Legal executives: an easier route into a career in law?

Hundreds of would-be lawyers across the UK are stumping up the cash to pay for their Legal Practice Course (LPC) fees only to be faced with the prospect of unemployment upon completion.

What many fail to realiseis that you can train to become a legal executive, which in turn is cheaper to fund and can now lead to partnership or even a coveted spot on the bench.

Not all lawyers are solicitors or barristers. Legal executive lawyers are‘authorised’ to undertake ‘reserved legal activities’, alongside solicitors and barristers. They specialise in a particular area of law and will have been trained to the same standard as a solicitor in that area.

Fully qualified and experienced legal executives are able to undertake many of the activities that solicitors do. For example, they will have their own clients and in some cases can even represent them in court.

Nick Hanning, who was the first legal executive lawyer to be made a partner under the changes brought about by the Legal Services Act, says the old way of looking at legal executives as second-rate lawyers has been turned on its head by the new rules.

“I’ve always considered the distinction between solicitors and legal executives to be artificial and out of touch with the realities of the legal world. The fact that we’re now being recognised shows that lawyers in all branches of the profession are of equal standing,” says Hanning.

He also hates the fact that legal executives are often confused with paralegals, who don’t officially have to hold any legal qualifications at all.

“People often get us confused because they only recognise lawyers as being either one of two things – a solicitor or barrister. They don’t realise that we have to do as much study as those who have done their LPC or Bar Vocational Course,” explains Hanning.

However, Hanning does admit that training to become a legal executive is great for those people who want to combine work with study and “earn and they learn”.

He says training to become a legal executive with the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX) more often than not appeals to legal support staff, mature students and those who already have family commitments.

“Typically students receive on-the-job training in solicitors’ offices or legal departments, but then they study at academic institutes or through distance learning much the same as you can do through the Open University,” claims Hanning.

Although there are no specific entry requirements, ILEX recommends that you should hold a minimum of four GCSEs at grades C or above, including English language or literature or O level or other qualifications at an equivalent level.

Exemptions from the latter parts of the ILEX Professional Qualification in Law may be available if you hold an A level in law, a recognised law degree or if you have already done a postgraduate LPC.

Managing director of ILEX Tutorial College Noel Inge says that the four-year study period is a time where would-be legal executives get to specialise in their chosen area of law.

He says: “When people sign up to do the LPC, they’re often studying things that they will never use again. Our students really become experts in their chosen field because they specialise in one area of law when they’re studying.”

And with LPC fees spiraling out of control the cost of becoming a legal executive, which is spread over the typical four-year study period, should only set students back around £3,500.

What is more they can also combine learning with full-time work and those studying to be legal executive lawyers can expect to earn in the region of £63,000 during that time.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for someone who wants a route into law but can’t afford to pay out the astronomical fees many providers are charging. They’re also getting a very focused and good quality course which they can put to good use when they start their careers full-time,” explains Inge.

And legal executives can expect to earn a very competitive salary upon qualification.

Salaries will obviously vary according to your location and chosen specialist area of law, but fully qualified legal executives can expect to earn around £35,000 to £55,000 on average but salaries for those who make it to partner will be significantly higher.

So with things looking significantly dismal in the jobs market for prospective solicitors and the words ‘deferral’, ‘redundancy’ and ‘increased competition’ being on everyone’s lips, it looks as though law is going to be a tough industry to crack.

But dreams of partnership in a law firm needn’t be a thing of fantasy for some people who take time to think outside the box, rethink their entry into the profession and consider a career as a legal executive.