An address given at a recent FJSS equalities workshop, outlining the author's own career story, changes in employment practice, and some advice on the issues facing intending lawyers today

I started out as a law student at Dundee University over 50 years ago with some pretty average Highers: an A in Geography, a B in English and 3 Cs in Maths, French and History. I wouldn't get a look in nowadays.

The first lawyer and university student in my family was my late sister Eve, who started her law career over 60 years ago also at Dundee. There were next to no female role models in the Scottish legal profession in those days – a couple of women advocates and one woman partner in a solicitors' firm.

As a primary school boy I was packed off in a train at Kirkcaldy in a navy, short-trousered suit to see my sister now and again. She and her friends took me to the students' union where I got a glass of Coca Cola and a Tunnock's tea cake, and that was what inspired me into the law. It all seemed very wholesome and exciting!

My sister didn't know any solicitors, but somehow she secured an apprenticeship after an MA and an LLB, even though she was in a wheelchair at the time recovering from being knocked down by a car.

Once I spent a week in her office as a teenager doing holiday relief duties for their messenger. I sat at a stool and an easel desk, experienced the old fashioned Upstairs/Downstairs office ways, and worst of all, had to do double entry book-keeping each day to balance the petty cash. It was like Charles Dickens' Bleak House, and the day I was sent down to the basement archive I expected to see the papers for Jarndyce v Jarndyce languishing in a dusty corner.

Times changed

I resolved not to seek my sister's help when I was finishing my ordinary degree, and left university without a job. Suddenly I got a call from the Law Society of Scotland: someone who had been earmarked for an apprenticeship, as we called it in those days, had failed the final exams and the potential employers wanted someone who could start immediately. I was grateful to Miss Houston, who kept a list of would-be lawyers whom she could put in touch with potential positions in law firms. Her sister had a position at Dundee University. I was in a quandary, however, as I had agreed to help a neighbour who ran a pie factory and needed a delivery driver. 

I got the legal job at the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, as I knew a former employee of theirs who had gone off to study law and was in the year below me. With that brief testimonial I got started, and received an excellent all round office training before joining the Civil Service as a young (and cheap) procurator fiscal depute. I was an average student, but interesting work and supportive colleagues led to me to stay for 26 years, and had I not become a sheriff I might have done 37 years as a prosecutor until I was 60. 

When I worked in Glasgow in the late 1970s, some of my senior colleagues told me how difficult it was to get a start in law in the West of Scotland if you had an obviously Catholic name. They either got a start in a local authority or one of the few non-Protestant firms run by Catholic or Jewish solicitors.

However, things were changing and I was pleased to secure a post at the first competitive interview board for sheriffs, as prior to that there had been no transparent process and the post was in the gift of the Lord Advocate.

Latterly at Crown Office we began to take on trainees in numbers, as the few we had mostly stayed on like Elish Angiolini and Sheriff Norman McFadyen, and rose to prominent positions in the service and beyond. By about 1990 we had more women fiscals than men, and by the Millennium were well represented by women in our management board. I felt that led to better, more balanced decision-making.

It made sense, as the service was expanding and we needed 20 to 25 new lawyers a year. Why not train 20 a year ourselves rather than four or five as previously?

Outreach efforts

I left in 2001, but Crown Office was then dealing with the criticisms in the Stephen Lawrence and Surjit Singh Chhokar reports. Shortly afterwards Elish Angiolini became Solicitor General for Scotland and an ambitious plan was put in place to secure a much more diverse workforce. Our failing had been to be too homogeneous; there had been too much internal training. Remember Investors in People? It had rapidly supplanted Joined-up Thinking, but was too introspective, and majored on training for one's own organisational needs often at the expense of others in the system.

Crown Office realised that among ethnic communities law was not as well thought of as a profession in comparison to others such as medicine, engineering and accountancy, and it was necessary to do outreach work. This entailed attending school fairs, offering short office placements, and organising a Schools' Debating Competition, which runs to this day alongside the Society's Donald Dewar Debating Tournament.

Over the years I have been a judge in these competitions, and have also participated in the Mock Court Project, which runs mock civil proof cases for both primary and senior school pupils. There is also an excellent Mini-Trials scheme which was instigated by Lord Kinclaven. These initiatives provide a level playing field for pupils from both fee-paying and state schools, and talent at these events comes to the fore from some welcome, unexpected and diverse places.

It is a great way to inspire school pupils about the law as a career. The talent on display, even at primary school level, is huge, so watch out – someone better is behind you, if they can get a start in the law!

Crown Office encouraged a more diverse group of young people into the law, though most were of Indian or Pakistani heritage. Looking back, very few people of African, Caribbean or Chinese heritage came into the law, and still there are very few role models from those communities to inspire the students of today and tomorrow.

I think that for many organisations over the last 20 years, diversity has meant appointing more women, but as an employer that was not difficult when the proportion of female law undergraduates went from a handful in my sister's day, to 10% in the 1970s, to two thirds for at least the last 15 years. As an employer, when interviewing potential recruits mostly in their mid-20s, the women candidates were much more switched on and keen, and maybe some of the men were immature, felt entitled and thought law meant working in a room dealing with abstract legal problems. Even in lockdown, legal practice is not like that.

Sheriff mentors

For the last 10 years I was a sheriff at Edinburgh and assisted Edinburgh University on committees, as an external examiner and as a mentor to would-be trainees.

The Edinburgh sheriffs assisted in the Criminal Advocacy elective of the Diploma, and groups of two or three students would come for the day and sit in with a sheriff. They would be told, based on the case information which was to hand, what might happen with that day's cases and afterwards we discussed what did happen in light of the evidence or agreed facts, and whether the lawyers actually made a difference, or perhaps more charitably, what value had they added to the proceedings. In the summary court being succinct is the ultimate quality in advocacy.

At the start of this project I asked how many had traineeships fixed up, and in the early years two out of the group of three had one by the February before an autumn start date. Some of the students had familiar surnames and strong genetic similarities to an established advocate or solicitor. 

For a while, taking on one's children as trainees in a law firm was contrary to Law Society of Scotland regulations, but I understand the Employment Tribunal thought differently. In fairness, most young people did train at another firm before perhaps joining the family business. Gradually the proportions changed, and more recently only one out of three of the groups had secured a traineeship at the Diploma student stage, and some groups had nothing in prospect even before the pandemic loomed.

Many of the students I dealt with knew no one in the profession, and as I saw it had to “make their own luck” in a competitive world. I offered to help, and would sit down with a student together with the “White Book” of law firms and tease out:

  • What kind of law they would really like to do?
  • What sort of law were they passionate about?
  • Why had they wanted to become a lawyer?
  • What was their unique selling point?

I maybe only had about four or five students a year, but all secured jobs and looking back they were the keen ones who were prepared to ask, volunteer and fill out their CVs with eyecatching extras. They began to realise that securing a placement for two weeks in the archives of a large law firm was not as useful as honing interpersonal skills as a bar person, waiter, working in a shop or on the shop floor in a factory, as I did before graduating to pumping petrol, cleaning cars and delivering some very tempting freshly baked pies. All of this experience gives you transferable skills. 

At one time in interviews for judges, the Judicial Appointments Board would ask candidates, what is the most significant moral dilemma you have faced and how did you deal with it? I would answer when you are driving a pie van with trays of goods but no division behind you and the traffic lights change to red, do you jam on the brakes and get showered with and ruin a load of pies or do you close your eyes and drive through the junction? The actuality was that you learned to anticipate these situations and drive within the limits of the inadequacies of the vehicle your employer had provided you with.

A people balance?

On the front line people, like clients, will present differently and you have to win their trust and try to put them at ease in what may be a stressful situation.

At the end of the day, law is about people, and communication, and dealing with clients who may be stressed, homeless, under the influence of drink or drugs, or under strong medication for underlying health issues – or perhaps full of their own importance and feeling justified in what they want to achieve. You have to try and find solutions for these problems, or perhaps manage disappointments. You may have to suggest which out of a myriad arguments will win the day and which are best avoided, to save court time, perhaps broker a reasonable solution, or at least reduce the blood pressure of the impatient person on the bench faced with a muddle of information. 

Like Dame Elish, I look back over the last 20 years and wonder why Black or Chinese lawyers have made little impact on our system? The Scottish Government has a plan to improve 50 areas of Government by 2030 to ensure greater fairness and equality. Will we have any more diverse lawyers in prominent positions by then, to be positive examples to the young people contemplating a law career?

Will we have a fair proportion of diverse lawyers to match the Scottish population and demography?

Matters are not assisted when I see that the census has been held all over the UK except Scotland, where it will not take place until next year. Meantime we have to struggle on with 2011 figures which are well out of date. I reckon the proportion of BAME students at present at Diploma stage is at least 5%, but where does that relate to the makeup of the Scottish population or the racial makeup of Scotland's lawyers?

The future looks like continuing austerity: there may need to be more focus on the charitable sector or law centres, with fewer clients able to afford solicitors' private client fees. University law faculties and Diploma schools will need to adjust to these external factors.

I think the time is now. If the Black Lives Matter initiative is to progress beyond slogans, progress must be seen to be achieved. Slogans are all very well, but outcomes, influence and an ability to share in future policy in a diverse Scotland, whatever shape or form that might be, must now be underway.

If you feel on the outside, with few or no contacts in the law, we at FJSS (Fair Justice System for Scotland) Group may be able to help, commenting on CVs, giving advice, pointing you in the right direction and giving tips for the interview process.

Hopefully there will be opportunities to participate in a fair process. Merit is always upheld as the key, but increasingly diversity is seen by the public as signifying an organisation with a variety of views and backgrounds who can assist in all areas of work with all clients.

Scottish Government statistics show BAME school pupils perform better than pupils from a white Scottish or UK background. On the commercial front a diverse workforce is more likely to secure seams of work from a wider client base.

We have committed people from Government, the Law Society of Scotland, law firms and academia here today and together we can make a difference for you.

Final tips

In conclusion my top tips for those seeking to secure an entry to the legal profession are:

  1. Try to work out what area of law you would like to be involved in.
  2. Find out the firms that undertake that type of work.
  3. Tailor your CV and application form individually to those firms you contact. Refer to their website, recent cases they have been involved in and other media initiatives. That will flatter them a bit.
  4. If you do get an interview, don't be reticent about setting out your stall, the experience and transferable skills you have learned from your background, work experience and any voluntary work. Tell them you may be able to bring in a stream of new business.
  5. Remember law is a vocation, like the doctor treating the sick or the minister giving pastoral advice and support. Don't expect to make a lot of money, but enjoy the satisfaction of helping people through their problems and doing an important job to the best of your abilities.
  6. If you begin to specialise, keep an eye out to other areas of the law, read the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland and websites like Scottish Legal News and current affairs: you need to have a breadth of knowledge to be able to give clients the best advice.
  7. Don't try to compare yourself to anyone else. Seek continuous self-improvement. Do however compare yourself to me, Mr Average who achieved quite a lot for a boy from Kirkcaldy. You can do better!


The Author

Frank Crowe, sheriff at Edinburgh

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