Could there be a more thrilling time to be shaping government policy and high-profile political issues?
Do EU believe in life after Leave?
“The GLS operates at the intersection of law, politics and policy making. Handling high-profile litigation with far-reaching implications and advising ministers on new legislation seemed so exciting to me,” one pupil enthused when asked why they had eschewed private practice for pupillage at the Government Legal Service. Our source was not alone in their opinion, with others raving about the opportunity to “help policy officials shape the law.”
Working for the government and its myriad departments means GLS pupils could find themselves taking a stab at anything from “drafting regulations on the conversion of schools to academy status” or “secondary legislation on the Tax-Free Childcare scheme” to providing legal advice to the Cabinet Office during Brexit negotiations. We spoke to our sources shortly after the EU referendum and although “it's still very early days," interviewees said, "it's clear that whatever happens there will be a significant number of legal queries to answer for the government. That'll open up a lot of opportunities for lawyers interested in EU work.”
"[Brexit will] open up a lot of opportunities for lawyers interested in EU work.”
It wasn't just the thought of throwing themselves headlong into the fusion of politics and law that had our sources banging on the GLS's door. Several pointed out the opportunities “to move around throughout your career” (post-training, GLS lawyers switch departments every couple of years or so) and the security not always found at the self-employed Bar: “I felt being self-employed could be lonely, while working at the GLS meant I'd get a pension, holiday entitlement and all the other benefits that come with being employed.”
Ten pupils called the GLS home at the time of our calls: six were in the Government Legal Department (GLD), two at Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and two at what was then the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills – just as we wrapped up research, BIS was merged with the Department of Energy & Climate Change to form the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Once their pupillage year is complete, GLS juniors serve a two-year stint as a 'legal trainee' before becoming a fully-fledged government lawyer. HMRC and BEIS newbies tend to stay within their department but GLD pupils and legal officers can jump into any of the departments the GLD advises, such as the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Department for Education, the Department for Work & Pensions or the Attorney General's Office. Here they advise ministers on policy and assist with the drafting regulations, policies and statutory instruments.
It's worth noting that the Government Legal Service also hires trainee solicitors; click here to read our True Picture review of the GLS and more about its application process and click here to read more about different government departments.
Death and taxes
Pupils split their first year between a six-month stint handling public law matters at a large London set and six months working within the GLS. Sets which have temporarily adopted GLS pupils in recent years include Essex Court, Blackstone, Monckton, Landmark and 3PB. GLS rookies are “treated just like a set's own pupils.” None of our sources had conducted any advocacy while out on loan (more on advocacy and the GLS later) but “you do learn a lot from observing your supervisor in action and speaking with them about case strategy.” Interviewees had assisted on paper-based matters, writing research notes, preparing cases for court and drafting defences, opinions, grounds of complaint and skeleton arguments. "I wrote a lot of skeleton arguments,” one source emphasised.
Back at the GLD's Kemble Street HQ, pupils undertake one of their sixes in any of the firm's litigation seats, such as immigration, employment, public law or private law. The last of these mostly handles MoJ or MoD matters; those working for the MoJ split their time between inquests and personal injury. The former centres around deaths in custody and “it's up to you to go through the evidence and help the coroner understand the circumstances surrounding the death, whether it be suicide or natural causes.” Rookies also handle personal injury claims from prisoners and prison officers injured by inmates; recently the team defended the MoJ against a negligence claim brought by a prison catering manager who suffered a spinal injury after a prisoner dropped a sack of rice on her back.
"It's a big responsibility which will have a massive effect on someone's life."
HMRC's business and property tax litigation team handles “large, long-running cases which last several years – one has been going for a decade! The cases are so big you're nearly always assisting more senior lawyers by helping to draft skeleton arguments and conduct legal research.” Rookies can also do a seat covering work from the criminal law and benefit credit teams. The latter “largely deals with the taxpayer benefits which HMRC administers, such as tax credits.” Interviewees here “drafted operational advice for tax inspectors on the implementation and interpretation of the law. It's a very complex area where you have to scrutinise how the law operates.”
Prosecution and enforcement work is on the cards for BEIS pupils as they “prosecute businesses and individuals for Companies Act and Company Directors Disqualification Act offences. The police or insolvency services often refer an investigation to us, and once our in-house investigators have looked into it I'll review the evidence and decide whether it's in the public interest to prosecute. It's a big responsibility which will have a massive effect on someone's life so it's quite daunting to have to deal with," one source admitted. “I got loads of advocacy experience – having to think on my feet really helped hone my decision-making skills.”
As this example suggests, GLS pupils and barristers do get to do some advocacy, but as a rule life at the GLS tends to involve less time on your feet than you'd get in private practice, especially once pupillage is over. “The advocacy opportunities are fairly limited,” one GLD source stressed. Most of our interviewees weren't too put out by this. As one explained, “the GLS makes it quite clear you'll get less advocacy than you would in chambers but I think I've done a decent amount. Plus, travelling all over the country to get to court every day would be knackering!”
The Bard and the Bar
There are other noticeable differences between life at the GLS and in private practice. For instance, pay: “Everyone knows the salary here doesn't match what you'd earn in chambers, but given the high standard of work we do and the favourable hours we work, I'm happy with it.” Hours, as that source suggests, are very reasonable, with lawyers usually working from 9.30am to 6pm, even beyond the pupillage year. “People are keen to make sure you're not working ridiculous hours,” one pupil stressed. “The emphasis is on working efficiently.”
Another interviewee reckoned: “The way we work is quite different to being in chambers, where you undertake a lot of independent thought and predominantly work with instructing solicitors. Here, lawyers deal with a wider Civil Service team which gives us a different perspective on matters.” Another source added: “I really like the atmosphere. I've always been made to feel part of the gang – we've got a real trooper mentality and I'm surrounded by interesting and intelligent people.”
On the social side, we heard pupils and trainees regularly get together once a fortnight for a drink or two, but if a few pints aren't your thing there are plenty of other options on offer. At the time of our calls sources were looking forward to a night at Shakespeare's Globe to watch The Taming of the Shrew. “We've also been bowling and to museum lates," a source told us. And "once a month we set out on an expedition” as part of the unofficial trainee walking group.
The GLS offers a small number of one-week vacation placements to undergraduates or graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Government Legal Service (GLS)
- Total trainees Around 50 currently working within the Government Legal Service
- Contact [email protected] or visit www.gov.uk/gls
- Method of application Online application form, situational judgement test, verbal reasoning test and critical reasoning test
- Selection procedure Half-day assessment centre involving a written exercise and competency based interview
- Closing date for 2019 28 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 40
- Applications pa 3,000+
- % interviewed pa 4%
- Required degree grade 2:2 (need not be in law)
- Training salary
- First-year: £28,000
- Second-year: £32,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days on entry
- Post-qualification salary £42,000
- % of trainees accepting job on qualification (2015) 100%
Main areas of work