Former Society President Austin Lafferty and his son Jonathan, an associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
“The opportunities in the profession are a million times what they were when I qualified in 1981”. Austin Lafferty, who set up his own firm in the Glasgow area, goes on to observe that as well as having increased flexibility, a solicitor with ability and a growing following can move laterally as well as vertically. Entering the profession, however, “remains a pinch point no matter the state of the economy”.
His son Jonathan echoes this sentiment. Ten years ago, he undertook a vacation scheme with Freshfields, and now has a summer student sitting in his office. “Much of my student’s experience resonates with mine,” Jonathan notes. “While the competition for training contracts is extremely competitive, firms are very approachable and keen to help students get into the profession, even if they can only offer a limited number of training contracts.”
Both agree that there are now more opportunities outwith Scotland. “The Scottish solicitor qualification is a marketable commodity worldwide”, Austin states, as he highlights the striking generational shift in attitudes towards internationalism. “In my day, travel used to mean Lesmahagow or Falkirk. Now it’s Chicago, London and Shanghai.” As a Glaswegian who qualified in English law and practises in London, his son made his move even earlier. “All of my work has an international element, and many of my clients are based abroad”, Jonathan explains.
The rise in specialisation
Comparing their practice areas emphasises the evolution towards specialism over the past few decades. “I have been a civil litigator, criminal defence agent, employment lawyer, conveyancer and executry practitioner all in one day”, Austin recalls. “Traditional general practice is not completely obsolete, but it is much more slimmed down. I still call myself that (a general practitioner that is, not slimmed down…), but for some areas of work we immediately refer clients to known and trusted colleagues who are specialised.”
In contrast, Jonathan has specialised in dispute resolution, and within that in civil litigation in court.
Lawyers? They’re awful
How do the public see us? Austin believes that while there are still lawyer jokes and a knee-jerk assumption of wealth and perhaps self-importance, Joe Public’s reaction can be summarised as: “Lawyers? Yes, they’re awful. My solicitor? He/she’s wonderful!” You can’t win.
Jonathan has had a different experience working for corporate clients, who “generally accept that instructing solicitors is an essential part of running their businesses”. He adds: “This is particularly so in the context of dispute resolution, which can be an unfamiliar process even for experienced in-house counsel, and so our advice and support is often particularly valued.” In addition, his pro bono clients see solicitors as vitally important to helping them solve their legal problems. “It is a compliment that the public sees solicitors as being effective at what we do, and I think that helps (or ought to help) drive up the standard of client service expected of the profession.”
Award us psychology degrees
Jonathan believes that at the heart of being a solicitor is the ability to solve problems, “whether that is being successful at trial, negotiating a commercially acceptable settlement or providing a different perspective”. In his experience: “Given the size and complexity of many of the matters on which I work, it can sometimes take a number of years before matters are finally solved which, in many ways, makes those solutions all the more satisfying.”
For Austin, it is the unpredictability of his job that is the most rewarding. Even after nearly 40 years in the profession, he enjoys not knowing what the next client is going to tell him about their life, good or bad. “I have a theory that any solicitor qualified for three years should be entitled to march into their local university and demand a degree in psychology without an exam, because that’s what the main thread running through the job always is. Human nature, and it is endlessly fascinating.”
Both are optimistic about the future of the profession. The young lawyers of today are a “sophisticated, tech-savvy and dynamic body of women and men who are, crucially, much better integrated with business, politics, social issues and civic Scotland”, says Austin. Jonathan believes there are undoubtedly challenges ahead for the profession, as well as new technological, legal and cultural developments, “which will change what it means to be a solicitor”. However, he notes that even in his brief decade in and around the profession, some of these are more perennial than we realise. “Many students are concerned about the impact of technology on jobs and opportunities in the legal profession. I recall having similar conversations a decade ago, and yet the profession is arguably stronger now than it was then.”
Former Society President Christine McLintock, now chair of the Lawscot Foundation and Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland, and her daughter Alex Gibb, a solicitor at Pinsent Masons who qualified in 2018
“Traineeships were hard to come by in 1984 when I was applying to firms in Aberdeen and Glasgow”, Christine McLintock relates. But while the majority of graduates have always wanted to work in the cities, and small town firms struggle to attract new blood, a close friend of hers, who had to move to Morayshire to secure work, “went on to have a great training, met the love of her life and became a highly successful solicitor in Inverness”.
Aspiring solicitors should be flexible, she advises. “When I started out it was not unusual for trainees to stay at the firm they trained in and secure a partnership at that firm. If you were happy there, it seemed quite natural to embrace a ‘job for life’.” Today, careers are far more diverse and experience-rich, with solicitors moving from sector to sector, 10% of Society members working outside Scotland, and many seeking second careers in later working life.
Her daughter Alex agrees there is still a lot of competition for traineeships, equally so in areas such as criminal law where there are fewer places. “I know a number of people from university who ended up training at larger commercial firms and moved into criminal law post-qualification because there seem to be more opportunities at this stage. That level of mobility seems to be generally more common now.”
She suggests this may be at least partly due to achieving partnership being much more competitive than in the past, and coming later in a career. But while it may be true that some young lawyers are less interested in making partner, “the reality may be more of a change in perspective. If there is less certainty around partnership or the time required to get there, it seems very likely that more and more junior lawyers will consider moving firm or out of private practice with other goals in mind, such as salary or flexible working”.
As for level of opportunities, Christine recognises that there is now a much more diverse profession. “We were far more generalist. In large practices, there are a growing number of roles which are far from the traditional client-facing solicitor.” But she worries about the emergence of “legal advice deserts” across more remote parts of Scotland, just as with specialist doctors, or dentists. “We need to make better use of technology to address some of these issues.” Legal aid is a further concern.
Alex has noticed some fairly significant changes even since she started training, “including the growth of innovation-based traineeships, continued positive developments towards equality in the workplace (such as gender pay gap reporting) and the increase in flexible working arrangements for solicitors of all levels”.
How is the profession regarded? That’s an interesting question, says Christine. “Call me deluded, but I don’t think there has been significant change. Notwithstanding countless anti-lawyer jokes, lawyers are still trusted by the vast majority of the general public.” She adds: “If we want to retain that trust we must never forget the rule of law, the role of lawyers in our society and the independence of the legal profession.”
Alex replies: “Having grown up in a family of lawyers, save for a few jokes about the quality of the chat in our house, I would say my decision to study and practise has typically been well received by others. I think people generally respect the level of work involved in both becoming a lawyer and practising as one.”
Both affirm their confidence in the future of the profession.Christine adds the proviso that respect for the rule of law remains strong,and the independence of the profession is protected. Technology will change legal practice, “but I remain convinced that businesses and individuals will continue to value trusted and independent legal advice from experienced practitioners”. She was “the proudest of proud mumsat Alex’s admission ceremony”.
Alex has encountered “a lot of very impressive junior lawyers who I’m confident will make excellent leaders in the future. I’m also fortunate to be involved in some of the innovation projects at my firm, which gives me confidence that firms will continue to adapt to (and hopefully pre-empt) changes in the market in a way that works well for both lawyers and clients”.
What’s the best thing about being a solicitor? “Sorry, I’m a geek. It’s the law”, Christine admits. Alex offers: “For me it’s all about the people.” Clients, colleagues and other professional advisers continually challenge, support and motivate you to work harder and be better at what you do.” Further, “Where you are fortunate enough to be able to work with the same clients on multiple matters over time, you are also able to build strong relationships and use that knowledge to get the best outcomes for them – which is very rewarding.”
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