Why I chose HMRC
If you asked any starry-eyed child what their dream job is, I don't think they would say: "Tax lawyer". I am no exception. Tax law only became a serious consideration for me when it was taught by my favourite tutors at university as a third-year option. I loved the fact that it was a highly academic, black-letter law subject that also involved scandal and mischief in the form of avoidance, evasion and fraud.
It took me a few years to get pupillage. In the meantime, I dabbled in accountancy, and local government litigation, and did a stint as a paralegal at HMRC SOLS. It was while working as a paralegal here that I decided it was where I wanted to train. I had seen firsthand that the lawyers I was working with were dealing with complex, high-value disputes as their bread and butter. I applied for pupillage via the Government Legal Trainee Scheme expressing my preference for HMRC SOLS and was lucky enough to be accepted (on my second attempt).
The benefits of being an employed pupil
Compared to some of my peers doing pupillage in chambers, I can’t help but feel spoilt. As an employed barrister at HMRC SOLS, I benefit from regular hours (7.4 hours a day, five days a week) and I can choose my start and finish times — within reason.
As a civil servant, you also benefit from a substantial employment benefits package. The pension is excellent, and other benefits include comprehensive expensing such as for travel and work-from-home equipment. You’re also covered by employment law protections such as for sickness and maternity. There are a suite of wellbeing services such as complimentary counselling through a service called PAM Assist.
What I enjoy most about my pupillage at HMRC is the collegiality — whenever I need a sounding board to check my thinking, a quick answer to a stupid question, or general advice, I can count over a dozen colleagues whom I can feel comfortable asking for help. On my first day, I was added to a group chat with my fellow trainees, the year above and those who were newly qualified. We use it daily for the most banal to the most cerebral of questions. There is a supportive culture amongst trainees and a good atmosphere of cooperation amongst SOLS lawyers, all of which make you feel equipped to take on challenges and develop your skills.
Day in the life
- Arrive at the office and review any emails which came in the previous evening.
- Check today’s calendar as well as my supervisor’s.
- Plan and prioritise my 'to do' list of tasks.
- Prepare for conference with counsel and ensure everyone has access to the documents we will be discussing.
- Pop into a quiet room at the office to take the conference. Most counsel conferences at SOLS post-Covid are conducted via Microsoft Teams, as is communication with clients — many of whom are spread across the nation and/or working remotely.
- Now that I am in the later stage of my first six, I conduct and lead conferences, acting as the sole SOLS lawyer. Many of our clients are experts in their field, and counsel is there to advise on the details of the law, so the role of the SOLS lawyer is more strategic, acting as a sounding board and making sure all legal approaches and options are discussed. The goal and challenge is to add value when working with those more knowledgeable and experienced. You need to focus on the key elements of a case, familiarise yourself with the evidence and legal analysis, and identify any potential alternative strategies.
- Write up my notes of the conference and email a summary of the discussion and agreed next steps to the client and counsel.
- Complete some of the smaller tasks on my list such as replying to short email queries, filing of documents, and time-recording.
- Head up to have lunch with the trainee cohort. This year there are eight of us: six trainee solicitors and two pupil barristers. Although we’re not always in the office at the same time, those who are tend to have lunch together. We chat about our trials and tribulations of the day.
- Normally, there’s a meeting or two each day; these can be departmental, team or mini-team meetings, as well as regular knowledge management and events run by the wider HMRC SOLS.
- However, on a quiet day like today, I will be getting on with the more substantial pieces of work on my desk. This could be legal research for a colleague, written advice for technical experts about either the legal implications of a policy decision and/or the operational considerations arising about prospective legislation, or drafting instructions to counsel to represent HMRC in court or a tribunal. Notably, much of the advocacy at SOLS is conducted by external counsel, although there are internal opportunities available for the proactive.
- Tidy my desk and head off home. If I’m in the office the following day, I can leave my laptop bag in my locker. In general, there’s no expectation to be contactable outside of normal working hours. Working out-of-hours usually needs to be pre-agreed with your supervisor and can be reclaimed as flexitime.
Why a pupillage at HMRC is a great start to one’s career
Training at HMRC SOLS is unique in the high level of responsibility and quality of work a trainee is exposed to, right from the start. You can expect to lead on cases not only at first instance but also on appeal. In my first six months, I have led on an appeal to the Upper Tribunal and the High Court. Other trainees in my cohort have worked on cases in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. This provides learning opportunities about the civil procedure rules, litigation strategy, disclosure, the preparation of witness evidence and expert witness as well as getting to grips with the cutting-edge legal issues under discussion.
You also don’t miss out on the chamber’s pupillage experience. Every SOLS pupil undertakes their second six on secondment to chambers. HMRC partners with the biggest names at the self-employed Bar. I am very excited to be going to Deveraux Chambers. Other recent pupils have gone to Blackstone, Foundry Chambers, Monckton Chambers and One Crown Office Row. While at chambers, you can expect to be treated the same as their pupils, benefiting from the same training and participating in the same pupillage exercises.
Once you’re back from chambers, you have two further six-month seats in advisory teams, rounding out the litigation experience from the first year, and honing your opinion writing. From there, you qualify for a seat of your preference within SOLS. Young lawyers are encouraged to move around between teams at HMRC and explore opportunities within other Government Departments.
I would wholeheartedly recommend exploring a pupillage under the Government Legal Trainee Scheme and at HMRC SOLS in particular. It is a unique route into the profession, offering some of the best experience you can get this early on in your legal career.