Future Lawyer Blog

What’s the difference? – Elizabeth Cruikshank

If you had been embarking on your legal training 100 years ago, what would life have been like?
First of all the terminology was different. You would not have been “trainee solicitors” but “articled clerks” who paid qualified solicitors to provide training over a 5 year period in return for a “premium”. If you already had a university degree the training period could be reduced to 3 years.

Could you afford it?

High cost even 100 years ago...Credit: Peter Gerdes

High cost even 100 years ago…Credit: Peter Gerdes

Finding the premium was the first real obstacle for any potential articled clerk to overcome. The usual sum required was 300-500 guineas (£315-£525) paid upfront when the articles of clerkship were signed. In addition £80 Stamp Duty was payable on the articles, making a total of anything up to £600. This does not sound very onerous until comparison is made with other money values at the time. A newly qualified solicitor might earn £150-£250 per annum, a qualified teacher as little as £100 per annum and a modest house could be bought for the cost of the initial premium.

As the contract between articled clerk and principal was for training in return for payment and not payment in return for services performed, a principal was under no obligation to pay his articled clerk any salary at all during the period of his training. The family of a young man who wished to become a solicitor had to be prepared to keep him for the whole period of his training as well as paying the premium.

Young men of limited means could certainly be engaged in solicitors’ offices and could become extremely proficient in certain areas of law, but they were excluded from partnership and therefore from the more lucrative aspects of legal practice. Despite this financial impediment many solicitors argued that the profession was overcrowded, which brings us on to one of the other major differences between then and now.

What no women?

In this article do not assume that all references to the masculine gender include the feminine, despite the Interpretation Act 1889.

Quite simply there were no opportunities for women to train as solicitors in 1913. In that year a test case (Bebb v The Law Society) was making its way to the Court of Appeal for the purpose of establishing whether the Law Society could refuse to admit women to its examinations and subsequently to membership of the Law Society. Gwynneth Bebb and her three friends, all of whom had excellent university degrees, lost the case. The passing of an Act of Parliament 6 years later was required to ensure that women could sit Law Society examinations.

Women were reported by one male solicitor to be lacking in “honesty and integrity and soundness of judgment,” but possibly the main reason for the exclusion of women was the fear that a “monstrous regiment of women” would simply swamp the profession. Hmmm! Fifty years later, by the time that those who had qualified when the Bebb case was being heard were thinking of retiring, fewer than 400 women held practising certificates in the whole of England and Wales.

Working conditions

Dress rules were more rigorously enforced in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. “Dress Down Fridays” were obviously unheard of, but many articled clerks were required to wear frock coats and top hats, another indication of the high cost of qualifying as a solicitor.
Articled clerks and other office employees had to work on Saturday mornings. But there were some strange compensations, not always beneficial to health. Smoking was permitted and in one office it was customary for the “older men” to leave the office for a mid-morning break at the local pub.


In 1913 examinations do not appear to have changed much since the Law Society set its first examinations in 1836, when candidates were set 78 questions under the headings of Common and Statute Law, Practice of the Courts, Conveyancing, Equity, Bankruptcy and Criminal Law. Preliminary questions required the candidates to disclose their ages, to state “the particular branches of the law to which you have hitherto applied yourself” and to “mention some of the principal law books which you have read and studied” before settling down to the actual exam questions. Curiously there was no indication as to how many questions candidates were required to answer nor of the weighting to be given to each question.


Often solicitors saw themselves not only as officers of the court, but also as men of business. In the latter role they might benefit from their intimate knowledge of their clients’ businesses as well as giving them sound advice. They were not for example subject to any laws relating to insider trading.
Because there was an underlying assumption that solicitors were men of honour and probity, who should be trusted by their clients, they were not legally required to keep client money and office money separate, and more interestingly perhaps from the clients’ point of view, the profession as a whole did not feel itself under an obligation to make good the losses of defaulting solicitors.
Indeed examinations in Book-keeping and Trust Accounts were relatively new; only since 1904 had articled clerks been required to prove their understanding of such essential financial matters!

Getting known

Advertising was strictly not permitted and neither was “ambulance chasing”. To the legal great and good this would have smacked of “trade” and not professionalism. But marketing was another matter.
For financial survival it was necessary for solicitors to be seen as part of the community by getting involved in local clubs and associations — “rain-making” by another name. Although they could not advertise, they could be mentioned in the local press as supporting local charities or chairing local associations. Assiduous attendance at the local courts, especially if successful, could keep their names before potential clients. So it would certainly help our prospects of being kept on if you were seen as a sporty, clubbable sort of chap.

Elizabeth Cruickshank is the author of “Women in the Law” (Law Society) and together with Professor Penny Cooper of “All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor” (Longtail Publishing)

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