The elusive criminal defence traineeship - how to make a good case for yourself
Rob Marrs, senior policy and development manager at the Law Society of Scotland, explains how to go about securing the most elusive of all legal traineeships.
A question we frequently get when we are out and about at law fairs is ‘why aren’t there any criminal defence firms here?’. What seems like an innocent question actually gives something away – the person asking the question doesn’t know too much about the world of criminal defence.
The overwhelming majority of such firms are small and therefore don’t have HR people, learning & development people or marketing people to stand on a stall recruiting future joiners. It doesn’t work like that. As I’ve said before, know your markets.
To illustrate the point: One criminal defence solicitor I know notes that many smaller practices have more in common with the local flower shop than a large corporate firm. The margins are smaller and depend on volume. Trainees do come with a cost attached – although they do generate income (a future blog, I promise) – and the initial outlay can represent a significant percentage of the total firm income over the two years.
A queue for the criminal bar
We know, though, that many law students want to work in criminal defence (as an aside, why isn’t it called ‘’Accused defence’ ?). Survey after survey tells us that lots of new lawyers want to end up practising at the criminal bar. At the same time, many working in the sector tell us that it is difficult to take on a trainee for a number of reasons. That said, it simply isn’t true that there aren’t any traineeships with criminal defence firms – there are but they aren’t as easy to find out about nor as common as those at larger, commercial firms.
Let’s not beat about the bush.
For those practising at the criminal bar, life isn’t always a bed of roses – legal aid cuts, an almost constant series of ‘’fundamental reforms’’, increased competition, and much more besides.
On top of that, there are limits to what a first-year trainee can do at a criminal defence firm. Training a trainee is a big commitment and sometimes it’s the right decision not to take on a trainee.
And, of course, there are more solicitors than ever before. Some firms will face a choice between training a trainee (with the associated costs and limitations in first year) and hiring a fully-qualified solicitor. Professionally, they may prefer the former, but the bank manager may prefer the latter way forward.
So how do you get your foot in the door?
Remember that a criminal defence practice is a court practice and, as above, is likely a small firm. This, in itself, presents challenges on finding the time to supervise a trainee. From what criminal defence lawyers tell me, they are looking for confident, mature, self-starters. People who are happy doing legal research, meeting clients, attending ID parades, instructing council (the, ahem, sexy stuff) but also mucking in elsewhere: filing, typing, answering the phones, sorting mail, jumping on reception etc (the, erm, less sexy stuff).
People who – bluntly – have an idea of how a small, busy legal business works.
How can you find that out? Gaining any relevant work experience – either in holidays or combined with study – will give you a good idea.
Given the smaller nature of many firms, I’d suggest speculative letters are generally a bad idea. For hard-pressed solicitors, time answering letters is time not spent doing legal work.
Instead, I’d suggest the following : join your local bar association and start going to events (the Glasgow Bar Association, for instance, holds fantastic events and welcomes students). Look elsewhere – TANQ, SYLA, Advocates’ Stables etc – for events focusing on criminal law. You will meet solicitors this way and, ultimately, begin to form a network.
It means the polite, speculative letter you send might be to a person you’ve met and spoken to rather than a shot in the dark. Also, try and spend as much time as you can at your local court to see how the work is done and what it involves – criminal court work takes place in the public gaze so getting along to the Sheriff Court, or the High Court, can be a real help.
It might be useful to get some face-to-face experience with the public so volunteering for CAB, Rape Crisis Scotland, Shelter or similar may be very helpful. Alternatively, if your university has one, getting involved with the law clinic is a great idea.
What else can you bring to the party?
Think too about what you can offer to firms in non-legal ways – can you improve their website (or build them a website)? Could you build a social media presence? Could you help with marketing? Is there anything in your skillset that would help their business? All of a sudden you’re offering the firm something – a tangible benefit.
And consider building a social media presence yourself – follow criminal defence lawyers on Twitter, engage with them online, blog about developments in the criminal law and so forth.
A strong online presence can make a big difference.
Criminal law is rarely not in a process of fundamental reform so thinking about the big issues, and having a view on how they might affect criminal defence practices, can be a helpful insight. Imagine a practitioner asked you about Lord Bonomy’s review. What would you say?
It seems utterly basic but tailor your CV and covering letter. If a firm has been involved in a case that interests you, tell them in the covering letter! It shows you’ve done your research and hints at a passion for, and knowledge of, the law.
Evidence of an interest in criminal law over a period of time is useful (everyone applying will make such a claim but how do you prove it?). If a criminal defence solicitor asks you ‘’why do you want to work in this area of law?’ you should be able to answer it well.
If you do want to go into criminal defence work, shout it from the rooftops. It can be a damned, hard slog but a rewarding one.
For more information about securing a traineeship, visit our Education & Careers pages.