The Legal Profession

Defining the Legal Profession

Defining the term ‘legal profession' is more difficult than one may anticipate. It becomes apparent that the simplest definition is perhaps the most befitting. The legal profession is a ‘vocation that is based on expertise in the law and in its applications.' Those who pursue these ‘vocations' collectively form a ‘body of individuals who are qualified to practice law in particular jurisdictions. The learned occupation of these individuals is to study, promote, uphold and enforce the collection of rules imposed by the authority. They thus form a ‘legal profession.'

The English Legal System

The English legal system forms the basis of many ‘common law' legal systems throughout the world and therefore enjoys a superior international status. English law is comprised of criminal law and civil law. The rules governing criminal and civil law are derived from common law, legislation and European Community (EC) Law, which is essentially binding on all UK legal systems. Those within the legal profession have specialist knowledge of the various principles, rules and laws that govern the English legal system.

Who are the Legal Professionals?

There are essentially two main branches of the legal profession – solicitors and barristers. Solicitors advise individuals and organisations on legal matters and ensure that their clients act in accordance with the law.

There are over 100,000 practising solicitors within the legal profession in England and Wales, governed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Barristers represent clients in court and give specialist opinions on complex legal matters. They generally receive instructions through solicitors.

There are around 14,400 practising barristers within the legal profession in the UK, governed by the Bar Standards Board.

The distinction between solicitors and barristers is not as clear-cut as it once was. Following the Court and Legal Services Act (CLSA) 1990 solicitors have the right to become certified advocates (i.e. represent clients in court). Commentators suggest that barristers have consequently, lost their dominance over advocacy in courts. Although solicitors are taking on a more active advocacy role in the lower courts, barristers still maintain an unrivalled monopoly over the higher courts.

Who can enter the Legal Profession?

A consistent requirement for those intent on entering the legal profession is that of high academic achievement. This forms the basic criterion that the vast majority of candidates must meet, before any additional skills they may possess will be considered. Candidates will need a range of skills, which vary depending on the area of the legal profession they wish to specialise in. In order to become a barrister eloquence, excellent articulation, confidence, an analytical mind and persuasiveness are essential requirements. In contrast, the skills demanded of a solicitor lean towards an aptness for problem solving, an enquiring mind and a flair for generating new business and winning clients. It thus becomes clear that in spite of the enactment of the CLSA 1990, solicitors cannot rival or replace barristers given their very separate and distinct roles within the legal profession.

The legal profession is renowned and heavily criticised for its almost impenetrable nature. The first hurdle for many applicants hoping to enter the legal profession is to secure that all-important place at a ‘redbrick' university, to complete their law degree and then at an equally reputable institution to complete their Legal Practitioner's or Barristers Vocational Course (LPC and BVC). The real competition begins, however upon completion of these two stages. The final hurdle before a student can qualify as a solicitor or barrister is to secure a training contract or pupillage. Of the 6,376 students who passed the LPC in July 2006, only 5,751 secured a training contract in that year. Obtaining a pupillage is substantially tougher. Only 17.5% of BVC students who apply for pupillage are likely to secure one. Notably, the majority of these applicants meet and in some cases surpass the requirements demanded of those pursuing a career in the legal profession, i.e. a 2:1+ class degree, a handful of mini pupillages or vacation schemes under their belt and evidence of voluntary work or part time jobs in a legal environment.

Contemporary Issues within the Legal Profession

In addition to its largely inaccessible nature, the legal profession has long been regarded as one of the most closed sectors when it comes to employing ethnic groups. In spite of the rapid progression of a culturally rich Britain, the legal profession is significantly slower in ‘fostering ethnic talent.' Some purport that this is changing given that between 1990 and 2004 there was a 10% increase in the number of students registered with the Law Society from minority backgrounds. This is an unsubstantial development however, considering that between these periods the minority population grew by 53%. Thus, ethnic minority groups remain underrepresented within the legal profession. Although there is evidence of a noteworthy change, there is ample scope for improvement.

In the growing age of technological advancements and the era of the credit crunch, the demand for some professions is decreasing. Some wonder whether the same can be said of the legal profession. Richard Susskind argues that the ‘current market is increasingly unlikely to tolerate expensive [legal professionals] for tasks…that can equally or better be discharged, directly or indirectly, by smart systems and processes.' He states that ‘the jobs of many traditional lawyers will be substantially eroded and often eliminated'. With the increasing number of alternative methods available to those needing legal advice, the constant influx of graduates choosing to enter the legal profession, the declining demand for applicants and the increased constraints on our finances, ‘the market will determine that the legal world is over-resourced.' It will ‘increasingly drive out inefficiencies and unnecessary friction and, in so doing, we will indeed witness the end of outdated legal practice and the end of outdated lawyers.' Conclusively, in order for those within the legal profession to safeguard their jobs, they must focus less on maintaing their ‘fat cat' status and focus more on providing the services that people need at a reasonable cost.