by Alan Binnington, President of the Law Society of Jersey,
Partner of Mourant du Feu & Jeune, Alan is a Jersey Advocate and an English Barrister
In the 19th Century the number of advocates in the Island was limited to six and it has been suggested that in order to be called to the Jersey Bar a newly qualified lawyer had in those days to pay an existing advocate a sum of money sufficient to persuade him to retire. Thankfully, times have changed and the Island now has over 140 advocates and over 50 "ecrivains", as Jersey solicitors are known.
The route to qualification is not an easy one. The Jersey profession is now essentially a graduate profession although the aspiring Jersey lawyer does not need to have obtained a law degree : for those who have a degree in a subject other than law it is possible to complete a one year conversion course in the core legal subjects in order to pass the Common Professional Examination which puts the student in the same position as if they had a law degree which included the core legal subjects. Students who wish to pursue a career in law in Jersey would then usually attend the Legal Practice Course ("LPC") or the Bar Vocational Course ("BVC") in order to qualify respectively as an English solicitor or an English barrister. Unfortunately that is not the end of the studying !
Having qualified either as an English solicitor or barrister many students return immediately to the Island to commence their studies for the Jersey Qualifying Exam for call to the Jersey Bar or admission as an ecrivain. However some students decide to spend some time gaining experience as a barrister or solicitor before returning to the Island. Such experience can be invaluable if it is in the field in which the aspiring Jersey lawyer ultimately wishes to practise.
Once back in Jersey it is likely to take in the region of 2 years of further studying before one is ready to take the Jersey law exams. Although Jersey law is, in many areas, similar to English law there are important differences, particularly in the law relating to contract, immovable property and succession. As some of the statutes and most of the early commentaries are written in French a good working knowledge of French is particularly useful, although contrary to popular belief the language used is "normal" as opposed to "Norman" French!
Once qualified as a Jersey lawyer the range of work available is diverse. Many of the smaller local firms concentrate on advice for Jersey resident individuals and institutions covering areas such as criminal, matrimonial, conveyancing, contract disputes and personal injury litigation. The larger firms, whilst doing some purely local work, tend to specialise in advice to institutions using Jersey as an offshore finance centre. Such advice will cover areas such as trust and company law, offshore financing and commercial litigation.
The island's legal aid system brings with it both advantages and disadvantages for the newly qualified Jersey lawyer. All Jersey qualified lawyers of fewer than 15 years' standing must accept legal aid work on a rota system, which means that each lawyer is allocated, on average, one legal aid case per week. The work is carried out free of charge if the client does not have sufficient means to pay, or is carried out at a reduced rate where they have the ability to pay some, but not all of, the fees. The lawyer does not receive the balance from any other source. Although the obligation to receive cases that are allocated on the rota is a personal one some of the larger firms set up specialised legal aid teams to carry out the work. The advantage from a newly qualified advocate's perspective is that even if he or she joins a large commercial firm there will still be an opportunity to gain useful experience in areas such as criminal advocacy and to do work that fulfils the sense of vocation that many newly qualified lawyers demonstrate. The disadvantage of the system is that it operates as a substantial disincentive to a lawyer who wishes to set up on his own, providing advice primarily to local residents. The cost of carrying out a substantial amount of work for no remuneration for up to 15 years can be financially crippling to someone in that position. Thus anyone who wishes to specialise in, say, providing advice in matrimonial and criminal cases is likely to find that it is financially impossible to do so. Although the cost to the States is negligible whether such a state of affairs really benefits the local community is debateable.
It is possible to work for a Jersey law firm without being either an advocate or an ecrivain: one can be employed as a lawyer within a Jersey legal practice without having to pass the Jersey law exams, although professional rules would prevent a person in such a position becoming a partner in a Jersey legal practice. A Jersey legal qualification is however required before you can hold yourself out as being able to practise Jersey law. In addition, a number of firms of English solicitors have a presence in Jersey advising Jersey resident individuals and institutions on English law matters.
Many Jersey law firms have associated trust companies that specialise in the administration of trusts and companies for both individual and corporate clients. There are opportunities for lawyers to work within such companies and for non-lawyers to work as trust and company administrators and managers. It is the associated administration work that makes many Jersey firms very different from the traditional law firms in the U.K. and ensures that the range of job opportunities with Jersey law firms is more diverse than their English counterparts.
Legal work in Jersey is not confined to private practice. In the public sector there may be job opportunities in the Judicial Greffe, which deals with the administration of the courts and in the Law Officers' Department, which handles criminal prosecutions and advises on legal matters affecting the States.
What qualities does an employer look for in a candidate for a legal position? To some extent the answer will depend on the area in which the lawyer is likely to practise. In general one would expect the candidate to demonstrate an ability to think logically, to distinguish relevant information from a mass of irrelevant material and to be able to identify and solve problems. Where court work is likely to be involved it is clearly important to be able to speak in public with confidence, although that is something that may well develop with practise, and to be able to think on one's feet : faced with a difficult question from the judge it is unfortunately not possible to ask the audience or phone a friend. In the private client field it is obviously important to be good at dealing with people although in some areas such as criminal and matrimonial work it is also important to be able to take a detached view of the problem. This sometimes leads to clients, particularly in matrimonial cases, complaining that their lawyer doesn't appear to be sufficiently sympathetic. However one shouldn't go to a lawyer for sympathy; that can be supplied in abundance by friends and relations. What one needs in these circumstances is someone who can stand back from the emotion of a problem and supply objective and independent advice whilst nevertheless being sensitive to the situation in which the client finds himself or herself. With the increasing international nature of legal work in Jersey an ability to speak one or more foreign languages is useful, particularly French for the reasons referred to above. Finally, both physical and mental stamina are useful attributes : the hours are likely to be long!
For many students considering a career in law their only experience of the work of a lawyer (assuming that they have not appeared in the local Magistrate's Court!) is likely to be T.V. series such as Rumpole, Ally McBeal and Kavanagh Q.C. As is often the case what is portrayed on television and reality do not coincide. It is therefore useful to gain some practical experience by working in a law firm during school or university holidays.
Although the training is long and once qualified the work can be arduous, most lawyers will agree that a career in law is both varied and stimulating. Whilst the financial rewards in some areas of the law may be excellent, job satisfaction is more important. As the American publisher, Malcolm Forbes, once said: "The biggest mistake people make in life is not trying to make a living at doing what they most enjoy".