Authors:Louise Christian
Last updated:2023-09-18
“I used to have nightmares about my forays into conveyancing, but I do wonder if young solicitors now have to specialise too early.”
When the late and sadly missed Mike Fisher and I started a new firm in November 1985, we had two very big cases. Mike was defending a group of Irish men and women accused of conspiracy in relation to the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, and I was acting for 49 Liverpool councillors who were challenging High Court proceedings to surcharge them.
The latter case had no funding, so we had to take on as much other work as possible – from conveyancing to small criminal defence work – in the hope that we would eventually be able to pay off our agreed bank loan of £16,000, not an insubstantial sum in those days. There were then no accreditations, panels, monitoring or audits. Legal aid was administered by the Law Society, later the Legal Aid Board, and any solicitor could apply for it in any legal proceedings covered. I had done my training in a City firm and had come to legal aid via a law centre and the police committee of the now defunct Greater London Council. I had done little in the criminal courts or in the county court and had no conveyancing experience.
In between commuting to Liverpool and doing duty slots at magistrates’ courts, I started trying to build up a civil practice. One of my first big cases, over the death of a diabetic child, led not only to an action for damages against a GP practice in Hackney, but also to a prosecution in the General Medical Council. In the mid-1990s, when the Law Society brought in the panel for clinical negligence, I was initially refused entry on the grounds that I did not do enough clin neg cases. I hired an eminent QC for a judicial review and the Law Society changed its mind.
I did my training at a City firm and came to legal aid via a law centre and the police committee of the GLC.
Some time later, I would have nightmares about my forays into conveyancing and I am far from convinced that the breadth of our endeavours in those early days was always a good thing. But I do wonder whether specialisation has now gone too far, and whether young solicitors are pushed into rigid career paths too early and are then not able to deal properly with the entirety of a client’s situation. Legal aid clients often have multiple problems that overlap. If they have to see different people for housing, family, immigration and welfare benefits, there may be nobody with a strategic oversight.
Requiring lawyers to specialise too early restricts career options. This is particularly difficult when jobs are so hard to come by and legal training so expensive. The Law Society supposedly required us to offer a variety of experience to our trainees, but both criminal defence work and civil litigation were classified as contentious, while, ironically, representation at inquests counted as non-contentious.
I am proud of having trained a small diaspora of lawyers, many of whom are now doing great things in a wide variety of areas of law. Among my ex-trainees, I count two who became barristers and are now QCs, partners in some of the best-known legal aid firms in the country, law centre lawyers and many in private practice. But there are also those who got away: our legal aid franchise manager who decided plumbing was better paid, our fantastic office assistant who became an airline pilot, those trainees who did other things – politician, law lecturer, business entrepreneur.
It is now really hard to earn a living solving the legal problems of ordinary people. I worry that bureaucratisation – Lexcel and other accreditations, audits, panels, form-filling and box-ticking – are leading to a diminution of the client care that should be the driving force. It is great that there is an idealistic young generation out there that still wants to use the law to change the world, despite the economic disincentives. There should be no discouragement from petty parameters. Louise Christian is the founder and former senior partner at Christian Khan, and is a consultant at the Public Law Project. She writes in a personal capacity. Sadiq Khan ‘millions’ claim raises eyebrows, page 5.