Are Chartered Legal Executives Second Class Lawyers?

Photo of Daniel Fitzsimmons, a Chartered Legal Executive and director at Donoghue Solicitors.

Daniel Fitzsimmons is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. He recently became a director at his firm, Donoghue Solicitors.

By Daniel Fitzsimmons, Chartered Legal Executive Director

As regular readers of the blog will know, I am a Chartered Legal Executive (CLE) and recently took up the role of director at Donoghue Solicitors Limited.

My colleague and fellow director, Kevin Donoghue, announced my appointment here, saying:

What this appointment means

Daniel’s appointment as a director means he is now, to adopt a term which applies to law firms which do not have limited status, a “partner”. As such, Mr Fitzsimmons is a recognised point-of-contact by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, our insurers, suppliers, clients, and others.

His role also means that those who work for, and deal with, Donoghue Solicitors can be confident that Daniel takes his responsibilities seriously.

My appointment comes at an interesting time within the legal profession. There is a live debate about the role of CLEs in law firms, for two reasons:

  1. an acrimonious dispute between the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) and its regulator, Cilex Regulation Ltd. (CRL)
  2. a Law Society Gazette discussion on LinkedIn about how CLEs are viewed by recruiters and solicitors.

(My apologies for the acronyms. That’s the last of them, I promise!)

What are Chartered Legal Executives?

CILEX, the professional association of CLEs, says on its About page:

For fifty years, we have been offered a unique route to a legal career and becoming a qualified lawyer without a requirement to having a law degree, although law graduates and graduates with non-law degrees can also qualify as a lawyer through the CILEX route. Entry is accessible to those holding a variety of qualification levels.

(My emphasis is in bold throughout this blog post.)

CLEs like me are fully qualified lawyers, even if most of us did not follow a more traditional route to qualification.

My story is typical, in that I did not study law at university like many solicitors. Instead, I worked full-time in a law firm, studied during evenings and weekends, and passed many exams to earn my qualifications.

As I described when I qualified in 2016, qualification as a CLE is long, hard, and better than the traditional solicitor route. This is because it involves extensive on-the-job training as well as academic study:

How Do You Become a Chartered Legal Executive?

To qualify as a Fellow of CILEx and earn the title “Chartered Legal Executive” I had to meet the qualification criteria:

  1. Pass numerous exams in law and practice. Because I worked full-time, I attended classes and studied over evenings and weekends for my qualifications. It takes years to complete the required stages.

  2. Be in “qualifying employment” for at least 3 years, 1 of which must have been as a Graduate member of CILEx, completed after finishing the exams. Qualifying employment is “work wholly of a legal nature undertaken for at least 20 hours each week, preferably under the supervision of an authorised person (as defined in the Legal Services Act 2007)”. I met that target easily as I have continuously worked in law firms for 10 years, and been at Donoghue Solicitors for 6, working closely with our Solicitor Director Kevin Donoghue.

  3. Meet “work-based learning” outcomes. I had to provide a portfolio of evidence proving that I met 27 different learning outcomes, which included showing how I apply the law and practice, communication skills, professional conduct, client care, and many other outcomes. I gave CILEx real-life (redacted) examples of my work to prove that I met the criteria. My portfolio was well over 100 pages long, and was very time-consuming to prepare.

CILEX and CRL Dispute

CILEX represents Chartered Legal Executives. CRL regulates them. CILEX recently emailed its members saying,

At its meeting on Tuesday 19 July 2022, having considered the Case for Change and with the assurance of Mr Kenny’s independent review, the CILEX Board has made the decision to initiate formal talks with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to explore the feasibility of transferring the regulation of CILEX members to the SRA.

In response, CRL explained its role and position when it said:

The regulatory regime established by the Legal Services Act 2007 implemented arrangements in which regulatory and representative functions are strictly separated by a system of formal delegation. This is the system that has operated across the legal professions in England and Wales for more than a decade. Each professional body in the legal sector, which was previously responsible for both regulation and representation of its members, was required to delegate its regulatory functions. The title of “approved regulator” did no more than recognise the system adopted. The “residual functions” as approved regulator are very few and strictly prescribed. Approved regulators are prohibited from interfering with regulatory functions.


We would like to reassure you that there can be no suggestion that CRL is in any way failing to discharge its responsibilities. In December 2021 we were assessed by the Legal Services Board as one of the best performing regulators of legal services. CRL continues to discharge its regulatory functions in complete compliance with the requirements of the Legal Services Act.

As a result,

In CRL’s view, CILEX’s actions are not compliant with the requirements of the Legal Services Act 2007 and the relevant delegated legislation.

It is likely that this saga will run and run because both sides fundamentally disagree on CILEx’s power to seek regulation elsewhere. There is a lot at stake: CRL will become obsolete if CILEx gets its way.

What this means for the legal profession

At the heart of this public spat is a problem with the way CLEs are viewed both within, and outside, the profession.

As CILEX said:

We need regulation to help our members build their reputation and presence in the legal services marketplace. We believe that in exploring the transfer of independent regulation of CILEX members from CRL to the SRA, there is the potential to address these issues by making it clearer than ever to both the public and employers, the equality of status that exists between CILEX Lawyers and Solicitors.

This will give greater confidence that, regardless of who does the work, the outcomes will always be of the same high quality across the legal sector and therefore provide the best opportunity to meet the demands of the future modern legal services market and enable CILEX members to become a key part of that future.

As a recent poll on LinkedIn pointed out, how lawyers choose to qualify should not be an issue, because, as Greg Whittaker said:

There really should not be an argument as to “whats better” out of the 2 and Legal Executives should not be made to feel their qualifications are inferior to their Solicitor Colleagues.

If you are a good lawyer you are a good lawyer- That should surely be the metric.

And yet, Jodie Cook, a Chartered Legal Executive, described her own experience with a law firm recruiter as this:

This comment stood out to me:

I asked what she meant. Surely I hadn’t understood? No. The firm apparently wouldn’t even take applications from Cilex. Solicitors only. I told her I couldn’t believe it. She was apologetic and I knew she was only trying to get the right candidate – it wasn’t her fault. She offered to speak to them to see if they were prepared to consider allowing me to even apply.

What is at the heart of this? As ever, some of the issues are rooted in prejudice, which is borne of ignorance.

Members of the public might not know about the hard work and effort that goes in to qualifying as a CLE. The long nights. The weekends. The endless exams.

Fellow lawyers have no excuse.

As Ruby Hammer, Deputy Head of Law and School of Social Sciences Lead for Business Engagement at The University of Manchester said in the LinkedIn thread:

30 years experience in HE and also short period working with CILEX has shown me the L6 CILEX exams are, if anything, more rigorous and detailed than any HE/GDL exam in an equivalent subject. This, coupled with the work-based learning legal executives attain, make them an asset and they should not be treated differently!

Even the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is the equivalent of CRL for solicitors, agrees. When I sought to become an  SRA-approved manager- Director of my firm, my application was accepted quickly and without fuss.

Positive Impact of CLE qualification

My story shows that being a CLE has not held me back. On the contrary, I have been able to fulfil my career ambitions, and am now a director of the firm in which I qualified.

While I note that there might still be a perception barrier (as Jodie Cook’s experience shows) a lot depends on the firm and the solicitors in charge of it.

I am proud that my firm takes a positive view of CLEs. As my colleague and fellow director Kevin Donoghue said in response to the LinkedIn thread poll question, “Are Legal Executives on a level footing with Solicitors in terms of how they are viewed and rewarded at your current firm?”:

Kevin Donoghue

Chartered Legal Executives certainly are at my firm. We passionately believe in fostering alternative routes to legal qualification, with a view to helping our lawyers achieve their long-term ambitions. An example of this is that my colleague Daniel Fitzsimmons, Chartered Legal Executive, recently accepted my invitation to become a Director at Donoghue Solicitors.

Kevin’s view is borne out of his own experience. He, too, qualified as a CLE, before deciding to continue his studies at the College of Law to qualify as a solicitor. Mr Donoghue did not have to take that extra step but chose to do so to fulfil his ambition of owning a solicitors firm.

Since then, Kevin has helped me, and many other lawyers, to qualify as CLEs. His commitment to the CLE qualification, and to helping people progress in their legal careers, was founded in one of the firm’s five founding principles:

  1. We recruit “the brightest and best” with a strong commitment to the highest legal, professional, and ethical standards. Kevin fosters a culture of academic excellence and helps his staff work towards qualifications which benefit the firm’s clients.

Read the full list here.

As he said when my colleague Jack Hudson qualified,

On a personal note, I am immensely proud of Jack, Daniel, and Kemmi. All three qualified as Legal Executives under my supervision. Developing the next generation of lawyers is a big financial and time commitment for me and my firm. But it is a task we undertake willingly. Seeing my colleagues fulfil their ambitions is hugely satisfying. And it means that our clients get representation from best-in-class lawyers. Well done Jack!

Sound Business Reason to Recruit Chartered Legal Executives

Here’s a secret others might not want you to know. Kevin did not ask me to become a director for the good of his health. He did it because, as he said about me:

Importantly, his appointment helps gives continuity and stability to the firm. This matters, as it comes at a time when many legal practices are dealing with government funding cuts, mergers and acquisitions, and other issues.

We intend to continue in practice as an independent law firm dedicated to fighting for claimants’ rights for many years to come. Daniel’s appointment helps with that ambition.

There are over 21,000 CILEx lawyers, other legal practitioners and paralegals. More qualify every year. CLEs are a large, and important, group within the legal services industry.

Recruiting “the brightest and best” means seeking out talent from all walks of life. Celebrating, and encouraging, alternative routes to qualification is vital if law firms are to survive and thrive.

Law firms, other lawyers, and recruiters are missing out if they stay stuck in the past.

Daniel Fitzsimmons is proud to be a Chartered Legal Executive and director of Donoghue Solicitors. Contact him here.