Aspiring barristers with a passion for politics can enjoy an alternative training experience as a government lawyer.
According to our interviewees, the Government Legal Profession offers aspiring barristers an “unparalleled opportunity at the very heart of public law.” (Note that the GLP used to be called the Government Legal Service until summer 2018, when it was renamed.) The current crop of GLP pupils enthused about the “insider’s perspective” offered by training here and loved “getting to work on the development of law and policy before it comes to fruition.” For recruitment and training purposes, the GLP treats its trainee solicitors and pupils as one: applicants simply indicate on their application which route they're after. In the 2017 intake there were twice as many trainee solicitors as there were pupils. Click here to learn about training as a solicitor at the GLP.
During the application process, candidates can indicate which branch of the GLP they’d prefer to join. Of the 18 pupil barristers with the GLP at the time of our research, four were with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), while the rest were all grouped under the Government Legal Department (GLD), which “takes care of litigation for nearly all departments” from its HQ in central London. The GLD also has solicitors and barristers embedded in almost every major Whitehall department.
“After six months I had 66 cases in my name.”
For their first six, GLD pupils are “thrust into the very fast-paced litigation environment” of the immigration department – “there’s so much hands-on drafting immediately.” In this busy group, pupils experience “a constant battle to keep the department’s head above water because so many cases come in – it’s a meat grinder!” The majority of the work is “defending the government against judicial review applications.” This could mean tackling claims related to failed asylum applications, human rights abuses, visas, unlawful detention and entry clearance.
Pupils noted a lot of Brexit and Windrush-related claims, and cases that arose after the airing of a BBC Panorama documentary on the dire quality of immigration detention centres. “We also handle points-based system cases: someone from abroad who wants to start a business in the UK has to apply for a particular visa and has to have a certain number of points to carry out their trade.” Pupils are assigned cases immediately on arrival: “I was given my first case on day three and after six months I had 66 cases in my name.” Pupils also get frequent client contact: “Home Office officials were calling me up for my personal advice, which was quite fun.”
Just keep swimming
With this experience under their belts, pupils are seconded to a barrister’s set for the second six. “It’s an interesting insight into the life of a pupil in chambers, which is clearly more stressful because there’s more competition,” said one source. In chambers, work timetables are much less predictable: “You might have a week of crazy intense preparation for trial or conferences with three different clients, and other weeks when you can come in late and leave early.” Nevertheless pupils praised their adoptive supervisors across sets, and also enjoyed experiences like “shadowing sexual offence prosecutions” and “preparing skeleton arguments, defences and counter claims.” Pupils go to all kinds of sets – often though not always public law chambers – including 4 New Square, One Crown Office Row, Foundry Chambers, Landmark, 39 Essex, Cloisters, Outer Temple, 2 Hare Court and Henderson.
Is there much chance to do your own advocacy? It varies. But overall there's “a lot less than at some chambers.” Though advocacy may be less ubiquitous, pupils said this was“offset by the unique experience of drafting legislation” when working in a government department. Pupils do sometimes appear for the government in immigration tribunals while on secondment.
After a year pupillage is officially over, “but the GLP still classes you as a legal trainee.” Barristers have one more year as a legal trainee in two advisory seats with a government department like the Department for International Trade, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Justice or the Attorney General’s Office. There's “virtually no difference” between the role of a pupil and trainee solicitor at this point: “You’re writing legislation, briefing ministers on legal implications or writing advice for ministers.”
“I was given my own standalone clause in a big piece of primary legislation.”
The Attorney General’s Office “gets requests from the CPS for the Attorney General to consent to a prosecution. I had to put together a submission on a case to do with terrorism, and the Attorney General agreed.” There's also work on inquests and proposed legislation by other government departments. “I would liaise with lawyers in a particular department to get a sense of what they’re trying to achieve, and work through any concerns,” a source shared.
Pupils at the Ministry of Justice felt they “had a real personal stake” in the Guardianship Act 2017: “I was given my own standalone clause in a big piece of primary legislation. I did the research and considered amendments.” Pupils also “liaise with parliamentary counsel to help draft private member’s bills – I ended up doing research on how certain things should be formulated.”
Things are all a bit different for HMRC pupils. Their sixes are reversed, so after spending just one month with a litigation team at HMRC getting a feel for the place, they’re sent out on secondment to a set. On their return they might do a seat in personal tax, where lawyers recently won a victory against the BBC in an IR35 matter – legislation designed to combat tax avoidance. Pupils also have their own caseload to deal with. “I’m essentially doing a solicitor’s job at the moment,” one said. Some found the opportunity for advocacy if they were vocal. “My team knew I wanted to do it and approached me about an opportunity,” said one. “It was in the Magistrates’ Court resisting an application for bail. I didn’t sleep the night before!”
The barristers went in two by two, hoorah, hoorah!
After completing two advisory seats, barristers are considered for a permanent position. Sources said: “The presumption is you’ll stay on at the end, so you don’t have to worry about it being a constant job interview.” Other sources were a bit more cautious about retention. “Things will change,” said one cryptically. “Our year is the biggest intake so far.” Recruitment is certainly on the up: the number of pupils starting with the GLP shot up from six to eleven in 2017 and rose again in 2018. So it may be that this impacts retention down the line. Those who stay on enter what’s called a ‘two plus two’ scheme whereby they do two years in litigation followed by two years in advisory, or vice versa.
The application process has previously involved three rounds of online assessments: a situational judgement test, a verbal reasoning test and a critical reasoning test. Successful candidates are invited to an interview in London, which kicks off with an hour-long written exercise. A source reported: “You’re given a public law issue and have to answer four questions. Mine was about a hypothetical department wanting to introduce new legislation, and the potential legal challenges it could raise.” The answers are handed to an interview panel to read before candidates are invited in to “defend your answers or explain why you should have modified them.” There's then a competency interview: candidates are told the competencies ahead of time, “so you have plenty of time to think of evidence to show you’ve got them.” A blind selection process is in place to limit any potential bias, but “nonetheless the majority that get through are from top universities.”
“People don’t want to be accused of making their pupils work too hard.”
Pupils described “gallows humour” and a strong sense of teamwork as important for working at the GLP. “Everyone is part of the same organisation but not in a corporate money-grabbing way,” said one. “We’ve chosen not to go for the money – we’ve gone for interesting law with interesting colleagues. You do get some exceptionally eccentric people!”
Stable hours were another big pull factor. Pupils described hours across departments as “exponentially so much better” than what they’d expect in private practice: “I’ve been told more than once to work 100% of my hours – nothing more, nothing less. If you stay late people get twitchy because they don’t want to be accused of making their pupils work too hard.”
The GLD is headquartered at One Kemble Street just off Kingsway in central London, but rumour has it a move is on the cards.
Government Legal Profession
- 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: 60+
- Applications pa: 3,000+
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:2 or equivalent
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Early July 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: End of July 2019
- 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
The Government Legal Service changed its name to Government Legal Profession in summer 2018.
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 mainly based in central London, within departments such as the Government Legal Department (GLD), HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) and the National Crime Agency (NCA). The GLD may also offer a small number of positions in Leeds.
The structure of training contracts and pupillages may vary between departments. Typically a two year training period (comprising four six-month seats) is offered; with pupil barristers spending six months in chambers during the pupillage period.
As a valued member of a departmental 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