by Matthew McGovern, SYLA non-executive committee member
There is no doubt that there are significant problems with the criminal legal aid sector. My local court is Hamilton, which is one of the busiest sheriff courts in Scotland, and yet there are only two full-time criminal lawyers under the age of 30. There is one full-time criminal trainee in Lanarkshire.
Now I could write a book on the reasons why there are so few criminal lawyers who would be eligible to join the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association (students, trainees, devils, solicitors and advocates with less than 10 years’ experience), but that is for another day. The one reason that I can rule out is that young lawyers don’t want to practise criminal defence.
There are plenty of law students who dream of being the next Martha Costello, or who have watched A Few Good Men and think they could have their “You can’t handle the truth” moment in court. The problem is that there are very few criminal traineeships advertised. The purpose of this article is to give you a couple of tips and pointers about looking for a criminal traineeship, and how you can put yourself in the best possible opportunity of scaling the legal equivalent of Everest: securing such a traineeship.
The criminal marketUnlike bigger commercial firms, most criminal firms are small businesses without HR or marketing departments. We don’t have an annual recruitment drive for summer placements or traineeships. When criminal traineeships are advertised, it is really important that you know the market you are wanting to enter.
Criminal law firms face unique market pressures: the increase in legal aid fees last year was the first in my lifetime! This is coupled with a significant reduction in criminal prosecutions, which will only be exacerbated by the current pandemic. Notwithstanding these problems, there is a seemingly neverending battery of legislative reforms placing increasingly unrealistic demands on criminal lawyers, who are expected to do even more for ever diminishing returns.
The financial pressures on criminal firms are considerable, and everyone in the firm – from senior partner to receptionist – has to punch above their weight for the business to be viable.
While this might sound like a challenge, it is also an opportunity for law students seeking a traineeship.
Where to startYour hunt for a criminal traineeship should begin long before the traineeship is advertised. You should contact a local criminal defence firm and enquire about work experience. This can involve either shadowing a solicitor at court or – even better – helping out in the office, which could mean everything from drafting legal aid applications and court documents to answering the phone and filing. While this might sound mundane, good administration skills as well as a willingness to multi-task and help out with the less glamorous tasks are essential in a small high street firm.
Criminal firms are usually in need of this type of help, and I think it would be much more effective to target firms as a student and ask for work experience during university than send speculative letters out to law firms when you are on the diploma (sorry to say, but these are very rarely considered by solicitors, and in my firm our secretary knows to send a polite reply saying thanks but we aren’t hiring just now).
Another way to gain experience in criminal law is to attend CPD events (why not start with SYLA’s Criminal Law Day later this year?), where you can meet solicitors and gain an insight into their jobs as well as network with members of the profession.
You should also spend as much time as possible at your local sheriff court, as it will allow you to gain an insight into the advocacy side of the job. It is another excellent opportunity to network with lawyers, and it gives you an “in” if you are asking for work experience.
Twitter is an excellent platform for aspiring criminal lawyers. You can follow and interact with some of the country’s best known lawyers and Queen’s Counsel as well as organisations such as SYLA (we tweet at @oSYLAo). You’ll gain an insight into the working of criminal law, as well as experienced professionals’ opinions about the latest proposed legislative reform.
A good example of this recently was the proposed suspension of jury trials in response to the lockdown and the Government’s social distancing measures. Within minutes of this reform being published, leading criminal lawyers were tweeting their opposition to the proposal as well as suggesting alternatives. To his credit, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf, engaged with a number of lawyers and ultimately this proposal was paused, and a new working group has been convened to explore alternatives.
What can set you apart from the packI mentioned the pressures that criminal lawyers work under, and the importance of being able to punch above your weight. One area where potential trainees could make a difference is the internet. Many criminal firms don’t have a website and you could offer to create one for your firm. As a trainee, I was heavily involved in the production of our firm’s website and ended up writing most of the content. Whilst this was an arduous task, our website has become a good source of business, and every new case that comes from the website highlights its value. It is something that I have found many experienced practitioners are reluctant to invest in, as they feel it is too expensive and is outside their comfort zone.
If you are able to assist with building a website for the firm, and it gets a case a week from the website, the financial burden of employing a trainee doesn’t seem that daunting for criminal firms.
This is just one example, but demonstrating commercial awareness and business development skills is invaluable to any criminal law firm. Whilst commercial awareness means something different when applying for a commercial traineeship rather than a criminal traineeship, it is no less important, and arguably more so.
Finally…If you have a criminal traineeship interview, you’ll be asked why you want to do the job. I appreciate members of the profession are never particularly enthusiastic about young law students wanting to pursue a career in criminal law, and there’s no getting anyway from the downsides, but – to end on a positive – it is an incredibly rewarding job. You are often thrown into the deep end with court work and I’ve always enjoyed that challenge. It is a great feeling when you persuade the sheriff to grant bail to the client who expected to be remanded, or when you get your first not guilty verdict, and – at the risk of sounding sanctimonious – you play an invaluable role representing some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
I’ll not pretend it isn’t tough, but I don’t have any regrets about specialising in criminal law and I would happily recommend it to any aspiring lawyer.
This blog was originally published in the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland.