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Why be a solicitor?

By Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

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Twin dilemma: if different kinds of lawyer look the same, do we need so many names for them?

Why be a solicitor? That is a question that will be asked ever more frequently in the coming years when you could become a legal executive or a licensed conveyancer and, in all likelihood, enjoy most if not all of the same rights and privileges as solicitors.

The separate pushes by both ILEX Professional Standards (IPS) and the Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) to gain independent rights to practise currently reserved activities have two aims. The first is, obviously, to empower their members, while the second is to put themselves in a position where they are competent to regulate alternative business structures that offer a wide range of legal services. This will bring into focus the rather strange aspect of the Legal Servics Act that encourages competition for business between regulators, and will raise the separate question of why, as a firm, be regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority?

It is a little-known fact that the Solicitors Regulation Authority is not alone in being able to regulate legal disciplinary practices – the CLC is too, although only those firms which practise conveyancing and probate (as the CLC can grant probate rights). I am not aware that any firm has thus far taken up the option. Perhaps they do not realise that the CLC does not impose ownership restrictions on its firms, meaning they could bring in external investment now if they wanted, rather than having to wait until 6 October 2011.

If you haven’t read my biography in the About Us section, then I should declare an interest – when not running this site, one of my key roles is as editor of the Legal Executive Journal. But putting aside my legal executive sympathies, looked at objectively it is now an attractive route into the law, whether or not you have a degree. Rather than racking up enormous law school debts, you can earn as you learn. You can become a partner. You can become a judge. Soon you will be able to run your own firm (there is already a husband-and-wife team of legal executive partners, one of whom also requalified as a solicitor, running their own legal disciplinary practice in Devon, while a good number of legal executives already have their own businesses – they just cannot do reserved work). The old distinction between legal executives as specialists and solicitors as generalists disappeared a long time ago – how many generalist solicitors are there left?

By far the largest group of non-solicitor individuals to have become partners in legal disciplinary practices thus far is legal executives. Many of these helped set up their firms, or were already treated as partners in practices big and small, and partnership just formalised a status they already held. As Legal Services Board chief executive Chris Kenny put it at the ILEX National Conference last month, there is no longer one golden route into the profession.

So we come back to the question, why be a solicitor? Or a barrister? There is, without doubt, still kudos in the title and it is the traditional route for those leaving university. But there seems little doubt that that hoariest of hoary old legal chestnuts – fusion – will be back on the agenda sooner rather than later and perhaps more seriously than ever. The public doesn’t really get the distinctions between the eight legal professions (can you name them all? answer at the end) and if in time they can all do each other’s job, do we need those distinctions?

In 20 years’ time, will there just be lawyers, overseen by the Legal Services Board (because there’s no real point in having an oversight regulator to oversee the one remaining consolidated regulator)?

This may all seem a long way away, but what is not is the Legal Services Board’s work on reserved activities. This may look like an esoteric subject, but in fact it is anything but. Reserved activities are what keep lawyers special and needed, and I will return to this in a future blog.

One final, less serious, thought. What will the CLC do about its name and its members’ title once it starts regulating licensed conveyancers who don’t do conveyancing? Feel free to post your own answers through the comment facility below.

The answer to the quiz – the eight recognised legal professions are solicitors, barristers, legal executives, licensed conveyancers, patent agent, trade mark attorneys, costs lawyers and notaries. Don’t worry if you didn’t get them all – I have given several presentations to solicitors and barristers about the Legal Services Act, and the only person who has ever got all eight happened also to be a member of the Legal Services Board.