MB: Hello and welcome to this edition of Realm Talks To. Today I’m joined by Amber Oakley, who is a solicitor of all family law. Amber qualified as a solicitor in 2022 after first qualifying as a child legal executive, so it’s her route into the profession that we’re going to be having a little chat about today. So welcome, Amber, and thank you so much for joining us.
AO: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
MB: You didn’t go down the usual training contract route into the legal profession. Could you just me a little bit more about your route into the law and why you chose CILEX rather than undertaking a training contract?
AO: Yes. So I decided I wanted to become a solicitor, and the first thing I did was I did a law degree. I didn’t do A-level law, so I had no idea about CILEX until 2020 because it’s not something they talk about at university. So I did my degrees and then I did some work experience, quite a lot of work experience, actually, as a paralegal. Then I decided that I wanted to qualify and I started at Evolve Family Law as a paralegal in November 2020. And on my very first day, Louise (Halford, Founding Director), who I work with, said, have you thought about qualifying via CILEX? With the amount of experience you’ve got, it looks like you could do so, and it was kind of perfect for me.
I’d not had anything in mind about training or qualifying at university, apart from the fact that my end goal was to become a solicitor. I’d not really thought about the mechanics of it. Obviously training contracts are incredibly difficult to get. There’s a lot of competition for them, so the non-traditional route of CILEX when I looked into it three years ago now was a lot more attractive to me. It was the obvious choice for me based on the fact that I’d got a lot of experience under my belt already, which meant I didn’t have to do any of the CILEX learning. I was able to just jump straight in with the required elements for qualification.
MB: As you said, you know, it wasn’t something that you were aware of. I did law at university too and I don’t know whether it was just my university, or across the board, but they only really mentioned the LPC and training contracts and that route. And I too just wasn’t aware of the CILEX qualification other than hearing one lecturer who mentioned it in passing or coming across it when I was looking online for vacation schemes and things like that. So yeah, I’m hoping that it’s that it’s better known now and I think doing things like this will help raise that awareness.
AO: Yeah. My husband said he knew about CILEX from his A levels because he did A Level law and he said it was mentioned as an alternative route. But I know quite a few people who didn’t do A-level law, so they also had no idea about it either. I think CILEX is like the unsung hero of the legal profession because it’s something that not many people know about. It’s still hard work, but it gets you qualified without the stress of a training contract because you can do it at your own pace.
MB: Yes, and it’s so competitive to get a training contract. How does the training that you received via the CILEX route differ from that of somebody who would be doing a traditional training contract? Is it more tailored to family law?
AO: Yes. So my entire portfolio was based on the actual work I was doing in family law. So I did nothing else. My entire portfolio was purely on family law, mainly private children and finance because that’s the work that I do. So yeah, it was all family law. And the way I did it, because I’d got my undergraduate degrees, my Masters, and my LPC, I didn’t have to do any of the CILEX learning, so I didn’t have to do any of their modules, which are akin, I believe, to the modules you do at university. So for me to qualify, I had to have my employment assessed, which meant they wanted to check that I was doing work of an entirely legal nature. And once they were satisfied with that, I was able to do a portfolio of work which was based on the actual work I was doing. So, yeah, everything, everything was family in my portfolio.
MB: Yeah. And I suppose it means that once you have qualified you naturally will go into family law. Because I know that when trainees do seats it’s not always guaranteed that they can either do the seats that they want or qualify where they want. Whereas as you say, you’re sticking with family and you had your qualification route focused on what you enjoy and what you’ve done is great.
What do you think the benefits are of qualifying by CILEX?
AO: So for me it was the best way to do it because I was working full time and I was able to do my CILEX on the side, so to speak. So I would finish my working day. I tend to work better at night anyway, so I’d finish my working day, go and have dinner, and then come back to my office and do the work I needed to do for CILEX, which was the portfolio and the qualifying employment application at the start. So there’s a lot more flexibility, I think. It was shorter for me than doing a training contract purely because of the amount of experience I’d already got. So I was able to count some of the work I’ve done in previous employment towards the employment that they assessed. So all in all, it took me just shy of 18 months to qualify and I know with a training contract it’s two years or 18 months. So it wasn’t a huge amount quicker, but, for me, it was brilliant that I could do it at my own pace.
MB: How did your firm, Evolve Family Law, support you during that qualification process?
I was really lucky that they were very supportive. As I’ve said from day one on my first day, Louise was saying, have you thought about this? This is something which we want to support you in, You know, we want you to qualify. So have you considered it?
I also feel quite fortunate that Robin (Charrott, Founding Director) and Louise are both very strong mentors. They’re both very good at their respective fields of law. Louise specialises predominantly in children’s matters and Robin does finance, so I could work with both of them for my personal experience, anyway, they would get me on board and I could then use that towards my portfolio. They encouraged me to pursue it and were very supportive from the start. I feel incredibly grateful to have had that because I know not many people would start a job and on that same day, they’re saying, you know, we want you to go forward and we want to help you with that. It was really refreshing.
MB: That’s great. After that, you ultimately cross-qualified as a solicitor – what did that process involve?
AO: That was quite straightforward once I’d become a legal executive. The SRA’s website is really helpful on everything you need, but essentially you have to have your LPC. Well, I needed my LPC because I’d already done that, so that exempted me from the CILEX learning, as I’ve mentioned. I then had to complete the Professional Skills Course, which trainees have to complete to complete their training contracts. So that was the same, and then I needed a letter of good standing from CILEX which essentially says, you’ve not got any disciplinaries pending and you are a good candidate. You submit it all to the SRA, they look at it all and then I just got an email.
I remember I was, it was a Friday afternoon and I got an e-mail with my certificate saying you are now admitted to the role. And I was so excited and the fact it came on a Friday, was just perfect because then I could switch off at 5:00 pm and feel proud of myself all weekend, that I’d done something that had been on my bucket list for years. And I’ve done it. It was all my work and that end goal was done. It was a big tick off my list. So yeah, the SRA’s website is brilliant at telling you exactly what you need, because it’s not just the LPC, you might need other things as well. But, the LPC was relevant for me.
MB How long did it take between you qualifying as a Chartered Legal Executive and cross-qualifying as a solicitor?
AO: I became a legal executive at the start of May 2022 and then it was at the start of July that I became a solicitor. So it wly short. I didn’t do my PSC until the spring of 2022 and I was waiting for the results, so if I’d done that earlier, I would probably have been able to become a legal exec, wait a week or so and then put the application in, but I just needed to do the PSC and that’s quite an intense course. So It took me a little bit longer to get that done because of work commitments.
MB: I think it’s it’s shorter than I’d anticipated the process being and I had thought the process was a bit more complicated, so it’s it’s good to understand that it’s not that way.
AO: Yeah, it’s very straightforward and the SRA are really helpful if you’ve got any questions as well. I think they said they would come back to me in 10 weeks and they came back just short of that, so they were really helpful.
MB: What advice would you give to law firms that might be considering taking on lawyers who want to qualify via the CILEX route?
AO: When I was on my PSC, quite a few legal executives were doing it, and they said that they felt there was a bit of a stigma attached to being a legal executive that there isn’t with being a solicitor. So I think my first piece of advice would be for law firms to look past that stigma. I think if you’re open to a chartered legal executive working in your department, it makes you look more inclusive and it recognises that there are alternative ways of qualification that are just as valid. You still have to work just as hard, but it’s the non-traditional route and I think if you can look past that then you open yourself up to a lot more candidates. I was really surprised on my PSC by how many people were legal executives who were looking to cross-convert because they just felt the opportunities weren’t the same for them as they were for solicitors.
I also think it’s great for employers because you’ve got that flexibility and you can say to your staff, we’ll support you, or you can do it this way but you do it in your own time and then you’ve got someone who’s working hard but they know that they’ve got that step I suppose to look forward to of qualification.
Louise mentioned to me that one of the things that made the CILEX qualification attractive to them was that you don’t have to be an approved training provider like you do to offer a training contract. So long as there is a solicitor who’s on the roll and is currently entitled to practise, they can be your supervisor. So I think from an employer’s point of view it’s not quite as strenuous as going through the rigmarole of becoming an approved training provider. You can simply be a solicitor and you can be a mentor to someone who wants to qualify via CILEX.
MB: Having built a successful career as a family lawyer who has gone down the CILEX route, what would you say to somebody who is considering doing the same thing?
AO: Do it. Absolutely. Just go for it. There is no reason why you can’t juggle if you need to juggle. As I’ve mentioned, it’s really flexible, so it’s good for people who maybe have a family or other existing commitments because they can work in their CILEX work around those other commitments. There’s actually another colleague at work who is qualifying via CILEX and she said that part of the attraction for her is that she can do it around her children and around her family life. She knows that when the kids are in bed she can do an hour on her portfolio or whatever it is she needs to work on.
It’s cheaper – if you haven’t got the LPC, I think the modules are cheaper than doing your LPC. So if you’re self-funding it becomes a lot more attractive and I think you pay also module per module, so if you are doing the CILEX learning you don’t need to put up necessarily thousands of pounds at once, you can do it in little chunks as you do your modules.
And again, you can do those at your own pace. When I was at the admissions graduation day last October, there were people there who had taken quite a while to complete CILEX and get to that stage because they’d done one module, then taken a couple of months off, say, over summer, and then gone back to it. So you can work it around your existing commitments and you can do it however you want.
Another big benefit is that you’re not competing for a training contract, there’s no direct competition. When you apply for CILEX, you are doing your own learning and you’re doing it at your own pace. If you are, fortunate like I was, to have an employer who supports you and you know there’s a job for you at the end of it, absolutely amazing. But I genuinely think I’d be qualified without CILEX, so it means a lot to me and I think not many people know about it. As you said, if people talk about it and they know they want to be a solicitor instead of a legal exec, they can cross-convert. But essentially, you’ve done the same thing. You’re still qualified and you’ve done it your way in your time in a way that suits you.
MB: Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining me today, Amber. I’m sure that learning about your experience and journey into the profession will be really valuable for lots of budding lawyers, people who might be watching while they’re at university, and who may not have been told about CILEX at all. So again, thank you so much.