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What motivates and worries aspiring lawyers?

Kirsten Maslen

03 May 2019

At the end of 2018 we conducted a survey of law students in England and Wales. There were 130 responses to the survey, including 22 partial responses, most of whom were undergraduates. The survey asked about their expectations and concerns with respect to their careers, how their courses fulfilled their skill requirements and how they approach the job application process.

Some of the key findings were:

  • Respondents to the survey are excited by a career that offers them challenges and variety that will fulfil their personal aspirations and offer them career development. This view was tempered by concerns about poor work-life balance and heavy workloads.
  • Many see technology having a structural impact on the profession and changing the nature of job roles. However, they face some challenges acquiring technology-related skills and, at interview stage, questions about technology are the ones they feel most uncomfortable about how to respond.
  • When it comes to the job application process, as well as looking for an employer that meets their personal requirements—an employer’s ethos, culture and reputation are factored into student preferences.

Awareness of change in legal market

The respondents identified Brexit, technology and changes to the business structures of the legal profession as the key agents of change in the market.

“Artificial technology is going take over quite a number of legal jobs. The need to have someone create contracts, and other types of automation such as construction of case documents will be handled by machines. The legal profession will look very different in the next 10 years”.

“The increase in artificial intelligence and technology in general will change the way that law firms operate. The business practice of ‘more-for-less’ will become standard cost-savings for legal services. Clients expectations of a one-stop-shop for all of their business needs, is on the rise. Law firms will benefit from increasing their services to ensure their clients stick around”.

Why law?

Despite these changes in the legal services market, many respondents saw themselves having long-term careers in the law. Their top motivations for becoming lawyers being:

  • sense of personal achievement
  • meaningful and satisfying work
  • good opportunities for career development

Respondents expressed being excited by a career that offers them challenge and variety, and the ability to develop and progress. For many, this means pursuing a career in London. The draw of the capital seems to be more about the reputations of the firms there than higher salaries.

Although many are keen on the idea of making a difference, their expectations are more limited on whether their jobs will afford them this opportunity. They see technology having a structural impact on the profession and changing the nature of job roles.

“What excites me most is that, once qualified, I will have the ability to make such a change in people’s lives. Those whom cannot help themselves or even those who want a guiding hand through what is potentially a monumentally difficult time in their lives, I will be able to help”.

“I worry about not being able to find an area of law to practice that I can be most passionate about”.

Aside from the more immediate challenges of finding a job in a competitive environment, respondents are concerned about a working life characterised with heavy workloads and a poor work-life balance. Their biggest worries are about the working environment.

“The representation of women at Partner levels in law is bad”.

“Long working hours, no time for private life / family / children, high rents / living costs in London”.

Skills gaps

Most students felt their law courses helped them develop the skills they would need to be successful—with particular emphasis on analytical, reasoning and formulating legal arguments.

They are proactive in sourcing skills they believe are required to succeed and are not on offer with their course, by using a variety of extra-curricular activities to help them develop a mix of technical and softer skills. They are comfortable with mixing traditional networking, such as student law societies, combined with digital methods. Although, a small percentage don’t do any form of networking.

Despite the belief that technology will have an important impact on the future of the legal profession, only 30 percent believe all required technology skills are provided by their courses. Universities, and especially law schools, are grappling with the question of what technology they can or should incorporate into courses and how implement that training. Currently business-related technology skills are acquired incrementally during the training contract, sometimes to the frustration of law firms that the trainees have not arrived better equipped.

Whether legal educators can go some way to shouldering this task to continue to appeal to students and sponsoring firms following the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) remains to be seen. Due to the changing nature of technology, the decision was taken to not cover technology training as part of the SQE. This gap will need to be addressed either before the trainees arrives at their firm or afterwards.

Applying for jobs

The respondents choose law firms predominantly based on:

  • practice area
  • reputation
  • good training and support

Geographic area, ethos and culture were also important, far more than size or financial contribution to law school fees by law firms. Some consideration must be given to how students are making an assessment of a firm’s ethos and culture. Information on prospective employers is largely sourced from the internet, a student’s educational institution, or the student law society. Therefore, a firm’s website presence must play an important role in articulating its ethos. Firms also appear to need an established relationship with the educational institution. This may pose a challenge for smaller and localised law firms who may not have the resources to develop these relationships across a spread of educational providers.

This is particularly important with 23 percent (excluding London) of students indicating that they wish to work in the region they are from, though may not be studying in that geographical area. Meanwhile, 60 percent of respondents indicated that they expect to work in London, which means London based employers must ensure they foster relationships with a wide number of institutions.

The requirement to build knowledge and confidence around the theme of technology during studies becomes more apparent at interview stage, with this being the interview question that job applicants find most difficult to answer. This is followed by questions on law and about why the candidate chose the particular firm, suggesting that candidates are struggling to distinguish between firms.

Summary and key questions for the market

The feedback in this survey indicates that respondents seem consistent in their views and expectations of a career in the legal profession, and organised in their approach to skills development and job applications. The results support Thomson Reuters wider customer insight that trainees lack the skills and knowledge around using technology in a business context, as well as wider understanding of the business of law.

These skills gaps provide an opportunity for new products and services from existing legal educators and new entrants. There is also a role to play for suppliers to the legal market. Thomson Reuters supports our academic customers identify the technology skills and trends that matter and where solutions can be integrated into courses.

For law firms, some key questions arise:

  • How will they support their trainees to develop the business and technological skills they need following the introduction of the SQE? To what extent do they expect legal educators to address this need?
  • Are perceptions and concerns about work-life balance realistic? How can employers reassure future lawyers that they can balance a full and satisfying career with a home life?
  • As clients increasingly research firms online, so do students. Students choose firms based on reputation, but to what extent are they equating reputation with size? What can small firms do to leverage their online presence more effectively to appeal to students?
  • Of the respondents, 60 percent assume they will be working in London. However, they are less drawn by the prospect of a large salary than by the opportunity to do meaningful work. How can law firms offer these aspiring lawyers the sense of meaning they are seeking to ensure they attract and retain the best people?
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