Trying to manage the numbers training for and entering the legal profession so as to balance supply and demand has always been a thankless task. As well as involving much crystal ball gazing, the interests of the universities in deciding how many LLB students to admit may well conflict with those of the profession regarding the number of solicitors that can be taken on.
The profession itself can also appear conflicted. It is entirely coincidental whether the number of traineeship places on offer bears any relation to the demand for qualified and practising solicitors. Views differ as to how soon a trainee begins to pay their way (with or without the exploitative conditions that, it appears from social media, some regrettably still suffer); but that stage is frequently the main pinch point in the system.
What results, particularly in times of rising demand for legal work like we have now, is that practices have to compete for talented qualified solicitors, and many, most likely at the smaller end of the scale, really struggle to recruit, even when they think they have a decent package to offer.
It has to be admitted that there is no ready solution. Taking a longer term view might involve cultivating your own future lawyers through work experience and then traineeship (of course there is never a guarantee that they will not be tempted elsewhere, though perhaps the earlier you bring them on, the more likely they will retain their loyalty). Or encouraging your paralegals to work towards qualifying and ultimately a more senior role in the business. That does not address the short term problem, unless a business can be reorganised so that unqualified staff take on a greater proportion of the work.
Is there a role for the Society? One solicitor who comments for this month’s lead feature, which brings different perspectives to bear on the current situation, believes it could host a platform online through which employers and potential candidates could discuss (presumably anonymously) work situations and potential openings. I leave it to others to comment on the feasibility of such a scheme; suffice it to say that smaller practices are facing a real issue here.
On one point most in the profession are agreed: the present situation only increases the pressures on the legally aided criminal defence sector. With the gap widening almost daily between what can be earned there and elsewhere in the profession, the threat to the justice system is clear and stark. The latest moves to try and jolt the Government into action are by local bars declaring their refusal to act as court-appointed solicitors to those not permitted to defend themselves. Some time soon, something in the system will surely give. Yet still there is a deafening silence from Government.