Brexit is scheduled for five days’ time. Or at least this is true at the time of writing. It also may well be true at whatever point you are reading this in the future. The uncertainties around Brexit, be it the myriad of legislative and legal hurdles or simply the date, do not need to be stressed here. Despite these known unknowns, what is less well known is how the junior end of the UK legal profession views their prospects in light of things.
Happily, I can say that from my personal experience attitudes do not seem overly glum. Although some people I have spoken with have related concerns over the job market, particularly outside of legal centres, such as London, retention rates of trainees have remained high across the UK. According to the largest survey of its kind, commissioned by Chambers & Partners Student (published March 2019), the retention rate in 2018 was the highest it had been since 2008. This dovetails with the general expectation that Brexit, at least initially, may provide a boost for law firms who have the capacity to take on the additional legal work many clients will have.
The UK Law Societies’ Joint Brussels Office has, however, stressed that whilst some lawyers and law firms may benefit, the legal services sector as a whole does not stand to gain in the long term. Likewise, the potential burdens on businesses, the SME sector in particular, will likely be negative. For example, firms face the real prospect of employing two legal teams, one in the UK and another in the relevant EU country, to ensure that their interests are protected and/or enforced.
Anecdotally, some of my cohort looking for lateral moves around the 2-5 years PQE mark are finding it more difficult than it was perhaps in the recent past. However, this could be due to firms keeping their powder dry when it comes to recruitment until, and if, any Brexit dividends actually materialise.
Beyond the fundamentals of ensuring there are jobs for lawyers, two overarching concerns pervade conversations between my colleagues across the UK. Namely, how to demonstrate to other lawyers and businesses that they care about doing business, and building relationships, beyond their own borders and that they are (perhaps) not as truculent as the politicians dominating the press.
In late September I had the good fortune of attending the annual International Weekend in London. This event organised by the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales, the Young Barristers Committee of the Bar Council, the European Young Bar Association and the London Young Lawyers Group, exemplified current attitudes among the junior end of the legal profession. It brought together delegates from across the UK, Europe and further afield, for technical and skills-based seminars. However, it was predominantly about building international relationships with like-minded lawyers. This, of course, will prove invaluable for UK-based lawyers when working in an environment that requires cooperation with lawyers from other European jurisdictions to serve clients’ needs. It was also not lost on the attendees, who actively sought further opportunities to share work and experiences with each other.
There is a palpable atmosphere at such events of British lawyers seeking to debunk the Brexit mythos; the perception of a new parochial Britain, pulling up the drawbridge. My experience is that this is often misplaced. International colleagues do not come with the same baggage and are equally as interested in demonstrating that cross-border work and relationships should, and will, continue.
I attended a conference in Malta with junior professionals from across Europe in early October. Among the expected light-hearted banter about Brexit from fellow European delegates, the prevailing sentiment was to ensure that cross-border relationships were built and that these ties were maintained and developed for the future. The uncertainties regarding the nuts and bolts of legal practice were not what was under discussion. The feeling was that it was important to build these relationships amongst the group and an underlying concern that post-Brexit we will need these networks to best serve our clients.
The UK legal services sector is currently facing the single biggest change in its history. With competition flexing its muscles around the globe, from New York and Amsterdam, Paris and Singapore, there are reasons for the junior end of the profession to be concerned. If there is a positive to be taken from the uncertainty, it can be that the legal profession does not think of itself as an island.