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The road less travelled

GC talks to Mandie Lavin, chief executive of the UK-based Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) about how in-house teams in the UK are opening up their ranks to graduates of a different type of legal qualification.
By Catherine Wycherley and Jodi Bartle


The route to a legal career in the UK is a well-known, fairly traditional one: a good school, good results, a good university, work placements, training contracts, and quite possibly, hefty debts. Although diversity and inclusion initiatives are in place among many private practice and in-house employers, recent media reports lambasted elite law firms for recruitment processes that weed out those lacking intangible qualities alongside flawless academic records, and which are often skewed to catch those with privileged backgrounds.

But change is in the air. Apprenticeships are making a comeback, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has been busy passing reforms to help shift the status quo. Plus, for those who have not attended university and who have no wish to do so, there are other ways to end up qualifying in and practicing law, such as the CILEx route.

CILEx, or the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, is the professional association and awarding body for chartered legal executives, paralegals and other legal practitioners. It offers the only UK route to becoming a qualified lawyer that is open to anyone regardless of education, social status or background (although good GCSEs or A levels are advisable. There’s also an entry point for law and non-law graduates too). No full-time study is required; instead, students can complete their CILEx qualifications by part-time or distance learning. The qualifications are affordable, as students can earn as they learn, and can thus avoid being shackled with knee-capping debts. There are various entry points into the programme depending on experience and it is open to school leavers, law graduates, paralegals, or career changers.

In addition, a renewed interest in legal apprenticeships has seen in-house departments and law firms taking up CILEx-run Legal Services Apprenticeships (LSAs), and there are currently 360 LSAs working at 107 organisations in England and Wales. These are structured programmes of learning, consisting of a mixture of vocational ‘on the job’ training and competence-based qualifications and academic learning, all of which can lead to a formal knowledge-based qualification. Legal apprentices can continue their CILEx studies to qualify as lawyers, and many are ambitious to do so, with full support from their employers. This CILEx-route to practice and the earn-as-you-learn model ensures hands-on experience in a real-world setting, which could be argued is more valuable than turning out law graduates who haven’t been able to put their knowledge into practice.

A legal life: David Edwards, CILEx president and principal legal executive, St Albans City and District Council

CILEx-qualified David Edwards talks about his route into the legal profession, and practicing specialist law without a degree

`I left school at 18 and went straight to work for a firm of solicitors in London doing outdoor clerking and a little bit of litigation. I also did the CILEx exams, which were effectively specialist exams to complement the civil litigation work I was doing. Tort, contract, and criminal law were my specialist subjects.

My A-level grades weren't quite good enough to go to university the first time around. I tend to see things in context and I need to see the relevance. This was the better way for me to learn, rather than studying subjects in an academic format.

While I was doing my A levels I knew that legal was the direction I wanted to go. The career route I have taken is (or at least was) the traditional route for quite a lot of chartered legal executives. You left school, you started work, you did your exams, and you worked your way up.

One advantage of a CILEx qualification is that you can soon specialise. I haven't done all of the subjects you need to do to be a solicitor, but in my case, all of the fellowship subjects I studied I have actually used, so I haven't had to study for things I didn't need to know about.

When I started, chartered legal executives didn't have the status they have now. Now they might become partners in their firm, and CILEx people can include judges, and those who run big departments for local governments. So it is possible for people working in-house to progress fairly highly. Perhaps senior legal managers in local authorities still choose solicitors rather than chartered legal executives but certainly there are CILEx Fellows who have progressed to considerable positions.

It's all horses for courses really - it depends on the kind of person you are. Here, we have a number of different lawyers, with different degrees, and from different places of qualifying - the heads of legal and departments are solicitors who take on more of a management role, and the actual legal work tends to be done more by people like me. I think CILEx-qualified people are usually considered specialists who do a specific job, rather than somebody with overall control. In real terms, there aren't many general legal practitioners out there - maybe there are still a few in the commercial world. For in-house counsel, I can see that a general overview of things might have some advantages, but once it becomes a specialist issue then you have to bring the specialists in.

A few years ago I was tempted to train as a solicitor, but I would have had to study lots of topics that I would never have used, and in the end I decided the amount of time and effort wasn't worth it, as it wouldn't advance my career. I have been lucky at St Albans, because I have found a niche for myself. The planning diploma along with the CILEx qualification has stood me in good stead. CILEx is very big on inclusion and diversity. 75% of CILEx-qualified people are women, and often these exams have been taken between having children and work breaks - it is a much more flexible qualification.

Another benefit of the CILEx route is that it is also an affordable route where you are earning while you are learning, and in terms of fees it is much more cost effective. The way the legal profession is going, with fewer training contracts, it should be serious option for a lot of people.’

Mandie Lavin, chief executive of CILEx, is enthusiastic about the benefits of training people the CILEx way. ‘The advice that people want from lawyers is often not precise legal advice, but commonsense, practical solutions to difficult problems, and some of this comes with life skills,’ she says. ‘The thing about apprenticeships is that we are going to turn out some very interesting people with fascinating life experiences. Apprenticeships reach out to a different place – and we will end up with a far more diverse legal profession and ultimately a more diverse judiciary as a result of that. The law is here to serve all, but it hasn’t always been comprised of all.’

The BBC, HM Revenue & Customs and some local councils have taken up the scheme at a pilot level, with a view to continuing to recruit through the Legal Services Apprenticeships programme in the future. Bringing people in-house at this level gives employers the opportunity to ‘home grow’ their staff, nurturing employees to meet business needs and ultimately encouraging staff retention. Lavin says she has been very impressed by the mindset of some of the firms who have been offering the apprenticeships, which she says shows a tremendous commitment and motivation towards supporting people who wouldn’t have found themselves anywhere near a training route into a profession. ‘We have been setting up legal hubs at various big companies. These legal hubs are in-house legal training programmes, like academies; and the model works because 67% of our students have their courses funded by their employer.’

Following the CILEx route, members learn to specialise quickly. Individual units can be studied and are suitable for all areas of business; for example, HR practitioners could take a single unit in employment law. This direct, focused approach to legal training could well be the answer for those people who have a clear-eyed idea of what kind of lawyer they want to be.

‘One of the difficulties across the legal profession is that we give people unrealistic expectations of what they will do once they leave the confines of university. With all the difficulties around securing pupillage and training contracts, that gives young people an enormous amount of uncertainty. The good thing about CILEx is that you can do it, and you can do it in your own time, at your own pace. It might take you longer (and there are many people who take quite a long time doing it - one graduate took longer to qualify because she was undergoing cancer treatment, and another spaced her learning out over the time she took to have three babies before getting her CILEx Fellowship) but there is no one way of doing things that will make you a better lawyer’, Lavin says.

A legal life: Mandie Lavin, barrister and chief executive of CILEx

An unconventional start led Mandie Lavin far off the beaten legal career track, with many interesting and rewarding excursions along the way.

‘I left school after not doing very well with my A levels, and I went straight to work in a lab in a chemistry department. After a few years, I realised that it wasn’t going to fulfill my life’s ambitions.

I became a nurse and after qualifying I worked in general surgery, and soon started off on a management path. I ended up running a hospital in South London for six years, and I combined that with doing a part-time law degree at South Bank Polytechnic (now London South Bank University), undertaking the Bar Vocational Course and pupillage.

Looking back to where I was then, the law seemed very unattainable. I had no friends or family who were doing that sort of thing; my parents had not gone to university, I didn’t know much about it and what I did know certainly made it seem inaccessible.

Having qualified at the Bar, I ran out of money because my pupillage was unfunded. I ended up going back into the health service, securing a position as a risk and litigation manager at a hospital in Peterborough. I was one of the first generation of lawyers who actually worked in a hospital. Shortly after arriving in Peterborough I was appointed as a regional medico-legal adviser for the Anglia and Oxford region so I split the job at Peterborough and the job in Cambridge, while also doing a masters in medical law and ethics at Kings College London.

The nursing regulator of the day (now the Nursing & Midwifery Council) had advertised for the position of director of professional conduct and I got the job. Just before I started, one of our professional conduct committees decided to reinstate someone onto the nursing register who had been convicted of rape. One of my first jobs was explaining to the media why this had happened and what I was going to do about it, and it brought a lot of media presence. I found myself being profiled and doing radio interviews which was new territory to me, but I enjoyed it. Being able to convey complicated legal things to the public in a clear way is very important, and not all lawyers can do it.

My next step was to do something outside of my comfort zone, so I went on to become of director of professional standards at Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. It was a governance and constitution role, and involved making major changes in the ways we did disciplinary work. I also took up the position supporting the audit committee, although I knew nothing about auditing. I stayed there until 2002, and after maternity leave I spent five years at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, where I walked straight into working on the Shipman enquiry.

I was then offered the opportunity to become director of the Bar Standards Board. It was such an interesting time - we were a new independent regulator, and working with the Bar Council as the approved regulator while the Legal Services Board was getting going and the Legal Services Act was starting to bite was amazing. It was a big setup job and I stayed for over two years.

Over the years I also did a whole range of work for the NHS, such as disciplinary appeals and appointments work, and then, most recently, for three years, I was director of regulation at the General Optical Council (GOC).

Now, as chief executive of CILEx, I am looking at infrastructure, key changes in IT, finances, ensuring that our education programmes remain up to date and that those embarking upon them have the best employment prospects. In addition, satisfying the Legal Services Board, and maintaining the independence of regulation is an absolute imperative. At the heart of our work are our members, who on a daily basis are ambassadors for all that we do and for everything that we can achieve in the future.'

There are, however, undeniable barriers for CILEx members and the organisation as a whole. As much as this route is heralded as a fairer, more inclusive and socially-mobile system than the traditional legal route, the CILEx qualification is just not yet perceived as being an equivalent one to equip candidates for the most senior legal positions. Lavin says that the issue comes down to perception among employers and the wider sector, and admits that CILEx still has a degree of work to do to ensure CILEx-qualified people have the same level of recognition as other lawyers.. A recent milestone is the Government Legal Services review of recruitment practices, as it now allows chartered legal executives to apply for qualified lawyer vacancies for the first time. However there is more work to be done.

Lavin adds that the UK will begin to see an injection of people into the profession from backgrounds beyond the law when alternative business structures are fully operating. ‘We aim to have more non-legal ownership and investment and a real injection of a modern mindset and methodology of working – and even more scope for change.’ CILEx may not hold all the answers for social mobility issues in the UK legal profession, but what it does offer is a real opportunity.

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