer has investigated the new breed of entrepreneurial lawyer, who have decided to throw in the towel of 9 to 5 work (or 6am to 12am if you're in the City), and have decided to use their legal skills for different purposes.

When asked what acted as the biggest deterrent to aspiring lawyers, the lawyers-who-left-the-law commented on the shortage of training contracts (and course providers' unwillingness to reflect this ever-decreasing number in the number of places offered to students), the ageing LLP model and route to partnership, which lengthens every time an extra stepping stone sprouts along the way (senior associate and legal director are fairly new vocabulary to describe City-slicker-solicitors in the City), and, of course, the disillusionment of a lawyer's working life. As mentioned above, does anyone, apart from a brave few, want to work a 90-hour week anymore?

So, what did those who left the profession do, and how have they used their skills? For starters, there are those who abandoned the law entirely, such as barrister turned barista Heidi Cotton, who opened her own café in Nottinghamshire. Then there are those such as Robert Birkett, whose www.leavinglaw.com website offers careers advice to those desperate to get out.

So, if you're finding it impossible to come by a training contract, or are desperately trying to demonstrate your worth as a paralegal, all is not lost. As the lawyers-who-left prove, the law is as lucrative an area as ever.

Laura Clenshaw is editor of Young Lawyer

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