CILEx president David Edwards talks to John van der Luit-Drummond about 
growing the institute’s numbers amid a challenging legal marketplace

‘We’ve got most of the things we want. We’re now equal lawyers,’ says David Edwards, the current president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), when asked what further boundaries the governing body has still to bring down in the legal profession.

Edwards has worked for St Albans District Council in Hertfordshire for 28 years and is its principal chartered legal executive. Having initially worked as a civil litigator at a number of law firms in central London, he obtained his fellowship in 1983 while working for the London Borough of Barnet, before then gaining his CILEx diploma in planning law in 1986.

Since 1992 he has dealt with prosecution proceedings in the magistrates’ and Crown Courts, in respect of town and country planning, fly tipping, street trading, benefit fraud, health and safety, and unlawful eviction, to name but a few. Edwards has also dealt with civil proceedings in respect of statutory nuisance, taxi licensing, and waste land notice appeals.

Inaugurated as the 52nd president of CILEx 
on 10 July 2015, Edwards is halfway through his 12-month presidential term and is now looking forward to a busy and challenging six months that will see the profession grapple with court closures and rising court fees, cuts in legal aid, litigants in person, and McKenzie Friends. Unlike some, however, Edwards sounds pessimistic at the prospect of unringing certain bells.

‘I’m worried about court fees. If you’re a landlord with a tenant who’s causing you problems we would always say you need to go through due process. Well, if the fees are prohibitively expensive, I’m worried that people aren’t going to use the courts. With cuts in legal aid, there is less paid work for lawyers. Who is going to represent these people?’ he asks rhetorically.

‘However much we might lobby, I doubt there will suddenly be more money made available. 
The truth is that we’re going to have to look at online solutions. The court closures are going to happen whether we want them to or not. It’s hugely inconvenient.’

Just like his counterparts on Chancery Lane, Edwards also has pressing matters closer to home. ‘We’ve a lot of challenges in this changing legal market, including trying to encourage CILEx people to set up their own practices,’ he says. 
‘The most important thing is to meet our members’ needs and grow our numbers. I’ve been very pleased that the number of level 3s [the first academic stage in the process of becoming a 
CILEx lawyer] has increased.’

In 2015 CILEx Law School recorded an overall growth in sales of level 3 qualifications by 16 per cent compared to the previous year. The school also noticed particularly strong sales of its package courses, with an increase of 27 per cent. In addition to the traditional route of entry, the institute is also gaining more law graduates unable to, or choosing not to, obtain training contracts or pupillages.

CILEx’s graduate fast-track diploma (GFTD), which offers exemptions against some of the organisation’s qualifications for law graduates, grew by 20 per cent in 2015 and, since 2010 (the first full year of offering the GFTD), the course has seen a total growth of 213 per cent. Of course, attracting new members is just the first battle. 
Is convincing them to stay another matter entirely?

‘We can be fairly confident most are going to stay with us,’ Edwards responds. ‘Once they’re in settled employment and fee earning as a CILEx lawyer – with the prospect of becoming a partner – then I expect they will stay. We have around 270 chartered legal executives who are now partners. 
If you’re recognised as a fee earner with equal status to a solicitor, why would you want to change?’

Things have certainly changed for the organisation since its formation as the Solicitors Managing Clerks Association in 1892. Over 100,000 people have chosen CILEx as their route to legal practice since 1989 and it now boasts around 20,000 members, including around 7,500 fully qualified lawyers. It is increasingly operating on a level playing field with the two big hitters of the legal profession: barristers and solicitors.

‘We’ve got the practice rights, the ability to become a judge, a partner in a firm, or coroners, and advocates. From our point of view we’ve got everything we would want to be recognised as lawyers,’ smiles Edwards.

Selling reality

Nevertheless, grabbing the attention of students who are easily distracted by the bright lights – 
and bumper pay checks – of traditional legal practices is a challenge for CILEx. ‘Universities are 
in the business of selling courses,’ says Edwards. 
‘They sell dreams rather than reality. The numbers of students that get a training contract are small. We need to get out into the universities and explain what CILEx is and how it can help. Explain that the chances are you probably won’t get a training contract or a tenancy. It’s a huge market for us.’

The numbers speak for themselves. With 31,800 people applying to study law at undergraduate level in England and Wales in 2014 – out of whom 21,775 were accepted – it is easy to see just how important it is for CILEx to grab a market share. With just 5,001 traineeships and under 400 pupillages available for wannabe lawyers, the institute has the opportunity to dramatically increase its membership. But just why would a student give up their dream of life at the Bar or 
the possibility of a corner office at a Magic Circle firm for life as a chartered legal executive?

Cost is one major factor. CILEx’s training compares favourably with the fees incurred from university graduate and post-graduate legal qualifications, which can leave a graduate in up 
to £50,000 worth of debt. By contrast, the GFTD (which Edwards says is ‘picking up people who otherwise won’t qualify’) typically costs around £2,500 and only takes one year to complete through part-time study.

Salary is also an important factor. Starting rates are lower than a trainee might expect at a City 
firm or leading chambers – between £15,000 and £28,000 during training – but comparable to those outside the capital. In theory, the sky is the limit upon qualification as a chartered legal executive lawyer, particularly if they become a partner at the right firm.

It is all very different from Edward’s day when, 
he recalls, it took eight years from starting as an outdoor clerk to qualifying as a chartered legal executive. ‘In recent years our demographic had changed from people who had started out as outdoor clerks or secretaries. Now we’re getting people who’ve done a law degree but can’t do anything with it. With student fees leading to huge debt, it is much cheaper to do our qualification.’

On average, 74 per cent of the CILEx members are women, and more than a third of new student members are black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME). Three-quarters attended a state school, compared to fewer than one in ten who went to a fee-paying school. ‘Those who come through our system end up as good lawyers. A qualified CILEx lawyer will be confident and competent from day one. I think that’s a big selling point,’ says Edwards.

‘CILEx affords an opportunity to those who haven’t come through the traditional route or background to qualify as a lawyer,’ he continues. ‘It’s the vehicle of choice for people who come from a more humble background. Those that use our route have probably had to study while working. Many qualify by long and circuitous routes. Many didn’t start off in law. We were talking to some new members recently and almost all of them had a story to tell about how they got there. It doesn’t tend to be a conventional, there’s always a rocky road along the way.’

Is the increasing popularity of CILEx among women and BAME indicative – at least of a perception – that the ‘male, pale, and stale’ solicitor profession and ‘old boys’ club’ of the Bar are barriers to successful career in law? ‘Yes, indeed,’ replies Edwards. ‘The Bar is certainly still male, public school, and Oxbridge, as indeed is the bench. The Judicial Appointments Commission [JAC] has recognised that and is keen to look at more chartered legal executives becoming judges. We’re pushing against an open door with the JAC. It’s something we can offer members as a possibility.’

In its response to an April 2015 consultation on the appointment of silks, CILEx opined that the title of ‘Queen’s Counsel’ should be available to all lawyers and not just advocates, on whom there was ‘still too much emphasis’. ‘In some areas of law advocacy is rare,’ the response continued. ‘It is the capacity to be an excellent lawyer and not only a good advocate that is essential for the role.’

Though a number of its trained lawyers have requalified as barristers or solicitors before eventually taking silk – such as June Venters QC, who became the first woman solicitor-silk in 2006 – there have been no QCs directly appointed from CILEx’s ranks. Nonetheless, Edwards does not believe there is much resistance to chartered legal executives receiving a tap on the shoulder to apply for silk, though he comments that ‘solicitors are not encouraged to do it and in the same way, chartered legal executives are not encouraged either’ .

‘There has been support breaking down the barriers to becoming a QC,’ he replies. ‘I can’t see any reason why it won’t happen. The Bar is geared for its people to become QCs and judges, whereas we and solicitors aren’t. It’s going to happen; you just need to give it time. It’s not that far away.’

Jumping ship

Despite offering a career that is growing in prestige and recognition, some graduates still use the CILEx qualification as a stepping stone to becoming a solicitor. Is this ship jumping a frustration? ‘No, I don’t mind if people want to do that,’ replies Edwards. ‘The numbers that take the CILEx route before then going on to be a solicitor aren’t that large. A few years ago it was a good route to qualification because you didn’t need a training contract. CILEx is not about stopping people doing what they want to do.’

At a time when legal training is a hot topic – what with the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) recent unveiling of plans for a new solicitors qualification exam – Edwards explains that CILEx’s exams are always under review and that the organisation will be watching the SRA’s ‘super exam’ consultation with interest.

‘The exams I did many years ago have all been relevant,’ he remarks. ‘I’ve never worried about conveyancing or probate; I’ve stuck with litigation and planning law. Everything I’ve studied, I’ve used. Whereas it must be hugely frustrating for solicitors to learn a vast range of subjects, most 
of which they will never come near in practice. 
Our qualification is very robust and – from my point of view – relevant. It’s a modern qualification designed for specialist lawyers. It’s better to study something that is relevant to what you do.’

It is this ‘specialist lawyer’ tag that Edwards is particularly proud of. ‘That’s the way the legal profession is going,’ he says, ‘albeit you need a reasonable grounding in the law, which you learn at level 3 before your specialism at level 6. Some tell me our exams are much harder than the exams to become a solicitor. We’re very proud of our standards.’

What’s in a name?

CILEx clearly wants its ‘specialist lawyer’ title 
to resonate with the general public. But with a proliferation of terminology for lawyers and their levels becoming increasingly bewildering to the average man in the street, is it not time to ditch antiquated terms like ‘solicitor’, ‘barrister’, or ‘chartered legal executive’ in favour of an all-purpose ‘lawyer’ title like our cousins across the pond?

‘I’d be quite happy with that,’ admits Edwards. ‘You can understand Joe Public being a bit confused, can’t you? People do still think of lawyers as solicitors and barristers, but we are working on that. A lot of the traditional barriers are coming down. In the department where I work we have solicitors, employed barristers, and chartered legal executives. I don’t think anyone actually cares as long as you’re competent, qualified, regulated, 
and insured. We’re all lawyers. What’s in the name?’

Accusations that chartered legal executives are looked down on by their well-heeled counterparts at the Bar and in firms still remain, although, to Edwards’s mind, anecdotes of poor treatment from fellow legal professionals have been resigned to the history books.

‘It certainly was an issue 30 to 40 years ago, but definitely less so now,’ he says. ‘Certainly when I first started there was some disparagement. Over the last 20 years, however, there’s been very few “ah you’re only a legal executive” comments. I’ve been going to the magistrates’ court for 25 years and I’m just Mr Edwards from St Albans.’

Another form of legal employment that has become more widely recognised in the market is the venerable paralegal. The National Association of Licensed Paralegals and the Institute of Paralegals joined forces in 2014 to unveil the Professional Paralegal Register (PPR), which aims to provide self-regulation for the estimated 200,000 paralegals working in the sector. But is the PPR a threat to CILEx’s membership?

‘Yes, there’s something in that,’ admits Edwards. ‘Lots of our members are paralegals and we’re looking to attract more into our family. Traditionally they would be our members, not necessarily chartered legal executives, but certainly at level 3, associates, or affiliates. We may be launching a paralegal grade of membership fairly soon.

‘The legal profession is changing so fast. In the future you might find it’s more cost effective to employ paralegals rather than high-powered partners and barristers. You may actually want transactional stuff being done by lots of people because it is cost effective. The future of the paralegal may be quite good, especially with 
new technology.’

Edwards hopes the future will see more of CILEx’s members considered for entry into the nation’s leading firms. ‘If I was running a firm, which fortunately I’m not, I would look at chartered legal executives. Trust that they know their area of expertise. The specialist lawyer is what we do 
well and that’s where our future lies.’

This article first appeared in Solicitors Journal on 9 February 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission. Images copyright of Mary van der Luit Photography