We are pleased to be able to publish a guest post ‘Lawyers in Government’ by James Coupe.
James is a former OU law student and offers some comments on his experience studying law with the OU to give some additional background to his article.
“Before studying with the Open University, I was working as a technical author for a software firm, which involved writing a lot of documentation for telecoms products and networking protocol stacks. I already had a degree and was enjoying my job, but was itching to do something to keep my brain going. I wasn’t, initially, looking at switching career.
I was a bit unsure on exactly what I wanted to study – politics and international relations were other subjects I was thinking of – but after doing some casual reading around, I settled on law. I had looked at some other universities too for part-time/evening study but the flexibility of the OU was a key factor in my decision. In particular, I was working full-time and didn’t want to stop or reduce my hours. I dipped my toe in the water with the OU module W100, which was similar to the current W101 module. Initially, I wasn’t sure if distance learning would be for me, but found the motivation of TMA deadlines kept me on the straight and narrow. I signed up for the next module, and then the next… It was only towards the end of my third year (of five, for me) that I really started thinking seriously about switching career.
After finishing my degree with the OU, I took a couple of years off before starting the LPC with the University of Law. I studied part-time over two years at weekends, at the London Bloomsbury campus. Study weekends were held every 2-3 weeks, with reading and online materials to work through in between, although some of the formal assessments fell on weekdays. That I could fit this around my job was an important factor for me as I was still working full-time.”
LAWYERS IN GOVERNMENT
What does the average day in the life of a Government Legal Department (GLD) trainee look like? Honestly, it changes all the time, and I know the experiences I’ve had are different from those of my fellow trainees. The teams we work with from Government departments and the wider Civil Service are large and diverse, with lots of different things going on all the time.
So, what sorts of days have I had? Some are very varied – one day in a litigation seat, I went to the Court of Appeal, for an hour or so in the morning, to listen to a permission hearing for a colleague. I then headed back to the office and briefed her on the outcome, including an unusual ex tempore judgment given there and then. After which I spent a couple of hours redacting some documents needed for another case, proof-read a witness statement for a colleague in a third case, and spent some time doing some research into the likely range of damages (if a claimant was successful) in a fourth. In a different seat on advisory matters, I spent a couple of days digging through Parliamentary debates, whitepapers and public statements to try to understand the motivations for a particular section of an Act of Parliament from a couple of decades ago which was, I promise, much more interesting than it might sound, with some fascinating nuances. Most days are somewhere in between the two. Work-life balance is extremely important to GLD. Yes, you’ll probably be quite busy, and yes, you’ll have some tight deadlines from time to time, but you won’t be expected to work round the clock. I can personally attest that senior lawyers will chase you out of the building if they see you working too late. It’s often possible to arrange a ‘family friendly’ working day e.g. starting and leaving early so that you can pick up your children from nursery at the end of the day, while your partner drops them off in the morning.
Your supervisors and colleagues will be keen to ensure that you get a good mix of work. A little admin work is inevitable! Preparing trial bundles is a key task in litigation, and for cases you’re working on you’ll very often be best placed to know what documents you have, what information they provide, and how you think they should be arranged. A well-prepared bundle can make everyone’s job at a tribunal much smoother. However, each of your supervisors will be keen to involve you in substantial work from day one – drafting statements of case, advising clients on the merits of their litigation, researching information, drafting some of the simpler parts of a statutory instrument, advising your client on potential legal risks around their proposed policies, and a great many other things.
Who do you work with? GLD provides legal services to most of government, so you can find yourself working with a very wide variety of departments – the Home Office; Treasury; Education; Transport; International Trade; Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy; Housing, Communities, and Local Government; and many others. Your training is structured around four different seats of six months each. You start with two litigation seats such as commercial disputes, employment litigation, defending judicial reviews etc., and then do two “advisory” seats. During each of your advisory seats you can expect to be co-located with your client department. You’ll be asked for your preferences for the advisory seats before they’re allocated and GLD will try hard to match people up to the departments they want to go to, subject to the spaces available. Barristers follow the same route as solicitors (although pupillage technically lasts only one year) but with the second litigation seat spent in a set of chambers.
There is lots of excellent training to help you develop. Some of it is on themes that matter a lot to government generally – such as the processes behind creating statutory instruments, what powers ministers have, or the public sector equality duty – but also on matters particular to the teams you’re working with. Many LPC courses don’t include much by way of public law, and some of the topics you might have covered on your LPC/ BPTC have additional quirks when working within government. For example, the way employment law works is slightly different for Crown servants and the armed forces, and the duty of candour is different from ordinary disclosure rules in litigation.
Working in GLD can be a bit different to the private sector. As well as being a lawyer with professional obligations, you’re also a civil servant with the obligations that brings, particularly around objectivity and political impartiality. Some things you work on might have wider implications for setting precedents, so they may have different implications than if you were advising a private sector client. A lot of advice is based around assessing the legal risks on implementing particular policy ideas. However, like your friends in the private sector, the skills of problem solving and commercial awareness are just as valuable – your colleagues developing a policy may have a suggestion that is legally risky or impractical as it stands, but where you can work with them to develop a more robust solution that still meets their goals. If you’re coming from another career, any experience you have of time management, working with clients, and managing expectations will stand you in good stead. Being comfortable with online tools like Lexis, Westlaw and Practical Law is helpful too.
The application process
The application process is all about your ability to pass the online competency based assessments. The precise details may change from year to year, so do check the information on the website. When I did it, the application form included a situational judgment test, and later steps included timed online verbal reasoning and critical reasoning/Watson Glaser-style tests. Do some practice tests if you can, particularly to be comfortable with answering questions in the time – don’t get distracted by one tricky question and find yourself with 30 seconds to answer the last five. Some other potential employers in the private sector use very similar tests. If you get through these tests, you’re invited to a half-day assessment centre. The assessment centres usually run on a range of dates in mid-late August. There was also a webinar to explain the assessment centre to us, and to allow us to ask questions.
My assessment centre started with a written task based on a bundle of materials provided on the day. The materials set out a short legal problem, which had a bit of a public law flavour, on which you were asked to give your views (and reasoning for these), to a supervisor or policy colleague. The actual legislation involved was fictional, so it was new to all of us (and no credit was given for prior legal knowledge). Time was pretty tight, and I was typing frantically to the end.
After a short break, I had a follow-up face-to-face interview where I was asked about my written answer, before moving on to being asked to give examples of how I had previously demonstrated the competencies required for the role. The competencies (which are listed on the www.gov.uk/gls website) are drawn from the Civil Service Competency Framework. It is recommended that you keep the STAR approach in mind when answering the interviewers’ questions (i.e. when giving an example explain the Situation, Task, Action and Result). It’s worth knowing that the interviewers – two lawyers, and an independent chair – don’t know your academic background when interviewing you, nor is this a factor when decisions are made on who to offer places to. GLD genuinely wants the best people they can find, regardless of which schools or universities they attended, or their A level grades. When they analyse the results afterwards, offers usually go to people from a diverse spread of universities, with mature students and career switchers in the mix too.
Finally, I would add that it is not only GLD which recruits legal trainees. Each year, other government departments such as HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) and NCA (the National Crime Agency) also tend to offer trainee places through the same legal trainee recruitment process. In 2018, I understand that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will also be joining in. If you reach the final stage of the recruitment process and are invited to the assessment centre, you will be given an opportunity to express a preference for a particular department. This preference will be taken account of, where possible, when the trainee places are allocated.
The application process for the 2018 Government Legal Trainee Scheme will open on 2 July 2018.
Around 50 legal trainee places (training contracts and pupillages) will be available, primarily for those looking to start a training contract/pupillage in September 2020. There are also likely to be a small number of trainee places available for those ready to start sooner.
For further details, please visit: www.gov.uk/gls