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Equipping the next generation: advocacy training for trainees

by John-Paul MacNamara
9 October 2015

As part of our series of articles written by nominees for the Solicitor Advocate of the Year Award 2015, John-Paul MacNamara explains why advocacy is the centrepiece of his firm’s training programme for new starters.

There are many of us, myself included, who entered the legal profession with the sole intention of becoming solicitor advocates. Advocacy was not something we were forced into for commercial reasons, or an area that we were incapable of practising in, but capitulated to due to demands of management. 

There are many of us who challenge those at the Bar on the issue of whether our counterparts of similar PQE/year of call are demonstrably better advocates than us.

I write this just days after the Ministry of Justice opened a consultation on how, amongst other things, the quality of advocacy in the higher courts can be improved. A more cynical observer might question whether the consultation is actually seeking views on how to legitimately reduce the number of solicitor advocates currently practising in the crown court.

The core issue here should be the ability of the individual to advocate well, as opposed to their route into the profession or the type of gown they wear.

In this respect, I think it’s clear is that we need to change how we train solicitor advocates, and the next generation in particular. I’d like to explain how the advocacy training programme within my firm, McMillan Williams (MW), works, and how it’s highly effective in honing our trainees’ advocacy skills. So little is written or known about solicitor advocacy training, that it makes the criticisms levelled at it by the likes of the 2014 Jeffrey Review somewhat redundant.

To some extent, my own journey is an unconventional one. I was called to the Bar by the Middle Temple in 2008 and completed the Bar Vocational Course with the Inns of Court School of Law. I thereafter completed three training seats with my firm and cross-qualified as a solicitor in 2011. Following completion of my solicitor advocate training and in-house training, I became a higher court advocate in 2012.

How the training programme works

Trainees at MW engage in a three-year training programme. Advocacy is the centrepiece of that training. Each year, our paralegals and trainees attend a training course run by a partner, and then engage in a series of advocacy hearings against each other over several weeks.

These hearings start with a number of applications covering a broad spectrum of practice areas: mental health, criminal law, family law, personal injury, conflict of laws and clinical negligence. Needless to say, it is a daunting prospect for a 22-year-old conveyancing paralegal to engage in an advocacy exercise in a practice area they are completely unfamiliar with, and in front of a real-life Deputy District Judge.

The semi-final

The competition then proceeds to a semi-final round where our trainee advocates are reduced to four. The semi-finalists engage in a contested hearing (with live evidence from some of the previous contestants). For the last two years, His Honour Judge Charles Atkins has been our judge for the semi-final, hosted at Croydon Crown Court. The semi-final has always been extremely well attended by both members of the firm and spectators. Attendance by the trainees is compulsory. One often gets better at advocacy by actually advocating, but the next best step is to observe others doing it, noting the mistakes and acknowledging the successes.

The final

Following our semi-final, two trainees go through to a final round which consists of a full jury trial. This year, this event was held at the Royal Courts of Justice, presided over by Judge Jeremy Gold QC. A number of VIPs and dignitaries made up the jury panel. There was also some colourful acting by a number of MW’s partners, one of whom played the defendant. The competition is the focal point of our training regime.

After the programme

Having come through this advocacy training programme myself, and now working on the programme as a trainer, it is really encouraging to see our trainees return year after year, their performances notably improved. Even if advocacy does not have direct application to their future areas of practice, it clearly impacts on their overall training, confidence and personal development. Many of our criminal paralegals and trainees go on to complete the advanced advocacy training module as part of their professional skills course, and have the chance to shadow advocates both in the magistrates and crown courts.

Part of our ongoing training with our newly-qualified higher court advocates involves several months of practice in the magistrates court. When they eventually enter the crown court, they will cover a preliminary hearing or bail application before they can proceed to take on more complex hearings, cases and clients.

Higher advocacy training is not a process or a skill set that solicitors are ill-equipped or incapable of providing. The advocates in my firm have both conducted advocacy and observed numerous hearings before qualifying. This is in contrast to our counterparts at the Bar who achieve professional qualification before even engaging in the apprenticeship stage of their training.

But advocacy skills are not just taught - they must be nurtured and developed alongside the solicitor advocate’s professional development. I recently completed my first trial as a leading advocate in a multi-handed conspiracy case at the Central Criminal Court. In fact, I led an old friend of mine from Bar School (and a member of the Independent Criminal Bar). There is nothing more frustrating than the perception of solicitor advocacy in multi-handed cases as simply amounting to straw junior instruction.

As a profession, we need to ensure that our current and the next generation of advocates are equipped for the challenges that lie ahead. This must include emphasis on examination-in-chief and cross-examination skills on the LPC, combined with a more intensive and uniform approach to advocacy training as part of the training contract. A tailored and bespoke system of training is required in order to both ensure the development of high quality solicitor advocacy and that we receive the respect that our ‘side’ of the profession deserves.

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