Being a lawyer to the Government has always been something quite unique, but never more so than now: "The next few years are going to be so exciting here.”
Everyday I'm shuffling
A new prime minister, an opposition in disarray and of course Brexit; “I've no idea what's going on!” one source joked when we spoke to them in the week of the July 2016 cabinet reshuffle, just as our interviewees at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) discovered their department would be broken up and restructured and others had to postpone calls to attend leaving speeches for departing ministers. “The excitement of being a government lawyer never dies,” one interviewee grinned. “You open the paper or turn on the news and see stuff you're working on. With everything happening at the moment and the public so politically aware it makes our work even more interesting. The next few years are going to be so exciting here.”
Trainees working for the Government Legal Service have been extolling the virtues of working for HM Government for years, but now there's a new aspect to their work: “There will be loads of work across the Civil Service related to the policy and legislative changes necessitated by Brexit as well as lots of stuff to do with trade negotiations." Civil servants will be relying on lawyers' advice for untangling UK and EU law and redrafting what may soon be defunct EU-mandated legislation. While our sources stressed it's far too early to know exactly what will happen next in terms of the UK's relationship with the EU, there's no doubt GLS trainees will be involved. We heard that one trainee had already been working on "future planning following the referendum and looking at options for how to proceed."
GLS lawyers work on a wide range of policy and other government-related issues from immigration to healthcare and tax to the military. The GLS has two branches which trainees are recruited into: Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Government Legal Department (GLD), which is by far the biggest of the two and is essentially the government's in-house legal team. GLD trainees' first two seats are typically in two different litigation departments within GLD headquarters at One Kemble Street off Kingsway in central London. The third and fourth seats are usually spent in an advisory role within any of the following government departments: the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS); the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS); HM Treasury; the Cabinet Office; the Department for Education (DfE); the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra); the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG); the Home Office; the Ministry of Justice (MoJ); the Ministry of Defence (MoD); the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP); the Attorney General's Office (AGO); the Department of Health; the Department for Transport (DfT), and the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU).
We should note that the GLS recruits pupil barristers as well as trainees, though it treats the two sides of the profession as more or less interchangeable for recruitment and training purposes –read our separate Chambers Report on the GLS pupillage here. All applicants apply to the GLD, but indicate if they're en route to becoming a solicitor or barrister and whether they'd liked to join HMRC or the GLD.
“I was dealing with lots of different people in different circumstances.”
For their first two litigation seats, GLD rookies might be sitting in employment, public law and planning, private law (mostly MoJ and MoD work), or immigration. The employment team predominantly handles “employment litigation brought by Civil Service employees. Each of our five sub-teams assists a certain government department” – eg the Home Office or MoD. “The Civil Service is a massive employer so we deal with a huge number of claims, from discrimination to unfair dismissal to breach of contract to whistle-blowing.” The vast majority of cases tend to be small in nature and these are the ones trainees are most immersed in. “I ran my own cases, from writing responses to filing them at court. I advised the client on the merits and prospects of the case, drafted witness statements, attended hearings and supported counsel,” one source reported.
Immigration's another seat where trainees are able to tackle their own cases. Nearly all immigration matters take the form of judicial reviews – “when an individual challenges an immigration decision made by the Home Office” – though occasionally the team also deals with statutory appeals. “The cases move very fast," a trainee told us. "I started with 50 and had over 100 by the end. I was dealing with lots of different people in different circumstances.” Sources felt “it's challenging but never gets too much – it does really help you develop your time management skills though.” Trainees chip in on initial decisions whether to defend claims against the Home Office, draft summary grounds and witness statements, instruct counsel, and negotiate settlements and costs.
War: what is it good for?
The GLD's private law team deals with personal injury claims against government departments like the MoD and MoJ. Check out our Chambers Report on the GLS for a look at life in the MoJ private law team. On the MoD side, personal injury cases range from slips and trips to high-profile, headline-grabbing litigation: recently the team defended the MoD after over 600 Iraqi civilians claimed they were mistreated by British soldiers between 2003 and 2009. Lawyers are also defending the MoD and the Foreign Office in a case brought by 44,000 Kenyans claiming they were tortured by the British Army during attempts to suppress the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s. Trainees don their detective's cloak and deerstalker to “visit sites to inspect equipment used during an accident" and “investigate the facts and circumstances of accidents and gather evidence." Then, "once you've got a case to defend, there are disclosure exercises to complete, interim applications to file and barristers to instruct.”
“I drafted something that's now on the statute books!”
For their advisory seat trainees are effectively seconded from the GLD to the Whitehall department they're working for (though they remain GLD lawyers). Doing a stint at MoJ, for example, means helping to advise on policy issues, which could mean something as big as the proposed new British Bill of Rights or as small-scale as rules governing burials and cremations. Interviewees told of doing gargantuan amounts of UK and European case law research, “commenting on the legal issues surrounding policy proposals and meeting with ministers to share findings.” Others had been involved in the “exciting process" of drafting a statutory instrument. "Once you've agreed the content with the policymakers and drafted the instrument, you present it to the minister so it can be signed. It was only a short piece but I drafted something that's now on the statute books!” one source beamed.
Trainees spending time at Defra may find themselves "dealing with water – drinking water, water quality and flooding," while at the Department of Health they might handle social care, ethics and data protection matters, for example "dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests and advising on what patient information can lawfully be disclosed, as well as looking at commercially sensitive issues to do with private healthcare providers." Trainees may also work on bills being put before Parliament, for example, "being part of a team instructing Parliamentary drafters on what clauses a bill should contain." Lawyers at DCLG were recently involved in the creation of the Infrastructure Act 2015 and the Housing and Planning Act 2016. "When I started the seat I went to Parliament to see a bill the team had just drafted passed into law," a source told us. "I then helped prepare documents for a new bill. There's a lot of explanatory information about a bill that has to be published alongside it.”
Trainees who work at HMRC – the UK's authority on all things tax – are also very likely to do two litigation seats and two advisory ones. Personal tax is one of the litigation destinations, dealing “largely with questions of whether high net worth individuals are resident in the UK and should therefore be paying tax.” There are also plenty of tax appeals to get stuck into (when people challenge a tax decision made by HMRC) and tax avoidance schemes to tackle: earlier this year a 12-year tax battle between HMRC and Deutsche Bank and UBS came to a close when the Supreme Court ruled that employee bonus schemes set up by both companies amounted to tax avoidance and ordered the two to each cough up £50 million to HMRC. One source told us: “I've assisted on large cases by conducting legal research and prepared applications for court and responses to judicial reviews.” We also heard of a trainee who had gained some advocacy experience on a restraint order. Advisory seat options at HMRC include criminal law – focusing on protecting HMRC from judicial reviews and advising on things like how much information is required for a search warrant – to business tax, which advises on tax legislation for businesses.
Until 2017 the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) recruited its own cohort of trainees, but now its trainees and lawyers are part of the GLD like those of every other ministerial department. BEIS was formed in July 2016 when the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills was combined with the now-abolished Department for Energy & Climate Change, while being stripped of responsibility for universities (which are now dealt with by the DfE) and trade (now under the aegis of the new Department for International Trade). Advisory seat options within the department include the consumer law and projects team (these guys recently prepared the Consumer Rights Act), the state aid and commercial department (which deals with “EU state aid rules, disposal of government assets and helping industries in distress”), and the labour market group which handles employment advisory work. Sources in the last of these had immersed themselves in drafting the Trade Union Act 2016. “I did a lot of the legal research which informed how the bill progressed," a source told us. "I also attended debates in Parliament and even supported ministers while they were in the debate.”
Don't stop believing
GLS salaries are not high for London, but they were recently increased: first-years now take home £28,000 while second-years get £32,000. This is still lower than the pay at most commercial law firms in London, but trainees were not disappointed by their pay packets, telling us: “You come in with your eyes wide open.” Many were quick to point out that “the trade-off is very much worth it: the work is fascinating and a good work/life balance is encouraged and supported.” Nearly all our interviewees were clocking in at around 9.30am and leaving by 6pm most days. “If you do find yourself staying late” – think 8pm not midnight – “another lawyer will usually ask why you're still here and send you home.”
Several sources noted a strong proclivity for teamwork, telling us: “People want to share their experiences with trainees and other workmates; no one hoards their ideas. At some point everyone will give a training session on a matter they've previously handled to share their experiences and insights.” Thanks to a consistently high retention rate (100% every year) “there isn't a sense of competition among trainees. People are ambitious to build a good career for themselves but no one behaves in a cut-throat way.” Speaking of qualification, once trainees have been retained there's scope to switch departments every couple of years.
While there's a strong tendency among GLS lawyers to have a fierce interest in politics or the public sector, you won't find much else tying them all together. Sources agreed that trainees come from “a broad range of backgrounds” and we spoke to trainees who'd come straight through from uni but also a number who had previously had other careers, often in the public sector. Despite these differences the cohort seem a fairly tight bunch who can be found attending monthly pub quizzes or heading out for walks with an “unofficial trainee walking group.” If that doesn't float your boat, there are other trainee socials too: bowling, museum lates or even trotting off to the Globe to catch one of the Bard's finest.
"It was the breadth of the GLS's work that attracted me as well as the way politics and the news constantly colour what we do."
How to get a Government Legal Service training contract
Training contract deadline (2019): 28 July 2017
If you’ve read our True Picture on the GLS, you'll know that it offers something a little different from your typical training contract in private practice. The sources we spoke to were attracted to the GLS because of the unparalleled opportunities it offers to get stuck into public law and current affairs. “The work here is completely unique, and you get to be involved in cases that really matter,” said one interviewee.
One of the unusual aspects of training at the GLS is that you don't need a triple-starred First (or indeed a First, or even a 2:1 for that matter) from an elite university to get your foot in the door. “Our only academic criterion is a minimum 2:2 degree or equivalent,” explains James Murphy of the GLS Secretariat. “The reason for that is that we believe our combination of anonymised situational judgement tests, verbal reasoning tests and critical reasoning tests during the application stage provide a fair and objective means of assessing a candidate’s intellectual, analytical ability and judgement, all of which are essential skills for the GLS. Then, throughout the interview process, interviewers see no more than the applicant's name.” So far, so fair.
The fairness of the system is likely to be one of the things which helps to boost the diversity of the trainee group which the GLS hires. We've noted during our interviews in recent years that quite a few are second-careerists, having worked in another field (or perhaps in a related area like local government or public interest work) before applying.
The GLS attends about 25 law fairs each year up and down the country, in addition to giving a series of talks, presentations and workshops at universities.
The application process
Understandably, a lot of people want to train at the GLS. There are typically close to 4,000 applicants (!). The good news is that the GLS has recently upped the number of vacancies it has: it is recruiting 40 pupils and trainees in 2017, most to start in 2019, but we're told there will also be positions available to start in 2017 and 2018.
However, it remains the case that the rigorous application process means only the most suitable candidates get through. The first three stages are all done online, and candidates only progress from one to the next if they are successful. Stage one is a basic application form and a situational judgement test; stage two is a verbal reasoning test; stage three is a critical reasoning test.
Once you're through those hoops, there's a half-day at the assessment centre – 150 applicants are called in to complete a written exercise and undergo an interview. “The written exercise is designed to replicate exactly the sort of thing you'd work on as a trainee, but no legal knowledge is required,” says Murphy. “After that, applicants talk about the written exercise during an interview, and there are some competency-based interview questions.”
When we asked our interviewees what they thought of the application process, here's what we heard: “It's as open and fair as possible. It tests you purely on your ability, and it's not about family connections or secret handshakes.”
Have a look at the GLS website for more on how to apply. This is the government, so they have to tell you exactly what the process looks like. Fair game to them. We only wish every legal grad recruiter could be this transparent!
Offwhat? Government departments explained
Find out more about what trainees do in different government departments.
Government Legal Service (GLS)
- Total trainees Around 50 currently working within the Government Legal Service
- Contact email@example.com 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