So you want to be a lawyer?

So you want to be a lawyer. Do you know what working as a lawyer actually involves? And are you sure of the steps you have to take to qualify as a solicitor or barrister? If not, never fear, because Lawyer contains all you need to know about securing your dream job in the legal profession. Sign up (for free) to get full access to the site and follow us on Twitter and Facebook to get loads of useful news and careers advice. And check us out on Instagram for fun stuff from the world of law!

Solicitor or barrister?

In England and Wales the legal profession is split in two: solicitors and barristers. The term ‘lawyer’ covers both.

Traditionally, the type of work handled by solicitors and barristers was very distinct. Solicitors were always the first point of contact for clients, while barristers represented the clients in court.

Why split up the jobs? Well, there are lots of reasons. In England and Wales, tradition certainly plays a part, with the split existing for centuries. But the two roles do require different skills. Barristers are specialist advocates who need to be able to argue and persuade brilliantly, both in a courtroom and on paper. Solicitors, meanwhile, are the strategists who take on a client’s case and instruct a barrister if necessary.

These days, however, the work of solicitors and barristers is becoming more difficult to distinguish. Some solicitors are allowed to stand up in court and barristers are increasingly getting work directly from clients rather than through solicitors. Some solicitors’ firms, such as Herbert Smith Freehills, even have their own in-house barristers’ units.

There is also a third route into law that is gaining increasing recognition. Training as a chartered legal executive lawyer is an alternative way into the profession, where you don’t even have to go to university first.

Areas of expertise

Solicitors work in a variety of firms, ranging from two-partner niche practices to those with hundreds of partners and offices around the world.

They also specialise in many different areas of law, such as banking, corporate, employment, litigation and property. As a corporate lawyer you may advise on a multibillion-pound headline-grabbing deal, such as Apple’s record-breaking $17bn (£10.9bn) bond offering. As a sports and media lawyer you could act for a world-famous footballer or rock star.

Some solicitors are employed by companies or charities rather than law firms, while others work for local or central government. They are known as in-house lawyers, while those who work at law firms are known as private practice solicitors.

Becoming a lawyer

The route to qualification is lengthy and demands hard work. Once you have completed your A-levels you need to study for at least another four years and then spend another two years as a trainee solicitor before you can receive your practising certificate.

Law school

Aspiring solicitors have to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and a two-year period of work-based learning known as a training contract.You need to decide at quite an early stage which side of the profession you want to join, because although both solicitors and barristers need to complete either a law degree or conversion course, the routes to qualification diverge after that.

Those who want to become barristers must take the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) followed by a year-long apprenticeship in a barristers’ chambers, known as a pupillage.

The importance of a stellar academic record cannot be stressed enough. A number of law schools at top universities insist on three A grades, while the minimum requirement for securing a training contract at a reputable commercial law firm is typically a 2:1 degree.

Historically City firms were notorious for their bias towards Oxford and Cambridge graduates. Thankfully, nowadays firms are making a concerted effort to cast their nets wider. Nevertheless, some snobbery still exists. And with some top City firms receiving on average more than 2,000 applications for about 50 training contracts, they can be as fussy as they like. So if you do not make the grade, getting beyond the dreaded rejection letter is unlikely.

But firms are not just after the most academically able. After all, what is the point in hiring someone with three A grades and a first-class degree in Astrophysics if their knees turn to jelly when interacting with clients?

Firms want candidates with additional qualities such as good interpersonal skills, a second language and work experience. You must also be flexible and able to deal with a high and unpredictable workload.

“Lawyers are wealthy fat cats – I read it in the papers!”

L2B Fat Cat

You can certainly get very rich as a lawyer. Many commercial firms pay their lawyers far more than the UK average salary, and one or two in the City now pay their newly-qualified solicitors up to £100,000 a year. Fight your way up to partner level at a top firm and you could certainly class yourself as a fat cat.

At the other end of the scale, solicitors working at a local firm – the one you see on the high street when you are doing your shopping – are nowhere near as well-off. They tend to act for individuals walking in off the street rather than international companies so their income is much lower. Many high street firms traditionally handled a lot of legal aid work, but are suffering now under government cuts to this area.

Indeed, some firms only pay their trainees the minimum salary set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) of £18,590. From 1 August 2014, even that minimum salary will be scrapped and firms will only be obliged to pay to the level of the national minimum wage – currently £6.19 an hour.

So, while some lawyers do reach flabby feline status and few are malnourished moggies, most fall somewhere in the middle, earning enough to live a comfortable life but not enough to build basement swimming pools and drive vintage Jags.

I want to become a lawyer because it’s all about helping people – I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird

Yes, lots of lawyers do amazing work defending the innocent and helping the most disadvantaged in society, and are able to go home with a warm fuzzy feeling in their tummies.

But this is not always the reality, especially at the larger commercial firms, where the clients are typically big, faceless corporations. You may be sorting out a merger of two multinational businesses, assisting a large supermarket chain as it buys up a new site for a store or ensuring a technology company’s product is not ripped off by a rival. It is important work and useful in its own way – but it is not saving the dolphins.

Much of the work commercial lawyers do is entirely uncontroversial, but remember that tobacco companies, weapons manufacturers, animal testing labs, polluters, pornographers and bookmakers all need lawyers too. Your mileage may vary as far as the morality of these types of company is concerned, but do consider what kind of law you want to practise.

A lawyer’s life is sexy and glamorous – I saw it on TV

SuitsAlly McBealBoston LegalSilk – TV producers love lawyers. In the short-lived ITV series Eternal Law, God even decides that the best way two angels can help humanity is by working as barristers in York (He does move in mysterious ways, we suppose).

It should come as no surprise that working as a lawyer does not always involve looking sexy on the top of York Minster. Even taking into account more realistic dramas, a legal life is not as glamorous as the media would have you believe.

For starters, lawyers are not only called in when things go wrong – legal advice is needed, for example, for something as simple as buying a house. Form-filling, proof-reading and attending meetings are all big parts of a lawyer’s life.

Lawyers also do not spend all their time in court. Indeed, some do not even see the inside of one in their professional lives.

So, is there any glamour at all in being a lawyer? Yes – top commercial solicitors get to work in fancy skyscrapers and wine and dine clients in posh restaurants. Barristers in London are based in the charming surroundings of the ancient Inns of Court (read more about them here) and get to wear the famous wig and gown, of course. Often, the excitement of the work itself comes from the rush of winning a case or closing a deal after working throughout the night to make it happen – and seeing it reported in the papers the next day.

You need to do a law degree to become a lawyer

No you don’t. Non-law graduates can complete the year-long Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) course after university. Firms do not discriminate between law graduates and those who have completed this ‘conversion course’ so you have nothing to worry about if you didn’t study law.

Some absolute truths…

  • Strong academics are a must, with most law firms and barristers’ chambers requiring a 2:1 degree in a traditional subject.
  • Law firms still favour ‘redbrick’ universities, so it is important to start planning your career before you complete your Ucas form.
  • Law firms vary in size and the areas they specialise in – it is important to research the different types before committing to one.
  • Law firms are typically structured as partnerships, so are not ‘companies’ (although since the Legal Services Act, some companies have entered the legal arena).
  • There are huge costs involved in joining the profession and this has worsened with the university tuition fees hike. Financial help is available from larger law firms and the Inns of Court or you could go down the less costly route of legal executive.
  • The hours in commercial law can be long and unpredictable.

Want to know more? Here’s some further reading…

What A-levels should I do?

Vacation schemes are a good way to get first-hand experience of firms. Think about applying in your second and third years of university.

Career changer or mature student? You’ll want to consider carefully if making the switch to law is the right one for you, but many firms are interested in what older candidates can bring to the table. Take a look at the following:

Funding: Becoming a lawyer can be expensive but a variety of ways to fund law school exist…

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