Plugging crime's brain drain
Stephen Halloran considers how firms can recruit and attract the next generation of criminal lawyers
Law remains one of the most highly desired and competitive professions among young people, but the criminal justice system is falling behind other specialisms when it comes to recruiting the best and brightest talent.
According to the Law Society, 29,565 British students applied to undergraduate law courses in the 2019-2020 academic year. However, 2019 saw only 6,344 new traineeships registered with the Solicitors Regulation Authority, meaning out of the huge number of law students graduating each year, only a select few are securing an all-important training contract.
Criminal law, and in particular criminal defence, is struggling to attract enough young lawyers. This is just one of the challenges faced by the field, which include closures of criminal legal aid firms and reduced confidence in the justice system.
Identifying talent – everything you need to know
While the legal services sector in the UK is employing more people than ever before, criminal justice is falling behind. The criminal law profession is aging rapidly – and years of legal aid cuts continue to pose a huge threat as firms cannot recruit younger lawyers fast enough to replace those retiring. Comparatively lower salaries and negative perceptions of the criminal justice system also lead promising young solicitors to avoid criminal defence.
The shortage of criminal defence solicitors has been a long-term pattern. In 2018, it was already clear many areas had insufficient numbers of duty solicitors. More than 60 per cent of criminal solicitors were aged over 50 in numerous regions of the UK, and there were no criminal solicitors under the age of 35 in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall and Worcestershire. Since then, the covid-19 pandemic has only made matters worse, with criminal cases backlogged and not enough solicitors available to take on the work.
While criminal defence solicitors can earn good salaries, cuts to government spending have heavily impacted the criminal legal aid system, and thus criminal defence fees have not increased since 1998. As a consequence, law students increasingly see criminal defence as less financially advantageous when compared to other specialisms. This has also caused a decline in the number of criminal legal aid firms, with more than 300 ceasing practice between 2016 and 2021.
Although some of these problems require systemic change and government intervention in order to provide permanent solutions, there are still ways in which criminal defence solicitors’ firms can refine their recruitment processes to attract more young lawyers.
Firms who are looking to recruit new talent will need to look inwards to ensure they stand out as a desirable employer. This will mean re-assessing the goals and purpose of their organisation, as well as the nature of the work environment they provide. Showing you understand the significance of non-salaried benefits and factors which matter to young, aspiring solicitors can have a huge impact, especially in the high-pressured sector. Demonstrating your firm is value-driven and has a strong sense of purpose is essential if you want to attract candidates who will be a good fit.
Attracting budding solicitors to your firm
When looking to recruit budding criminal solicitors, it’s essential you find people who are genuinely invested in this area of law. The best candidates can take on the challenges of this often emotionally (as well as intellectually) taxing role because they are motivated by a strong interest and sense of purpose. Identifying these motivators is vital for judging whether applicants will be committed to the role and to the firm, especially in the long term. Lawtons’ Director and Solicitor Advocate Nick Titchener advises: “Look out for candidates who have carefully considered which area of law interests them most and get as much practical experience as possible in different specialisms before committing to a particular one.”
To be successful, criminal lawyers don’t just need to be driven. They also need to have the skills to cope with the demanding work environment they will face. Therefore, firms need to be fully transparent with applicants about what’s expected of them, and what the job is like day to day. Of course, this should never mean trying to scare people off, or trying to push them to accept unreasonable expectations. However, firms should focus on building relationships with potential employees based on honesty and trust from the outset, and this means providing them with realistic insight into how you operate.
How to retain talent in a pressurised environment
Finding and recruiting promising young lawyers is a significant task in itself, but the work doesn’t stop when the employment contract is signed. Retaining criminal defence lawyers in the long term can be challenging, and there is always risk of a ‘brain drain’ to other, usually higher paid roles, such as those recently been offered by the Crown Prosecution Service.
In order to retain talent, firms need staff to be engaged, healthy and happy in their roles. Those in leadership positions can set the tone by maintaining a strong connection to what they love about their profession – and speaking openly about which parts interest them. For example, Nick Titchener from Lawtons Solicitors says: “I still enjoy coming to court the most – that's the front line of where many things happen and where we get to really fight for our clients and their interests.” Discussions like these encourage employees to remain focused on what motivates them to continue in their work, and helps employers identify which areas different people within their organisation find most engaging.
Being able to adapt over time and with technological change is also very important to ensure your firm continues to be viewed as a good place to work. Clearly, the covid-19 pandemic has shown lawyers how technology can enable them to work more efficiently and connect them to clients and colleagues over longer distances. For firms, finding ways to integrate these lessons into working practices for the long term will help them modernise – otherwise they could risk losing talent to those more ready to adapt.
Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace has been a topic with which the sector has had to grapple as the public profile of such issues has risen in recent years. Thankfully, more is being done to support legal professionals throughout their careers in order to tackle stress and burnout. There have even been organisations, such as LawCare, specifically set up in order to tackle mental health and workplace wellbeing issues within the industry. Criminal law can be a stressful sector to work in, and in some instances, solicitors can be exposed to extremely difficult and troubling cases. Therefore, it’s essential firms can provide access to proper support and mental health care, perhaps through links with local counsellors.
Criminal defence law is currently facing many challenges, and recruiting a new generation of criminal lawyers is an essential but hugely daunting task. Despite the large surplus of law students leaving university, many of whom are currently struggling to find a job, it still seems few opt for criminal defence, and as a consequence the profession is aging. However, there are things firms can do in order to appeal to younger solicitors and retain their existing staff. These include providing mental health support or the ability to work from home. These concessions help to build loyalty and make individuals feel more united. Criminal defence law certainly needs some fresh faces and perhaps a new crop of young solicitors could help to re-energise the sector.
Stephen Halloran is director and solicitor advocate with Lawtons Solicitors: lawtonslaw.co.uk