Equals opportunities

You don’t have to become a lawyer just because you’re doing a law degree. Husnara Begum reveals how to get off the legal conveyor belt and takes a look at the route to becoming an accountant

After three years of studying towards a law degree, it is hardly surprising that approximately 50 per cent of prospective lawyers are discouraged from continuing down the route to lawyerland. Fortunately, for those who do realise that a training contract or pupillage is not their dream ticket, a legal education opens up a host of alternative career paths.

For instance, some apply for jobs in government, HR, the civil service, not-for-profit organisations, health or education authorities or the media. “Law graduates do everything and anything, from management consultancy to human resources, from business to working for a charity, or from policy work in the civil service to retail,” says Dinah Langley, head of the college careers service at King’s College London.

Outside of law itself, the most popular choice for law graduates is a career in finance, with banking and accountancy both being well-frequented hunting grounds. “The type of graduate that a big commercial law firm looks for would also be suited to a career in accountancy,” says Langley. “That is, a graduate who can demonstrate a genuine interest in business and finance.
“Because law degrees have high entrance requirements, they’ll help students to get that all-important first interview. But not in the absence of evidence of other interests and vacation employment.”

Paul Wickens graduated from the University of Warwick in 1996 with a law degree. He decided against taking the traditional route of applying for a legal training contract at the end of his second year. Instead, he chose to qualify as an accountant and, after graduating, started training as a chartered accountant in Basingstoke. He now lives and works in Geneva.

“I really enjoyed my degree, but my heart wasn’t in a career in law. I was more interested in working as a consultant or an accountant,” says Wickens. “In order to qualify as a solicitor I’d have had to study for a further year, and I didn’t want that. I was itching to start work.
“It was a bit of a panic at first, because most of the second year law students had already secured training contracts, while I was still contemplating my future. I had to hang in there, but I’m glad that I didn’t get sucked into it.”

Useful addresses
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales
Gloucester House
399 Silbury Boulevard
Milton Keynes MK9 2HL
Tel: 01908 248108
Web: www.icaew.co.uk/careers

The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants
Student Services
63 Portland Street
London W1B 1AB
Tel: 020 7663 5441
Web: www.cimaglobal.com

Langley advises that if you are uncertain as to whether or not a career in the law is for you, it is important to explore the alternatives as soon as possible. “Start by analysing your strengths and skills and match them to jobs that interest you,” she says. “Research jobs by attending careers fairs and employers’ presentations, and look at relevant websites. Your university careers service should also be able to provide you with useful tips.”

A law degree is held in high esteem and can open many doors. “Law is respected for the intellectual rigour of the course rather than the content per se,” says Langley. In addition to learning the law, a degree in law will help you to gain skills, which will prove helpful in securing graduate positions outside the legal field. For instance, you will learn how to gather and analyse information and effectively communicate your findings both orally and in writing. You will also develop your negotiation and diplomacy skills.

But if you had already been contemplating a career in accountancy, the last 12 months might just have put you off. The profession has endured a dreadful period. Accountancy Age editor Damian Wild, writing in The Times in December, commented: “Measure it any way you like, but it’s been a horrible year for the accountancy business.
Financially? Growth rates at the big four have collapsed – low single-figure percentage rises in fee income are the norm this year. It was only a few years ago that anything less than 20 per cent prompted suggestions of a crisis. Anecdotally? Ask the hundreds of KPMG staff who were made redundant in September. By email.”

Perversely, however, the turmoil of the last 12 months might actually have served to improve the image of the profession. Certainly, at entrance level it is as popular as ever (although commentators rushing to argue that accountancy has become ‘sexy’ might just be pushing it a little too far). But accountants, like lawyers, do work at the heart of business, from high-profile bluechips to small and medium-sized private companies. In addition to ensuring that companies’ numbers add up, accountants will provide managers with information designed to help them make key decisions on the future growth and development of their businesses.

A number of career paths are open to qualified accountants, including management consultancy, tax consultancy, corporate finance and IT. Furthermore, the vast majority of finance directors in FTSE 100 companies are qualified accountants. So if you really want to get away from the ‘conveyor belt’ mentality and keep your options open, training as an accountant offers a genuine alternative.
Broadly, there are two principal routes to entering the accountancy profession at graduate level: you can either become a chartered accountant by gaining the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (Acca) qualification, or you can obtain the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (Cima) qualification and become a chartered management accountant. Both qualifications are internationally recognised.

Chartered accountants are essentially external professional advisers, whereas chartered management accountants typically work within business or commerce. It is important to decide between the two options at the outset, as the route to qualification is slightly different. Before you make a firm decision you should carefully consider which route interests you most and best suits your future goals.
The typical entrance requirements for a trainee accountant position is 22 UCAS points plus a 2:1 degree in any subject. Unlike law, the timetable for applying for training contracts is a bit more flexible, with some employers accepting applications year-round. Good GCSEs in maths and English are also sought after.

Training to become a chartered accountant or a chartered management accountant normally takes three years. But unlike the training received by lawyers, as a trainee chartered accountant you will not spend a further year in full-time study. Instead, you will be expected to balance studying and taking further exams while working full time.
Alice Sumpster, a third year trainee accountant at big four accountancy firm Deloitte & Touche, says that at times this can be fairly intensive. She says that, although the content of the course is not too difficult, there is nevertheless a lot of it, but adds that studying law prepared her well for the high volume of work.

More than 2,000 offices across the UK offer training contracts for would-be chartered accountants. While selecting your potential employer you will therefore not necessarily be restricted by geography. Most of the training contracts, especially for chartered accountants, are offered by accountancy firms, usually referred to as ‘public practices’ but some contracts are also available within business or the public sector.

Accountancy firms, or ‘public practices’, are similar to law firms in that they are external professional advisers to fee-paying private and corporate clients. Like law firms, accountancy firms are also structured as partnerships. The partners, who own the business, will normally take responsibility for managing client relationships, winning new work, marketing and graduate recruitment.

Their services include auditing clients’ financial statements, advising clients on how to reduce tax bills and working alongside lawyers, investment bankers and other financial professionals on corporate finance deals, such as mergers. Some accountants also work in corporate recovery, helping companies that are in financial difficulty.

Accountancy firms tend to fall into three groups according to their size: small high-street firms, whose clients might include local shops, small partnerships and private individuals; the medium-sized firms typically have between 10 and 100 partners and run a network of offices across the UK, which often have a mixture of UK and overseas clients; but public practice is in fact dominated by the big four firms – these are Ernst & Young (E&Y), Deloittes, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and KPMG.

The big four were previously known as the big five, but after the collapse of the Andersen network following the Enron scandal, the fifth firm Andersen was swallowed up in the UK by Deloittes.

In some respects, these huge global partnerships, which are headquartered in the City, can be compared with the ‘magic circle’ law firms. Training at a big four firm offers additional benefits. First, they offer higher starting salaries of around 21,000 (based on last year’s figures) and they offer more opportunities to work abroad and travel. Second, you will also be advising high-profile companies on ‘big-ticket’ work. Many also argue that the larger firms offer better training.

Sumpster at Deloittes chose to join one of the big four because she thought the larger firms offered the best training programmes and provided better skills-based training. “I was excited at working for high-calibre clients with household names,” she says. “I was also interested in working abroad at some point in my career, and the big four firms have offices around the world, which would allow me to transfer easily.

“As a graduate with debts from my student days, the higher starting salary offered by the big four was a deciding factor too.”

In addition to working in public practice or in industry and commerce, it is also possible to work in the public sector, including, for example, the National Audit Office, the body responsible for monitoring how tax payers’ money is spent, or the Inland Revenue.

Qualifying as an accountant
  • Applicants must typically have at least 22 UCAS points and a 2:1 in any subject.
  • Three-year full-time work-based training while working towards professional exams. You will need to study and take exams while working full time.
  • Most employers will pay for the fees towards your professional courses.
  • The timetable for receipt of applications is flexible. Employers have different deadlines. And, unlike law, it is advisable to start applying in your final year.
  • Both the Acca and Cima qualifications are recognised internationally.
  • Duties will include: preparing accounts and tax returns; auditing financial information; giving financial advice; advising companies in financial difficulty; meeting and interviewing clients; compiling, analysing and presenting information; and writing reports. As a chartered accountant you will spend a lot of time away from the office visiting clients.
  • Starting salaries vary depending on location and the size of the employer or firm. The big four will pay the most – typically around 21,000. If you train with a firm or company with overseas offices, there will be some opportunities to travel.
  • If you work in public practice, particularly in one of the big four firms, you are likely to have long hours.