The GLS is an attractive and rather unique option for those "looking to work in the public interest."
Strong and stable careers
2016 set the bar high for political turmoil, and 2017 so far is turning out to be no less entropic. "There's too much politics going on at the moment,” articulated Brenda from Bristol, who would probably recoil at the opportunity to join the Government Legal Service. But the trainees we interviewed were enjoying the intrigue: “The changing political appetites of the country – while admittedly sometimes frustrating – keep things refreshing and engaging."
Trainees often work on hot political stories. “We were sending through submissions to the Secretary of State and three hours later it was breaking news!” revealed one trainee, while we heard of another who had “joined just as the Northern Irish government was collapsing. It was very intense having to quickly pump out emergency legislation.” And who can forget Brexit? Insiders made no secret of the “huge recruitment drive taking place across all levels of the civil service” to deal with the demands of Brexit. “It's a massive piece of work people have to do on top of their day jobs,” sources explained, adding that “everyone is having to give their thoughts on what the landscape is going to look like in a few years’ time.”
“We were sending through submissions to the Secretary of State and three hours later it was breaking news!”
Many of our interviewees came to the GLS hoping to “marry an interest in law with a passion for politics,” so we wondered how they approached the civil service demand of maintaining political neutrality. “It can certainly be difficult at times,” one source admitted, adding that “you have to learn quickly to step aside from your personal politics." Political neutrality isn't just an office rule – it's a democratic necessity. An interviewee explained: "You have to remember that we are serving the democratically elected government and it is our job to make sure everything they do is done in a constitutional way and ensure they're not exercising power arbitrarily.” GLS trainees are a diverse bunch, with a healthy mix of fresh-faced graduates and those looking for a career change after “having had their fill of the corporate world.”
"Within the GLS your career can be as varied or as specialised as you want.” The service has three branches which trainees are recruited into: the Government Legal Department (GLD), Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the National Crime Agency (NCA). Trainees can state which branch they'd like to join during their application. The GLD essentially serves as the government's in-house legal team and is by far the biggest branch with 47 trainees at the time of our calls, while there were 13 at HMRC and just two at the NCA. “A lot of us on the HMRC scheme would probably rather have been placed in the GLD,” one source confided. “It felt slightly misleading in that nearly everyone thought they would be on the GLD scheme. That said, most of us are having a much more positive experience at HMRC than we initially thought we would.”
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 Digital, 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). HMRC trainees similarly complete two litigation and two advisory seats, while NCA trainees complete three seats within the NCA's own legal teams and just one external seat.
The GLS recruits pupil barristers as well as trainees, though it treats the sides of the profession as more or less interchangeable for recruitment and training purposes – read out separate Chambers Report on the GLS pupillage on page 651.
Guardians of the government
For their first two litigation seats, GLD rookies are filtered into either employment, public law, planning, commercial, immigration or private law seats. The work done in public law is what news-hungry journalists live for. “It's very high-profile and all about tackling the big issues,” sources enthused. Fighting off judicial reviews from junior doctors in defence of the health secretary. Tick. Resisting Gina Miller's case over the triggering of Article 50. Tick. Name an issue splashed across the papers and GLD trainees may well have been in the thick of it. One notable recent case saw trainees involved in a judicial review brought by tobacco companies over the government’s proposed introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes. “If we'd lost, it would have wiped out all the money the government was trying to save through its cuts," a trainee exclaimed (the case was worth £11 billion). "I was helping to prepare documents, liaising with counsel and conducting specific bits of research.” Trainees also work on more routine day-to-day cases. “I dealt with a case about a prisoner with multiple sclerosis," one told us. "He needed a laptop to write to family and friends, so we had to work out how to provide this in a way that was legally compliant and without compromising security.”
“If we'd lost it would have wiped out all the money the government was trying to save through its cuts.”
The GLD employment law team is made up of five different subgroups which assist different government departments and deal with a range of employment issues including whistle-blowing, unfair dismissal and discrimination claims. Trainees recently worked on the O'Brien judges' pensions case. “There was a lot of constitutional interest in it and a lot of high-profile individuals were writing about the way we were dealing with the case, so I was constantly thinking, 'oh god, please get it right!'” Trainees are often given multiple smaller employment cases to handle independently. “I've probably done 100 witness statements and have dealt with cases the whole way through including the final hearings,” one source reported.
When trainees move on to their advisory seats within government departments life becomes “less about cleaning up the mess that's already been made and more about looking ahead at what's coming down the line – for example, helping to draft new regulations and legislation.” At the Home Office, one trainee task is clearing country policy and information notes. Say what? “We go to the civil servants who are processing immigration and asylum claims – for instance, relating to the treatment of gay people in Jamaica – and advise them on where the law stands on that particular issue.” A source at the MoD told us that the work there “is not all about drone strikes and SAS attacks,” instead describing their work as being about “the day-to-day advancement of the government's agenda. I spent a lot of time trying to improve compensation for soldiers who had been injured in the line of duty.”
Work in the Treasury is unsurprisingly “dominated by Brexit” with one source reporting on the recent recruitment of lots of new people to deal with demands. “As part of our withdrawal from the EU, a lot of banks and insurance companies want to know what will happen to data protection moving forward,” one source revealed. For one trainee this meant the chance to “attend meetings with the CEOs of large banks to discuss the impact of potential legislative changes on the sector.” On the non-Brexit side we heard of trainees working on state aid projects, setting up the 'Help to Buy' ISA scheme and even “drafting proclamations about the new one pound coin going into circulation. And then the Queen had to sign it!”
HMRC trainees have a variety of litigation and advisory seats to choose from. The enforcement and insolvency team does “a bit of everything.” For one trainee this meant dealing with someone “who was suing HMRC for harassment and said he ‘didn't want to pay taxes that funded illegal wars.’” The VAT litigation team steps in when individuals or businesses apply for an appeal after HMRC has issued an assessment of their VAT outstanding. “Once they issue an appeal we have to produce a statement of case in response. Then there is an exchange of skeleton arguments followed by a hearing. At first it was quite daunting to be given my own cases and have to attend my own hearings, but in the end you realise the hearings are just held in a normal room with a table and chairs. It's a lot less formal than a court hearing.”
HMRC's snappily-named legislation, information, functions and EU law team advises on broad public issues that are not necessarily directly related to HMRC, including some more, ahum, “wishy-washy ideas.” A classic task involves advising on the limitations of new regulations and on the general constraints of public authority. “The other major area we deal with is information law,” one source told us, proceeding to rather ominously explain that “HMRC has a lot of information on everyone. That information is very valuable and we advise on the extent to which it can be shared.” Big Brother is watching you... The third major aspect of the team's work concerns, you guessed it, Brexit: “looking at past judgments of the European Court of Justice and their implications for HMRC.”
“HMRC has a lot of information on everyone."
The NCA's information law and legislation team does a lot of work in conjunction with the Public Information Compliance Unit, supporting it with the large number of so-called 'subject access requests' it processes. (These allow members of the public to find out what personal data an organisation holds on them.) “We deal with any queries the unit has but also present it with research and training,” one source explained. Lawyers also work in conjunction with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Command as well as the National Cyber Crime Unit. Meanwhile the civil recovery and tax team “usually goes after individuals who acquired their wealth by illegal means such as a drugs trafficking.” Trainees said it's a very “hands-on litigation seat,” and they were busy “working closely with other departments on financial investigators.”
For the many
All this high-profile work vital to the nation may seem a tad daunting, but trainees assured us that “you never feel under too much pressure. The civil service is a large collaborative network, so there are policy experts who you can rely on for support and supervisors are good at managing your workload. I felt challenged enough but never to the point I was lying awake at night stressing out.” The GLS also encourages use of a so-called 'knowledge management system' that allows employees to record their knowledge and experience on a particular issue, ready for the next person to pick up and expand on.
The GLS traineeship is known for its reasonable working hours. “In my first seat I was trying to make a good impression and stay longer, but supervisors kept sending me home," one interviewee said. "It's very much 9am to 5.30pm and there's a feeling that a healthy work/life balance is valued.” Staying past six is rare for GLS trainees, although one source did anticipate that “people could start beginning to do more hours in response to Brexit.” The trade-off for shorter hours is less pay: although trainee salaries were recently raised substantially to £28,000 in the first year and £42,000 on qualification, “you're not going to be buying a penthouse in Notting Hill.” It's a worthwhile trade-off, GLS trainees always tell us, given the unique experience the GLS offers to help create the law rather than just implementing it as private practitioners do.
"It's not about who can bill the most hours – we're all pulling in the same direction here.”
Working for the GLS doesn’t come with any of the “aggressive competitiveness that can be present in private practice. It's not about who can bill the most hours – we're all pulling in the same direction here,” sources believed. One hallmark of this is that the GLS has offered NQ positions to 100% of qualifiers in recent years, with around 90% taking up the offer.
Working for the GLS makes you develop a healthy respect for the difficult decisions civil servants have to make even if they don't personally like them.
How to get a Government Legal Service training contract
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 (!). 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!
Government departments explained
Find out more about what trainees do in different government departments.
Government Legal Service (GLS)
- Total qualified lawyers Around 2,000
- Total trainees Around 50
- UK offices Various
- Contacts [email protected] or visit www.gov.uk/gls
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 40+
- Applications pa: 3,000+
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:2 or equivalent
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Early July 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: End of July 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £28,000
- Second-year salary: £32,000
- Post-qualification salary: £42,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days on entry
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Possibly
- Maintenance grant pa: £5,400-£7,600
Whether the government is creating new laws, buying goods and services, employing people or defending its decisions in court, it needs significant levels of legal advice on a whole range of complex issues. To carry out this work, the government needs its own lawyers who understand its business.
Main areas of work
The trainee positions available are all based in central London, within departments such as the Government Legal Department (GLD) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). The structure of training contracts and pupillages may vary between departments. Typically a two year training period (comprising 4 x 6 months seats) is offered; with pupil barristers spending 6 months in Chambers during the pupillage period.
As a valued member of your department’s legal team, you can expect to be fully involved in its broad range of work. You will have an active role to play in casework. You will liaise with government ministers, senior policy makers and counsel. And you will have the opportunity to participate in the legislative process itself.
Open days and first-year opportunities