Frequently Asked Questions

Experts give their advice on some of the most common questions from students…

What advice would you give to A-level students hoping to train as lawyers?

The study of law is intellectually demanding, so you’ll need to obtain good A-level grades. But when applying to universities they won’t just be looking at evidence of academic ability. You’ll need to be able to demonstrate good communication and interpersonal skills, as well as evidence of a strong commitment and determination to succeed be it at sport or playing a musical instrument, for example.

Commercial awareness and business integrity are also key, so have a think about any weekend or holiday work you may have done and how you can apply your relevant experiences.

During your time at university it’s recommended that you join the student law society. Getting actively involved in mooting, debating or public speaking will also be beneficial towards helping you gain skills that set you apart from the others.

Towards your second year you should be thinking about arranging mini-pupillages and work experience with local solicitors’ firms and attending as many employers’ careers events on campus as you can.

Finally, don’t forget to use the services of your university careers advisers – they can be a very useful source of information, and their workshops on interview and application techniques will put you in good stead for the training contract application process should a career in the law still be for you.

Andrea Williams, Lewis Silkin

Is it true that some university law faculties prefer traditional A-levels?

There isn’t a prescriptive A-level choice for aspiring lawyers as there is for medics, for instance. But law is a very academic degree and often universities will look more favourably at candidates who have ­undertaken ‘traditional’ A-levels that are perceived to be more ‘academic’, such as English Literature, History, Maths, Sciences and Languages. You ­certainly don’t need an A-level in law to study it as a degree.

Mark Matthews, Reed Smith

My grades don’t meet recruitment criteria. Will I still get a job offer?

It isn’t impossible to get through the selection process with academic grades that don’t meet a firm’s recruitment criteria, but it is a bit more tricky. It probably depends on which firms you are applying to. In our case, there are no filters in our online application system, so every application is read. Academics are also only one part of an application and we look at all of the information we are presented with before making a decision. We, of course, take mitigating circumstances into account when reviewing applications, if there are any.

Stephen Trowbridge, Ashurst

It is true that there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the level of fees payable to barristers out of the public purse. The debate on the rates of pay in criminal and family work has been headline news for some years now.

However, this by no means should deter you from specialising in these areas of law, particularly if your interests are more altruistic. Demand for barristers’ services in criminal and family work is not diminishing and many chambers that specialise in these areas have been successful in combining publicly funded work with privately paid work, where the fees are often higher, helping to counter the downwards pressure on fee income.

You may also want to consider the implications of the economic pressure on these segments of the market: one possible outcome may be that the structure of the industry changes, for example the new Legal Services Act 2007, envisage the possibility of barristers in partnership with each other or with solicitors.

Robert Graham-Campbell, Maitland Chambers

I can’t decide whether to be a barrister or a solicitor. Any advice?

Start by thinking about why you’re having trouble deciding. If it’s because you don’t have a clear idea of what being a barrister or a solicitor would mean, then you need to find out (through research, a mini-­pupillage, work experience, open days etc).

Ask yourself what you are best at. What do you most enjoy? Which arm of the profession are your unique set of experiences, qualifications and skills more suited to? Would you like to follow one route or the other but there’s something you can identify (for example, the financial implications of following either route) that’s putting you off? Is there anything you can do to allay your worries (for example checking out funding for both routes)?

Research your chances of success: getting into both areas of the profession is a competitive business, but remember you’re statistically more likely to ­succeed as a solicitor than as a barrister. Do you have a secret passion for the bar? We don’t see many undecided Bar Professional Training Course students: if a student isn’t sure which route to take, nine times out of ten they’re a solicitor in the making rather than a barrister. A final word: a wrong choice now needn’t be the end of the world – remember you can cross-qualify from one side of the profession to the other.

Rachel Harris, University of Law

How else can I acquire commercial law work experience if I’m unable to secure a vacation placement?

Vacation schemes are seen as a traditional means of gaining legal work experience. However, when reviewing training contract applications most firms do not view formal vacation schemes as a prerequisite. We look for applicants to demonstrate that they have been proactive in researching the career, gaining an insight into the commercial world while developing basic transferable skills. Although most larger firms do not offer work experience outside their formal vacation schemes, a number of alternative opportunities are available.

Open days provide the chance to meet trainees, associates and partners, providing a great insight into a firm’s work and culture. Alternatively, some smaller firms occasionally offer the opportunity to gain informal work experience, and if you’ve completed a law degree or Legal Practice Course, paralegal work may also be an option. The onus is on you to be proactive as, due to demand, such opportunities are rarely advertised.

Justine Beedle, Baker & McKenzie

I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge Universities. Will that count against me when I apply for pupillages?

Not at all. While individual chambers may have slightly different selection criteria depending on the type of work and practice that they undertake (for example whether they’re looking for jury advocates or purely academic lawyers), the university at which you studied is not going to be one of them.

The bar has a strictly observed equality and diversity code, which should ensure that any unfair bias in recruitment, including towards certain universities, is eradicated.

In complying with this code, chambers should use objective criteria in assessing candidates both at the application stage and at the interview stage, both of which are scored and then monitored separately to ­ensure strict compliance. The more widely used selection criteria might include, for example, showing commitment through work experience or undertaking mini-pupillages, demonstrating both intelligence and a real desire to enter the profession, as well as a strong academic record.

Robert Graham-Campbell, Maitland Chambers

I’m a non-law student. How can I show my commitment to law?

I don’t think it matters whether you’re a law or a non-law student. Everyone needs to be able to show that they’re committed to a legal career when applying for training contracts. The first question to ask yourself is: “Do I really know that I want to be a ­solicitor?”. There are plenty of ways of finding out what a solicitor does and whether it’s the right career for you.

The most obvious is work experience, but this doesn’t have to be a formal vacation placement scheme. Firms also run open days or allow you to visit them to look around, so you can find out more about the life of a solicitor, the workings of the firm and its culture.

Similarly, just ­talking to people that you know in the profession about what they do can give you an enormous insight into what to expect. Consolidate any experience you gain and use that in your applications to demonstrate that you know what you’re letting yourself in for.

Stephen Trowbridge, Ashurst

What’s the biggest single mistake people make during interview?

Candidates need to sell themselves at all times. With very little research candidates can find out the sort of questions that are likely to be asked during aninterview at a given firm. Some candidates are naturally good at ­interviews, but the majority of successful candidates are the ones who’ve prepared for them.

When asked to describe a challenging situation that you might have faced, it’s always important to remember that the interviewer isn’t particularly interested in what the situation was: what they’re interested in is the skills and attributes that you were able to demonstrate that got you through it. The key competencies that law firms are looking for are well known. Think about these in the context of what you have done and have a good range of examples ready to demonstrate them.

Simon Pilcher, CMS Cameron McKenna