Alternative careers: other opportunities in commercial law
15 March 2007
If the prospect of all-nighters doesnt appeal but you still want a career in the law, there are a number of options open
A career in the legal profession is not the exclusive preserve of those wishing to climb the greasy pole to partnership at one of the top City firms. Should you decide that the corporate world of a law firm does not appeal, or your search for that elusive training contract has reached an impasse, there are plenty of other avenues to explore in legally connected careers.
Turning away from the law can happen at any point in a legal career. Some people take a law degree before deciding that qualifying is not for them. Others complete all the educational requirements, or even qualify, before moving on to a different profession. So what are the choices?
Legal executives are legally qualified, but the training is different from that of a solicitor. Qualified solicitors can become legal executives and there are opportunities for legal executives to qualify as solicitors.
There are routes into being a legal executive from GCSE and up, with exemptions for those with A-levels or degrees. Salaries for school-leavers start low, between 10,000 and 15,000, but experienced executives in London can earn around 40,000.
To qualify as a legal executive you will need to have at least five years experience of working under the supervision of a solicitor in private practice or an in-house solicitor in a private company or local or national government. Only fellows of the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex) can call themselves fully fledged legal executives.
Legal executives handle a variety of legal matters, including property transfers, formations of companies, High Court or county court disputes or drafting wills and family legal issues.
Legal executives are technically fee-earners, meaning their work is similar to that of an assistant solicitor. A number of legal executive focus on conveyancing, family and private client matters. Recently legal executives were given the chance to become advocates, giving them rights of audience in court, and in future they may also become magistrates court judges.
If you want to be a lawyer, but want a slightly more relaxed route in, then being a legal executive could be the option for you. See www.ilex.org.uk for details.
Although becoming a paralegal is probably not something you would want to do for life, it is a good way of finding out what being a lawyer involves without necessarily doing all the training. You might also want to consider working as a paralegal on a temporary basis if you missed out on securing a training contract with a law firm. The benefit of doing this is that it will give you excellent insight into a career in the law and will, of course, look fantastic on your CV.
Like solicitors, most paralegals specialise in a particular practice area. The tasks they have to do are also similar to those of trainees, including document management, proof reading, research and attending client meetings.
The exact type of work paralegals handle will depend on the firm and department. Some firms will employ their paralegals in similar roles to trainees, while others will load a paralegal with all the tasks that most people would find too mindnumbingly boring to contemplate.
In theory, a paralegal does not need any legal qualifications. In practice, though, at least a law degree is usually required to get a job, as the work often requires legal knowledge. Qualifications such as the Higher Certificate in Paralegal Studies are provided by The National Association of Licensed Paralegals. Ilex, in partnership with City & Guilds, a vocational awarding body, also offers qualifications in this field (Certificates and Diploma for Vocational Paralegals and Legal Secretaries). The courses are run in 140 accredited centres in the UK. Details of these courses can be found at www.cityandguilds.com.
It is worth noting that some law firms may offer training contracts to paralegals who have completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC)
Salaries are fairly reasonable, in London ranging from around 20,000 to 35,000, depending on experience. Paralegals usually start on around 14,000 and can expect to rake in up to 40,000 a year at large law firms.
Paralegals are not regulated, but the Institute of Paralegals is a representative body. See www.instituteofparalegals.org for details.
University: University of Manchester
A-levels: History, Physics, Biology
Hobbies: Socialising, the gym
Firm: Bevan Brittan
After finishing university I knew that I wanted a career in law from previous work experience, but was unable to finance the cost of the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC). A friend suggested to me that
paralegalling could be a good way to gain some legal experience. I looked into exactly what the role as a paralegal would involve and decided that it would be an ideal first step.
Paralegals responsibilities vary widely from firm to firm, although their primary function is to provide legal and administrative support to solicitors. As a paralegal in the planning team at Bevan Brittan since 2004, my role has been very diverse, with no two days being the same. This is largely due to the huge variety of work undertaken by the team, including negotiating and drafting legal contracts and undertaking complex planning appeals for mixed-use residential developments. I have been heavily involved in several successful appeals during the past two years on major sites across England.
My role is often similar to that of a trainee solicitor; however, as a permanent member of staff I am able to participate in longer-term projects and gain a more in-depth knowledge of the practice area. From the start I have been a fee-earner and have a high level of client contact and responsibility.
Every day brings a new challenge. One day I could spend time researching the Health & Safety Executives criteria for assessing the safe distance between a new residential development and a gas works site and compiling an appeal, while another could involve attending a conference with counsel or a planning public inquiry. I have also been involved in the teams financial matters such as month-end billing an area that trainees rarely touch. Recently I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to be seconded, which gave me a valuable insight into in-house legal work and the clients perspective on the work we do.
Linked to my role as a paralegal, the firm sponsored me to study part time over two years for the GDL, which I have now completed. I am now studying the LPC part time while doing my training contract at Bevan Brittan. An additional benefit of being a paralegal is that my training contract will be reduced by six months in recognition of the legal experience I have.
I have enjoyed life as a paralegal immensely. It is a great first step into law or as a career in itself.
One of the oldest and most traditional of the legal support professions, that of the barristers clerk, is essential to the smooth running of any set of chambers and to bringing in the work. Clerks manage barristers diaries, arrange and collect fees and build relationships with clients.
The Institute of Barristers Clerks recommends at least four GCSEs at grades A*-C, and some junior clerks start the job straight from school. However, it is increasingly common for new clerks to be graduates indeed, many are former solicitors and are legally trained.
Senior clerks and chambers chief executives often have decades of clerking experience and tend to know their chambers inside out, not to mention being extremely knowledgeable about the rest of the bar. Clerks often have to work late: with every set having out-of-hours cover, a dispute can arise at any time. On the upside, the work is rewarding and interesting, and clerks get to work in small teams in the peaceful surroundings of the Inns of Court.
The institutes website has details of work experience opportunities and current vacancies. See www.barristersclerks.com for details.
Hobbies: Football (playing and watching), travel and music
I left school and headed to college to do A-levels, but after a couple of months I decided I needed a paying job so applied for anything with the word junior appearing in the advert. I ended up with a job as a barristers clerk, which I think was more down to the fact I lived close to chambers than anything else.
Life as a junior clerk is very unglamorous. While a runner the jobs of taking files to court on a trolley, sending post , photocopying and doing virtually anything a barrister asks makes up every day.
At Cloisters I am now the first junior clerk, which in simple terms is the position below the senior clerk. I enjoy my job even though I carry a large amount of responsibility and have to work under pressure. The main areas of law practised at Cloisters are employment, personal injury, clinical negligence and all forms of discrimination law. Members of chambers also practise in other areas. On the whole, many of the cases that come through are pretty interesting, with a fair few being quite high profile.
As a clerk I do not get involved in the actual legal side of the cases. My role is to keep both the solicitor and barrister as happy as possible from the start to finish of a case by agreeing fees, fixing trials and conferences and generally trying to make sure that everything runs smoothly.
There is not really a typical day being a clerk. Different situations and different problems arise every day, which I am expected to deal with. Making sure the barristers have all they need for the following day, that the court has the case listed and a fee is agreed are the priorities. Other things that come up during the day can be anything from getting papers to court for the barrister who forgot to put them in their bag, organising a football team to take on a firm of solicitors that has mistakenly challenged us to a game or lining up an emergency hearing before a High Court judge.
I am a member of the marketing committee and have recently had lots of involvement in the design of Cloisters new logo and the sets new website. I have been organising sending members of chambers off around the country to give talks and presentations to various organisations and have an input into ways chambers can improve the way they market themselves.
Over the years I have built many friendships with other clerks and am pleased with where my career as a barristers clerk has taken me.
Patent attorneys advise clients on applying for new patents with the UK Patent Office. Experienced attorneys will also manage patent portfolios internationally, helping the client to get the most commercial advantage out of a companys patents and fighting off any disputes.
The job is very technical and typically requires a science degree. Work is often very specialised as well. Patent attorneys usually concentrate on a particular type of patent, such as pharmaceutical, engineering and electronics.
It can be a challenging job and there are only 1,500 such attorneys in the UK. But their advice is highly sought-after and attorneys often enjoy a more open and relaxed working culture than their solicitor counterparts.
Although some patent attorneys work in law firms, they cannot be a partner in business with a solicitor. This is because patent attorneys qualify with the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys rather than the Law Society.
As a result patent attorneys tend to work in-house in large technology or pharmaceutical companies or in niche patent attorney firms such as Boult Wade Tennant or Marks & Clerk.
Experienced patent attorneys can earn upwards of 100,000 to reach as much as law firm partners. They also command positions of authority in companies such as Siemens or GlaxoSmithKline, which rely heavily on R&D departments.
Legal recruitment is busier than ever as solicitors keep on switching firms in search of that perfect job. There are many different recruitment consultancies, some specialising in legal recruitment and others also overseeing areas such as accountancy or public bodies.
Being a recruitment consultant is hard work. Many are paid base salaries and then bulk up their pay with commissions based on the number of jobs they fill or the number of clients placed in a new job. The hours can be long. But the plus sides are that there is plenty of face-to-face contact with different people and the chance to really make a difference to peoples lives.
Knowledge of the market helps, so it is not uncommon for a solicitor to move to a recruitment consultancy after a few years in practice. Because the competition for jobs as recruiters is fierce, good academic qualifications are required, with most new consultants being graduates.
To get more information about recruitment, look through the jobs section of legal magazines and newspapers.