Opening the door to a bright future in law

Eilidh Wiseman, President of the Law Society of Scotland
Eilidh Wiseman, President of the Law Society of Scotland
Promoted by Law Society of Scotland

The law is constantly evolving, both in terms of the legislation itself and the people who are shaping the profession. Where the law was traditionally dominated by educated men of a certain class, work is being – and has been – done to make the profession more accessible to people from backgrounds where a career as a solicitor may never previously have been an option.

Likewise, more women than ever are qualifying as solicitors – 51 per cent of Scotland’s 11,000 practising solicitors are female – thanks to flexible working opportunities and the appointment of more women to senior roles.

With a wealth of programmes designed to inspire, develop and educate, now is an exciting time to capture the attention of the next generation.

The Law Society of Scotland is doing just that by engaging with more than 1,000 pupils in 40 schools – many of which are in areas of deprivation – through its Street Law programme and there are plans to enlarge it.

With any luck, introducing young people to the profession at an early stage will inspire the workforce of the future.

The Law Society has long supported students at undergraduate and diploma level as well as offering continuing professional development (CPD) to trainees and qualified solicitors, but awareness is increasing of the need to ignite an interest at school age.

Introduced in 2014, the Street Law programme sees undergraduate students, who are trained by the Law Society, to go into classrooms and teach young people how the law is relevant to them as citizens.

“It encourages them to think about law in their everyday life,” explains Eilidh Wiseman, president of the Law Society of Scotland. “They might want to go on to study law, they might want to think about joining the police or a career as a legal secretary or within the court service.

“There is a huge amount of benefit from the Street Law programme.”

In addition, the Law Society organises the annual Donald Dewar Memorial Debating Tournament, which attracts teams from schools across the country with the final round held at the Scottish Parliament.

“We are delighted that over the course of the last few years, more schools that participate in the Street Law programme have participated in the debating programme.”

Since she began her term as president in May 2016, Wiseman has focused her attention on a proposal that could open the door to law for many more school-age students.

The Law Society is consulting – until 31 March – on alternative routes to qualification as a solicitor to establish what appetite there is for it within the profession.

Solicitors are being asked for their thoughts on creating an entirely work-based route to qualification through an apprenticeship approach, as well as whether there should be a way for registered paralegals to make the move to qualify in the profession, and whether graduates with English LLBs should be able to enrol on the Scottish diploma having passed an entrance exam.

“I have been committed to trying to see whether there is scope to introduce a qualification at school age in Scotland,” says Wiseman.

“To do it we would need the support of the profession and there would need to be the ability to move from school to a modern apprenticeship.”

Currently, most people choose to travel the well-trodden path through university of LLB, diploma, traineeship but Wiseman believes there is scope for a hands-on learning approach introduced when pupils are in S4, with a view to opening the door to boys and girls who might not be considering the higher education route.

A minority of solicitors do take a different path, but the road is long and in most cases best suited to those who already work in a solicitor’s office, either as a paralegal or a legal secretary.

This route requires would-be solicitors to complete a three year training contract in addition to sitting exams, set by the Law Society of Scotland, enabling them to go on to university where they can complete their Diploma in Legal Practice prior to undertaking the two-year traineeship.

“We are always looking at ways in which we can open out the profession to a wider demographic,” says Wiseman.

“I am very pleased with our statistics at the moment because around 85 per cent of our undergraduates are state school educated and a very small proportion –

10 per cent – have a close family relative who is currently working in the profession.”

A recent addition to the Law Society’s educational offering is the Lawscot Foundation, which will help academically talented students from less advantaged backgrounds in Scotland through their legal learning journey.

“We will provide financial support through the entirety of their degree and their diploma,” Wiseman explains.

“Also fundamentally important is the provision of mentoring throughout that period by other young solicitors who understand what it is like being a student studying law.

“Students coming from areas with no connections to the law might not know how to access work experience opportunities or put a CV together and that’s what our mentors will be able to help with.”

Starting out in any profession presents challenges to young people finding their feet but the Law Society supports its members throughout their careers.

More than 750 volunteers work with the society on areas of law reform in order to keep members up to date with the latest legislative changes, while CPD is a requirement of the profession.

What is certain is that the life of a lawyer is one in which you never stop learning.

“We want to make sure that at the point of entry to the profession all of our young solicitors have the knowledge that we feel is required in order to practice and provide a quality service to the public,” says Wiseman.

“Post qualification, there is a requirement set out in our rules to undertake CPD, which has to be relevant to the practice of the solicitor.”

Keeping on top of the law calls for more than box ticking and completing courses on paper. “Our mentoring scheme has been particularly successful, not just from the mentees’ point of view but also the mentors’ who are given additional skills and training in order to become a mentor,” continues Wiseman.

“The professional development and satisfaction that they receive from taking part in the programme is immense.

“It helps more experienced solicitors get in touch with what younger solicitors are feeling about the profession, the market in which they operate, and some of the challenges they face.”

This continuous education takes various forms including face-to-face training and events, digital learning, group seminars and the annual conference.

The aim is to support all members, wherever they are practising, including the 240 members of the Law Society who work overseas.

“I think perhaps I have learned more in the last year as president than I have in the last 30 years because of the range and variation of areas that you have to look at in this role,” says Wiseman.

“The law – and that’s the wonderful thing about law – is ever changing and very dynamic.

“You are always learning, always developing. If you have an interest in society and what’s happening in the world generally, then it’s a tremendous privilege to work in this area and do what you can to help society.”

Legal learning

The standard route to qualification as a solicitor incorporates the undergraduate LLB, postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice and a two-year traineeship.

An alternative route is through Law Society exams, a three-year training contract with a Scottish solicitor, diploma and two-year traineeship.

Until 31 March, the Law Society is consulting on further alternative routes to qualification as a solicitor, which could include a modern apprenticeship model.

All trainees must complete 60 hours of CPD (continuing professional development) training over their two-year training contract. Of these 60 hours, 40 must be specialised trainee CPD taken with an authorised provider.

Once qualified, practising solicitors must complete annual CPD to ensure they meet the Law Society’s standards and the needs of their clients.

This article appears in the SPRING 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.

For more information on the Law Society click here.