For some UK-based trainee solicitors, EU law remains a distant memory of a module from law school. For others it is a thriving and diverse seat option, which offers tangible examples of competition law and something a bit different to everyday legal work. Trainees currently entering the market are arriving at a time where the future of the EU’s impact upon England and Wales (and the UK at large) is uncertain.
Many believe that EU Law will shortly lack relevance and significance within the training contract experience as it will bear no impact on England and Wales going forward. This may leave firms to question the benefit of a competition seat or an overseas placement in Brussels in an area of law that may well begin to develop without the UK. In such a scenario, trainees would be better placed elsewhere. Senior lawyers love regaling juniors with tales from their trainee life in Brussels which was exciting, exotic and a real adventure and these tales may become just that, consigned to the history books, however, as Brexit is a legal process with legal ramifications, the scope of EU law’s effect on the UK and its legal services sector remains dependent on the “deal”.
Trends followed by law firms in England and Wales are dictated by scale of operations with key American and City Firms such as Clearly Gottlieb, Freshfields, Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May setting trends that others follow. Whilst a Brussels office (and even work outside of the UK) is completely unnecessary for most law firms based in England and Wales, the trend in international secondments and maintenance of a Brussels office considering Brexit will be dictated by the biggest firms in the industry. In the last 12 months Macfarlanes and Bristows, among other firms, have set up a presence in the Belgian Capital, suggesting relevance and more solicitors than ever are becoming Irish qualified by their firms to attempt to maintain a foothold in EU countries.
While the continued practice of EU law will be determined by the model that the UK and EU eventually settle on for the post-Brexit relationship, it is likely that some areas of law will continue to rely on EU law and precedent and the UK will therefore find relevance in its practice and study. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has confirmed that the study of EU law as a compulsory module for a qualifying law degree in England and Wales for the foreseeable future will continue and it would be short sighted to see it disappearing from the solicitor/barrister’s vernacular in the near future.
The UK is likely to continue to be a global player, operating in global markets, meaning that it will be desirable to adopt standards, rules and regulations to maintain consistency with Europe (a huge likely trading partner) and the European markets (the table on which trade will have to be done), allowing cross-border goods and services flows and UK plc to thrive post-Brexit, which is likely to impact UK law, and further prevent it from becoming redundant.
Many of the UK’s laws are derived from EU Regulations or placed in domestic regulation by Directives (created in light of the UK’s 40-year membership to the union). Consequently, the study of EU law in some context must remain, despite the Prime Minister pledging that the CJEU will no longer have binding effect in the UK, even if only to assist in the understanding of the development of the laws of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
It is clear that it will retain some continued relevance for the reasons listed above. Many trainee solicitors will never feel the effect of EU law in their job, other than those laws that are directly effective, enacted in domestic legislation or that have created standards which (will likely) remain in place. With little time to re-enact a plethora of legislation, such overarching principles will remain in place at least in the short term.
If trainees were to be morbid about prospects in the UK legal sector (currently some 140,064 practising solicitors, 642 registered European lawyers and 2,325 registered foreign lawyers according to the SRA in February 2018), it is arguable that the study and practice of EU law will in fact become even more useful than before as Brexit may signify that the UK has become less desirable as a legal hub. The Lex Situs of contracts and arbitrations may drift away from the UK, headed for another jurisdiction considering the uncertainty or potential undesirability, despite its current prevalence as a leading centre for international dispute resolution. To continue to remain attractive, the UK will need to strike a balance between taking advantage of their sovereignty (and evolving to a more relaxed approach) and continuing to maintain some similarities with EU law as a mirror for international trade. The UK must also consider the extent of validity of CJEU decisions, as EU-based clients might be reluctant to trust English judgements being enforceable in their home state.
The effect of Brexit will vary not only depending on the adoption of any method for continued EU relations, but also on each area of law. We cannot be certain of the future relevance of EU, but it seems certain that, at least for a topic for study and in terms of short term effect on the legal systems of the UK, it will remain relevant for trainees in the immediate (as well as useful area in which to complete a seat in a training contract – firm dependent). Movement of lawyers and cross-border practice rights are in the air at the moment and, to a certain extent, firms are holding their breath as to the impact of Brexit pending a concrete agreement with regards to the future relationship. It seems likely that the CJEU will continue to have relevance during any transition period (it having exclusive jurisdiction over EU treaties), but post-exit, its impact is unprecedented. As a trainee currently preparing for qualification, on a practical level, I would be reluctant to complete a seat in EU-facing law or in Brussels due to concerns that I may miss out on another department which could offer me a concrete job, rather than seeking to gain experience in a team which may be forced to adapt, evolve and diversify going forward. We wait with bated breath to see the actions, cases and effects of others!