For those with a passion for politics, the GLP offers an intriguing alternative training experience to private practice.
Public display of affection
Supreme Court cases, assisting the Attorney General with parliamentary questions, shaping government legislation, ironing out the details of Brexit, tax scandals involving high-profile celebs, and space law… welcome to the unique world of the Government Legal Profession (formerly the Government Legal Service, it was renamed in summer 2018). It’s easy to be enticed by everything law firms in the City and beyond have to offer, but if you're one for politics, public law or just something a bit different, check out the GLP. “It’s a completely different end of the law to what most experience,” reported one interviewee. “Private practice is about applying the law and trying to interpret it. We’re coming up with the law in the first place, and helping clients work within the law we’ve made. And you can get involved in high-profile work you see on the front pages.”
“I’m not going to be bound by one practice area for the rest of my life.”
Most GLP trainees are recruited into the Government Legal Department (GLD), which effectively operates as a law firm for the government, providing litigation services and embedding advisory lawyers in almost every government department from the Ministry of Justice to the Department for Education (go to our website for a full list.) At the time of our research 70% of trainees were in the GLD, with the remaining 30% at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). The National Crime Agency and Competition and Markets Authority (which offered training for the first time this year) also sometimes recruit trainees.
Another difference from private practice is that GLD trainees who are kept on at the end of the traineeship (in 2017 all but one qualifier were) enter a ‘two-plus-two’ scheme: they spend two years in litigation teams and two in an advisory role. After that, moves between government teams are encouraged every three years. Those within HMRC experience a similar post-qualification set-up, but one that isn't quite as formalised and broken down into specific periods. As one trainee pointed out: “I’m not going to be bound by one practice area for the rest of my life.” The pattern is similar for pupils recruited by the GLP.
Meet the Supremes
GLD trainees do seats one and two in a litigation team at GLD headquarters at One Kemble Street in central London – one in public law, one in private. Seats three and four are spent with an advisory team at a government department, for which you submit preferences “from a big, long list.” You don’t always get what you want, but “generally everyone gets one of their preferences for one seat.”
A seat in public law litigation means getting to grips with judicial claims brought against the government. Interviewees said a “standout moment” was attending the Supreme Court case over the triggering of Article 50. “I was mostly just batting about papers for barristers and running back to the office for things they needed. But to be on the sidelines with the team while they were arguing a case that decided the biggest constitutional law issue of the last 150 years was a joy.” Trainees also “handle small cases end to end from people who have a complaint against the government – with varying degrees of legitimacy.”
Trainees in immigration hone their drafting skills with as many as 85 cases in their docket. “I’d draft my own summary grounds of defence, which meant formulating the case from the off,” an interviewee reported. Trainees have to learn quickly to keep pace: “Cases move quickly so you learn to analyse and give a client prognosis. You get very adept at pulling out the right argument.” Trainees also work on judicial review claims coming in from the Home Office and “claims related to the points-based system where people had applications refused for Tier 4 student visas or working visas.”
GLD trainees may do a private law litigation seat with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) where they manage their own “relatively low-value” cases involving “personal injury claims from prisoners and clinical negligence claims from both prisoners or prison officers.” One clinical negligence case involved a prison officer left with their hand partially paralysed after being assaulted by a prisoner with a snooker cue. “I had to draft the submission to the Treasury for them to pay for his treatment,” a source reported. The department also handles inquests and human rights claims from prisoners, for instance “if the food served in prisons doesn’t fit their religious beliefs.” Trainees are responsible for “drafting witness statements, doing witness interviews, carrying out disclosure and liaising with the client.”
“We have a core role in helping to draft and shape new laws.”
For their advisory seats, GLD trainees move into the relevant government department in Whitehall. The nature of the work shifts too: “We advise other civil servants on day-to-day legal problems and questions like, ‘Can a minister authorise this?’” And perhaps most excitingly: “We don’t just interpret the law, we have a core role in helping to draft and shape new laws.”
A seat in the Department for Education provides plenty such opportunities, interviewees said: “I’ve been drafting legislation on adoption and working with our social work team on safeguarding children. We had to amend regulations to include the new regulator and both Houses of Parliament had to debate the amendments.” The MoJ offers an advisory seat in its commercial team, where lawyers handle “contracts with prisons and courts to farm out our services. My supervisor was dealing with the fallout from Carillion’s bankruptcy and establishing different ways the government could bridge the gap until they were able to re-procure services.”
By the GLD’s standards, the team in the Attorney General’s Office is on the smaller side, with just over 40 people. A trainee reported: “I brief the ministers directly, either in person, orally or in writing. I’ve provided direct advice to the law officers [the Attorney General and his deputy the Solicitor General] on areas like contempt of court, inquests and charities.” The office also helps the Attorney General prepare for his 20-minute question time before Parliament every few weeks. “The office gets the questions a few days in advance and I help prepare responses,” said a source. “I’ve also sat in the officials' box in case he needs support – it’s exciting to have a ringside seat!”
The Department for Business, Energy & Industry Strategy may see trainees filtered into groups like EU and climate change, state aid or science and IP. In the last of these, as well as dabbling in IP issues, trainees recently got to help out on the Space Industry Act, which aims to increase investment in the space sector and could lead to the building of the first UK spaceport. “It got given Royal Assent in early 2018,” a trainee informed us, “so we’re looking at some of the questions coming out of it: licensing regimes, our responsibilities in international law, and making sure we’ve got the right procedures in place. I’ve been drafting letters and bits of secondary legislation.”
Deal or no deal
Brexit means that now more than ever is a particularly interesting time for anyone to join the GLP. The number of places on the trainee scheme is on the up: the intake hit 40 in 2018, up from 33 in 2017. Just before we went to print the GLP told us that they would be advertising to fill 75 trainee places in the next recruitment round. Trainees commented that hiring was increasing throughout government: “Brexit means we’re going to get a hell of a lot more work!”
There is even a dedicated Department for Exiting the European Union on hand to figure out all Brexit-specific puzzles. Trainees are placed into one of four teams – the withdrawal team, the future relationship team, the EU business team, and the legislation team – but “they encourage you to spend a bit of time with each one, and I’ve certainly been working with all of them.” Trainees are busy with “research, helping to draft advice, and working with the policy civil servants” and have to get their heads round jargon like “level playing field provisions.” (What this means is that the European Commission doesn't want the UK to gain any unfair advantages after Brexit by becoming a low-tax, low-regulation haven.)The department has a litigious side to it too, which sees trainees “drafting instructions to counsel for European Court of Justice cases.”
“Sole responsibility for finding answers to a set of issues with Brexit-related legislation.”
Brexit is also keeping the Treasury very busy: “We’re setting out how domestic legislation will be affected by changes brought about by Brexit. A piece of domestic legislation might refer to a European body, and after Brexit that’s not going to be an option. So we’re compiling a huge list of areas where we’re going to need to come up with new bodies or pass responsibility to an existing body.” Trainees aren’t held back from the action: “I’ve been given sole responsibility for finding answers to a set of issues with Brexit-related legislation: I’ll be given a list of five large pieces of legislation that all need going through to see where the potential choke points are. I then need to write up why these might be a problem, and how we might go about resolving them.” Such a task is complicated in that “there’s not always specific guidance from above on what the future will look like. It’s more like, ‘If the government adopts position A it will result in this. However if the government decides to adopt position B, this other thing might happen.” There isn't much room for mistakes: “You have to do the very best job first time, because no one has time to redo your work.”
HMRC u at drinks
HMRC trainees, like their GLD counterparts, similarly do two litigation seats followed by two advisory seats, and usually one of these will be non-tax. One seat option is strategic litigation, where the focus is on tax avoidance cases – and they can be high profile. Trainees were involved in the case of the 'film tax dodge' scheme, which embroiled investors, including some famous faces, in tax avoidance. Interviewees also told us about the Working Wheels scheme – the one where Chris Moyles claimed to be a used car dealer to avoid £1 million in tax. A seat in VAT litigation subverted expectations: “It’s more art than science. A lot of the litigation is very focused on definitions.” For example, sources described a case about “the medical VAT exemptions that apply to a sonography, which is a ‘souvenir’-type baby scan. That raises questions about the boundaries of what is and isn’t 'medical'.”
HMRC trainees can do an advisory seat with the corporation tax team “looking at corporation tax relief, double taxation agreements and drafting statutory instruments.” The focus of the non-tax commercial seat is on HMRC’s internal contracts for “IT, estates work and managing its buildings.” Finally, trainees doing a seat in legislation, information, functions and EU law (LIFE) deal with FOI requests and did “lots of work on the Finance Bill.”
“Our late nights are the kind people in private practice would laugh at.”
Speaking of money: the GLP recently upped its trainee salary to around £28,000 for first-years and around £32,000 for second-years, meaning it pays more than high-street firms in London, but still less than most commercial outfits. Trainees reflected: “If you’re in it to make money, you probably don’t want to come to the GLP. But the work you get is fantastic, and the work/life balance is amazing.” Advisory seats typically mean a 5.30pm finish, while litigation might meaning leaving half an hour later “because there are hard deadlines to hit.” Still, the hours are not long: “We have to be in the office between 10am and 4pm (not including lunch), and we have to record 37 hours a week.” There is the odd late night, “but our late nights are the kind people in private practice would laugh at: I’ve stayed until 10pm maybe twice in 18 months.” Anyone caught at the office after 6pm on a Friday can expect a friendly reprimand: “It’s common for senior lawyers to tell you, ‘The only reason you are allowed to still be here is if you're waiting to go to drinks.’”
A trainee network is on hand to organise monthly events, such as quizzes and trips to art galleries or plays. HMRC trainees described themselves as a particularly sociable bunch, with an unofficial social secretary who “drags everyone out to play Dungeons and Dragons!”
The GLP offers trainees placements with the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Sources said: “Given a lot of government work requires conversations with the devolved administrations, it’s a good idea to understand how they work and strengthen ties.”
How to get a GLP training contract
If you’ve read our True Picture on the GLP, 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 GLP 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 GLP 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,” a recruitment source at the GLP tells us. “The reason for that is that we believe the combination of anonymised online ability tests used during the application stage provides a fair, robust and objective means of assessing a candidate’s intellectual, analytical ability and judgement, all of which are essential for the role. Then, throughout the interview process, interviewers see little 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 GLP 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 GLP 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 GLP. There are typically over 3,000 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 online test to the next if they achieve the required standard. Stage one is currently 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 – around 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 GLP website for more on how to apply. This is the government, so they have to tell you exactly what the process looks like. Fair play to them. We only wish every legal grad recruiter could be this transparent!
Government departments explained
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