Legal Recruitment from Ten-Percent Legal

Monday, June 16, 2008

ILEX route into the legal profession - via the back door?

I recently wrote an article for graduates with 3rd class degrees. ILEX organisation contacted me to ask why I had not mentioned the legal executive route into the legal profession for graduates with 3rd class degrees.

As a result I thought it might help if I wrote an article on the route explaining perhaps somewhat anecdotally the perception of legal executives within the profession.

I must say that my opinion remains the same for students with 3rd class degrees – i.e. that although it is not impossible to find a training contract and go down the legal practice course route, most students with a 3rd class degree should think twice before paying for the legal practice course as vacancies are far and few between where someone with that level of degree would be considered for a job, simply because of the competition, lack of training contract places.

However, ILEX are quite right in that the legal executive route is an alternative option for anyone who decides they do not wish to do the legal practice course and spend such vast amounts of money to start off with.

The path is quite clear. You basically complete your law degree if you have already started and then enrol with the college at a particular level. I understand that you gain exemptions for having a law degree, but you would need to check with ILEX to see what exemptions you are currently entitled to.

It usually takes about five years to become a fully qualified legal executive with Fellow status. A Fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives (FILEX) is considered as good as a solicitor in terms of qualifications. Traditionally the problem for such qualified legal executives is that the advocacy rights were restricted, which meant that they could not do the same work as a solicitor and would have to either instruct externally advocates to appear in court or get a solicitor to do it for them.

However, with the recent introduction of rights of audience for some legal executives with a particular qualification, things have changed and it is now possible for FILEX and ILEX in some circumstances to gain full rights of audience before various courts and tribunals.

So how are legal executives perceived within the profession?

The first point is usually backed up by salary levels. Traditionally even though legal executives can bill the same or more than solicitors, they have not been rewarded to the same degree financially. To illustrate this, a legal executive with two years experience in a high street field such as conveyancing will invariably be on at least £5000 less than a solicitor with two years experience conveyancing. There is some justification for this, a solicitor with two years experience has been in training for over six or seven years, including a degree and post graduate qualification. A legal executive has completed examinations that some would argue are much more basic than the demands of a law degree and the LPC, and they do not have the same considered level of professional status that solicitors have.

This is the first consideration for anyone who decides to take the ILEX rather than the solicitor route. Your salary will be stunted and also in a lot of firms restricted to a certain scale, and you may also find that your salary will never go above a particular level because of the salary a solicitor has in the same firm and the concern of the company to try and avoid a discrepancy in their pay scales.

Secondly, there is an element of dismissal in the legal profession about legal executives and the level of work that they are capable of doing. Despite the ILEX colleges best efforts, it has to be said that anyone qualifying, or the vast majority of people qualifying through the legal executive route are not academically gifted students who have performed consistently throughout their career to date. I have not seen many CVs for legal executives where they have very good A level results followed by a good degree. Most legal executives I have seen CVs from have come the back door route into the profession, i.e. they don’t have the academic qualifications behind them, and have come down a professional route to get into law. The perception in the profession as a result is probably quite accurate to a certain extent in that the vast majority of legal executives with more than a few years experience are either former secretaries who have decided to train up and become lawyers, or people who have tried to enter the legal profession but who lack the formal qualifications required.

From this perspective, the route of legal executive remains a back door into the profession, and although this may sound dismissive of legal executives and the work that they do, I’m afraid it is the reality of the habituation in the profession.

There are a lot of legal executives out there who are well paid, highly skilled, and who have been with firms for many years generating good billing rates. There are also a lot of legal executives out there who are almost cannon fodder to a certain extent – used for quite menial tasks in firms, verily wish to do, they find that their work is not particularly good quality or interesting for them.

Another problem legal executives have with the perception of their strand of the profession is that the pay very much tends to be like secretaries in that if a firm like you and keep you for a long time you get paid well, as a cue for one firm to another, you find the next firm do not necessarily wish to pay you at the same level you have been receiving, and suddenly you have to take a massive pay drop. Until recently, another problem has been that in order to get on and progress to partnership or often senior management level, you have needed to do the legal practice course at a future date and qualify as a solicitor. Things have changed a little bit, as it will soon be possible for legal executives to be partners in firms and this may remove the need of legal executive to have to bother spending many thousands completing the legal practice course, which is very often a complete waste of time for them as they have been in practice for longer than the people who are teaching them the course.

It will be interesting to see how the reputation and standing of legal executives changes with the new Act coming in to allow them partnership status and also with the new advocacy rights. Perhaps law firms will start valuing legal executives more, particularly because I suspect that their pay will not necessarily increase very dramatically.

I hope I have not done legal executives a disservice in this article, my own opinion is that there is still a perception the profession that they are very much second rate citizens, and anyone wanting to become a solicitor with a consistent academic background and reasonable work experience should not consider going down this route but focus solely on completing the legal practice course and obtaining a training contract.

Jonathan Fagan is Managing Director of Ten Percent Legal Recruitment. He is a solicitor (non-practising) so perhaps slightly biased against legal executives! You can contact him on cv@ten-percent.co.uk for free careers advice.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have just come across this article and as an Associate Legal Executive I am quite shocked that you could be so critical of such a route into the legal profession. I started my ILEX qualifications 3 1/2 years ago when I left a fee paying school with good A-Levels. I am now approaching my last year of studying and I can honestly say on behalf of myself and all other ILEX students that the exams are far from “much more basic than the demands of a law degree and the LPC”. Although level 3 is based at A-Level standard, level 6 is graded at degree standard and during my revision I have often referred to books used by University students. ILEX have also added new provisions in which you have to carry out client care and legal research projects on a coursework basis.

My choice to do ILEX was NOT based on the fact that it was a back door route into the profession or the fact that I lacked the formal qualifications required to go to University, I did in fact obtain a place to study law at University but turned this down as I did not want to burden myself with the debt.

I along with the majority of other ILEX students work full time hours whilst studying on the side. Although at times this has been a challenge, it has given me the opportunity to have hands on experience and gain the people skills needed in this profession which I would not have had through going to University. I am also safe in the knowledge that I have employment unlike the vast majority of University leavers struggling to obtain a training contract.

Therefore if anybody reading this is considering the ILEX route, please don’t let it put you off, it is hard work but the satisfaction you receive makes it all worth it ... oh and the fact that you won’t be in thousands of pounds worth of debt!

Jonathan Fagan said...

Hello Anonymous.

You are quite right - the article is quite negative (and I have just noticed a couple of very interesting transcription errors!) concerning the viability of the legal executives route into law, or at least of the perception of legal executives in the profession.

Perhaps some of the parts of the article are a little harsh, but on the whole I was blogging about the perception rather than the reality.

Your comment itself refers to how you have left school and gone onto ILEX immediately. It means you can be earning money straight away from a job, rather than racking up loads of debt, which is understandable. However, partners of law firms do not necessarily see it in the same way, and such an entry will almost certainly affect any career progression in some types of law firm.

This goes with my comment in the blog that the ILEX route is often used as the "back door" into the profession, and explains why legal executives rarely get the same level of salary or status within a firm as solicitors who have very often been at university for 3-4 years, completed the LPC and spent 2 years in a training contract.

I suspect that this will all change with the MDPs and LDPs and any other DPs the incoming government can think of, as more and more legal executives become partners or directors of firms, which will in itself remove a proportion of the negative perceptions around legal executives.

Anonymous said...

I have completed a law degree (2.1) after obtaining good A-Level results and now need to make a decision about the best way to qualify.

I currently work as a paralegal and can complete the ILEX level 6 with my firm. I can obviously then complete the LPC and qualify if I feel that this is necessary at a later date. The alternative is for me to complete the LPC and attempt to find a training contract, attempts so
far have been unsuccessful. I would be grateful for some updated advice regarding the perception of ILEX and your thoughts on the best route.

Anonymous said...

I have completed a law degree (2.1) after obtaining good A-Level results and now need to make a decision about the best way to qualify.

I currently work as a paralegal and can complete the ILEX level 6 with my firm. I can obviously then complete the LPC and qualify if I feel that this is necessary at a later date. The alternative is for me to complete the LPC and attempt to find a training contract, attempts so
far have been unsuccessful. I would be grateful for some updated advice regarding the perception of ILEX and your thoughts on the best route.

Jonathan Fagan said...

If you have good A level results and a 2.1 degree from a reasonably well recognised university in the UK, I see no reason at all for you not getting a training contract even though it may take you quite a while to get one.

I note that you currently work as a paralegal and that you can start the ILEX courses at work. Why not do this? What is to stop you starting down that route and still trying to get a training contract as well?

So many people think they have to put all their eggs in one basket when in fact you ought to be trying to aim as high as you can but at the same time exploring all options available to you.

Becoming a legal executive is still perceived in the legal profession as fairly second rate and certain posts will be restricted if you decide to go down that route.

Bird in the hand though has to be the rule for the current climate. Although how many applications for training contracts have you made? And where? Has anyone ever reviewed your CV or application forms? Worth considering (this may seem a shameless plug but there are plenty of advisers out there as well as ourselves!).

Anonymous said...

Hello Jonathon,

I found your article very informative - but also realise that it was written four years ago.

I wonder if I could get your up-to-date impression of the ILEX route given the legislative changes that have occured within that 4yr period.

The reason I ask is because I am considering it as a route into the profession and a change of career from teaching. My background is that I graduated in 1987, BSc Economics 2:2, then I started my family and so chose teaching as a family friendly option - Turned out to not be that family friendly because its basically exhausting with low monetary rewards.

Interestingly enough I did secure a place with The London College of Law on graduation, but turned it down because of committments - so I have always had a genuine interest in the legal profession.

The thing is, I don't want to embark on another career track as a mature student in the wrong way. "The wrong way" to me, means taking a qualification which puts me in a second class position within the profession and clips my wings for being taken seriously alongside colleagues....ie paid less and given mundane work.

Also, finances are a real issue, my family has grown and flown - but I dont have huge savings off a teaching career. I would want to secure work within the field asap in order to support me financially and academically - so if it would be hard to secure a legal job as an ex-teacher with an ILEX, that would be a deal breaker. I would save short term - because ILEX is cheaper, but would loose long-term - if it disadvantages me compared to job applicants from more traditional routes.

Jonathan Fagan said...

Hello Anonymous,

Yes the article was written 4 years ago and although a lot has changed, the perception remains the same re legal executives. Again I should add that I comment on this perception rather than on the merits of the perception!

Legal executives are still viewed in a lot of firms as being in some way less qualified than solicitors, possibly because they are in terms of academic study.

Your question is very different though - whether I would invest in any training at all at this stage in your career is a completely different matter. To a certain extent, qualification does not make much difference to your career prospects.

Work experience makes the difference.

Work experience gets you jobs, not training or qualifications, regardless of what certain course providers may tell you.