The Student Guide tends not to write too much about high-street firms, mainly because their training schemes are usually quite small and don't always run every year. And there are so many of them – how would we choose which ones to cover? However, high-street firms account for perhaps 30% of all training contracts offered each year, and so we visited three 'high-street' practices in London.
The three firms we visited were Osbornes in Camden, Hanne & Co in Clapham Junction and Wilson Solicitors in Tottenham, speaking to partners and trainees to give you an idea of the sort of experience you might have at one.
What is a high-street firm?
The clue's in the name. High-street firms' locations are the key to their identity. They act primarily for private individuals – the man on the street can literally walk in and ask for help. “Our door is always open to the people of Camden,” an Osbornes trainee told us. “We get the great and the good dropping by. We'll get a call from reception saying there is someone downstairs, and we'll go down and take their details. We have to filter out the nutters.” As a consequence, the reception areas of high-street firms are a hive of activity and have the feel of a doctor's surgery or local council office.
The core practices of firms like these are conveyancing, wills and probate and private client (tax) on the non-contentious side, and family, personal injury, employment, immigration, social housing and crime on the contentious side. They might also provide commercial advice to small businesses. Each firm will offer a different range of practices based on its location and history.
Legal aid can make up a large proportion of high-street firms' work, “but don't assume the high street is just legal aid,” one trainee warned. Legal Aid makes up 90% what goes on at Wilson Solicitors, but Hanne & Co and Osbornes are split 50/50 between public and privately-funded work. How much of a firm is devoted to legal aid often depends on how wealthy the local community is.
Of course, there are some firms which take on legal aid work and act for private clients, which wouldn't consider themselves high street practices. So be careful with names: some firms made be prouder to take on the 'high street' moniker than others. For example, at Osbornes some said that the 'high street' label didn't quite fit, due to the higher value of some of the firm's privately-funded work.
Ongoing legal aid cuts – especially in family, immigration and housing – are having a huge impact. Many legal aid firms are expected to go under: the firms we visited were all committed to retaining legal aid services while bulking up their privately-funded practices. Read our feature on Legal Aid cuts and reforms to find out more.
Why choose the high street?
The trainees we spoke to had all chosen to work on the high street for one of two reasons: they were interested in a specific high-street practice or they had a strong public service ethos. “I wanted to do some good: do something that would make a difference,” one such source told us. Some said they “wouldn't want to work in central London,” but others admitted they didn't mind the idea of a City job.
All our interviewees had experience working in the public sector, volunteering or paralegalling before starting their training contract. Recruiters look for people with these backgrounds as well as those who show they have practical and people skills. Choosing the right LPC electives is important too. “Corporate finance doesn't look good,” says one training partner.
Oh, and “don't be under the illusion that a 2:2 will get you through the door,” a trainee at Osbornes told us. Of course, academic requirements vary from firm to firm, but the high street is not a place for City rejects. “Good academics are essential,” especially given the competitiveness of the market right now.
Getting in can be just as competitive or more so than getting a job at a big firm (Hanne & Co received 500 applications for four jobs in 2011.) You will often need practical work or volunteering experience and a demonstrated commitment to a firm's practices if you want in.
Training on the high street
Training at high-street firms varies a lot. The largest may recruit as many as half a dozen trainees a year, while the smallest may take a single recruit as and when it needs – or can afford – one. Some firms (including Osbornes) recruit two years in advance like corporate firms; others just a few months beforehand.
Sometimes, working as a paralegal with the firm is essential before a training contract is offered. Wilson Solicitors only offers training contracts to people who have worked as a casehandler for a year first.
The seat system is often less structured and more flexible than at big firms. At the three firms we visited, the rotation system is notionally based around the classic four seats of six months each, but seats could last six, eight, or nine months, or even a full year.
What's the work like?
Trainees on the high street may not get involved in the biggest deals like selling Cadbury's to the Yanks or advising News Corp on its business practices, but they see plenty of interesting work of a different type. For example, high-street firms were at the forefront of cases related to the 2011 riots. “A lot came through the door in the months afterwards,” a trainee at Wilson Solicitors told us. “One defendant was found not guilty, as they had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
One trainee we spoke to had defended members of the UK Uncut protest against charges of aggravated trespass for 'occupying' Fortnum & Masons in March 2011. Another recalled “representing a women who had just married her very rich husband and wanted a divorce.”
And yet another had this story to tell: “A partner let me work on a large privately-funded case. It was for a Pakistani women who we were representing in divorce proceedings. Her husband was refusing her permission to take her child with her to visit family in Pakistan. We hoped to be able to settle it amicably but eventually it went all the way to a contested hearing.”
Some enquiries from people off the street are more surprising: “Someone once came in an asked about name changes for transgender individuals, so I researched whether there is a central register of people's names.”
The three firms we visited all had quite large contentious practices. “You see the hardest side of clients' lives,” a trainee told us, “whether that be in divorce, domestic abuse, child care, personal injury or criminal cases. Some of are clients are very upset.”
Another put it in a more Dickensian manner: “We see the most abject misery coming through the door. Cases can be tough-going, sad and very emotional. But there is nothing better than getting a hug from a client after a successful case.” Empathy and people skills are very important and you need “an interest in helping people.”
Of course, all emotional trauma is less present in non-contentious practices like conveyancing, wills and probate or private client work, but people skills remain important here too. Just like the local butcher or baker, high-street firms have to provide good customer service to keep the punters coming back. There's nothing like personal recommendation for bringing in business; conversely, a dissatisfied customer with a loud mouth can do real damage.
Of all the different aspects of their job, our high-street sources had most to say about their level of responsibility. “From day one I have been interacting with clients and been involved with simple advocacy,” one told us. “I successfully obtained a contact order by consent from of a district judge at the Principal Registry of the Family Division.”
Other typical tasks include dealing with new enquiries, setting up case files, taking client statements, drafting letters, instructing counsel, attending court and dealing with bills, ledgers and research.
Trainees in a crime department can get themselves a police station license and trundle down to the station to represent people who've been hauled in by the the Old Bill. “I never know what will happen from one day to the next,” one told us. “You're never sure when someone will be arrested!”
Beyond paid work, lawyers might also volunteer at local legal clinics, raise money for local charities, gives talks in schools, and even support local businesses by choosing local restaurants for firm socials.
Pay and prospects
Downsides to working on high street? “Not being paid very much is not good, of course,” one interviewee admitted, “but then people work here because they want to, not for the money.” High-street firms often pay the Law Society minimum trainee salary.
Trainees aren't expected to burn the midnight oil, but this isn't a nine-to-five job either. Business hours at the firms we visited are 8.30am or 9.30am to 6pm, but “it's not unusual to work until 7pm or 7.30pm.”
“They have been candid with us that they can't promise us anything at the end of the training contract,” a trainee at one of the firms we visited told us. On average, trainee retention rates are lower on the high street than at corporate/commercial firms, although of course this varies from firm to firm and from year to year.
Working on the high street can be very rewarding: closely embedded in their communities, trainees work face-to-face with clients and advocate on their behalf on matters of great personal importance.
This feature was first published in our June 2012 newsletter.