Becoming a Lawyer
14 March 2007 | By Helen Crane
A career in the law can be rewarding, but be prepared to put in the hard slog to get to the top.
Short of getting married and having children, choosing a career is probably the most life-shaping decision you will ever make. If you have to spend a minimum of eight hours a day, five days a week at your place of work, then it certainly helps if you enjoy your job and it stimulates you.
If your heart is set on a career in law, then you will be be delighted to discover that you have chosen an interesting, challenging and potentially lucrative profession. Indeed, graduates embarking on the vocational stage of their route to qualifying as a solicitor at a top City firm can expect to earn a whopping 33,000, while senior partners can pocket in excess of 1m a year.
Working as a business lawyer at a commercial law firm will offer you a wealth of opportunities. The profession is split into several different areas of expertise, such as banking, corporate, employment, litigation, media and sport. As a corporate lawyer you will get the chance to negotiate a multimillion-pound, headline-grabbing merger, such as the recent tie-up between Nationwide and Portman, which created one of the UKs largest building societies. Meanwhile, a lawyer specialising in sports law may advise a Premiership footballer on a transfer deal.
There are many myths surrounding the legal profession. Here are some of the most common ones debunked:
• Lawyers are not called in only when things go wrong - legal advice is also needed on a merger between two multinational companies or something as simple as buying a house
• Lawyers do not spend all their time in court - indeed, some lawyers never even see one in a professional sense
• Not all lawyers wear funny wigs
• You do not need to qualify as a solicitor to become a barrister
• Lawyers specialise in different areas of the law, so a solicitor working at a commercial law firm in the City will not handle criminal cases or divorces
• Not all lawyers make mega-bucks the pay varies depending on the type of firm and practice area a solicitor works in
• You do not have to study law to become a lawyer (any degree subject will do)
But getting your foot in the door is no mean feat. Indeed, with around 50,000 full-time undergraduates studying law each year, it is hardly surprising that competition for graduate jobs in the legal sector is incredibly fierce.
Still interested? Good. Then read on, because this, the second edition of the The Lawyer Guide to a Career in Law, contains all you need to know about finding and securing that dream legal job. And although this guide has been written with A-level students in mind, it is just as helpful to those of you who have decided to pursue a legal career later in life.
BARRIERS TO ENTRY
Wherever you are heading the City, a high street practice, a sleepy market town or the bar the route to qualification is lengthy and undeniably hard work. Once you have completed your A-levels you will need to study for at least another four years and then spend an extra two years as a trainee before you can receive your Law Society certificate allowing you to practise as a solicitor. Following qualification it takes a minimum of six years to be promoted into a partnership. Meanwhile, to qualify as a barrister you also have to study for at least another four years after your A-levels and will then need to spend a further year as a pupil (trainee barrister).
The importance of a stellar academic track record cannot be stressed enough. A number of law schools at the top universities insist on three A grades. Similarly with your degree, the minimum entrance requirement for securing a training contract is typically a 2:1.
Historically City law firms were notorious for their bias towards graduates from Oxford and Cambridge universities. But today firms are making a concerted effort to cast their nets wider when recruiting trainees. Nevertheless, there is still a degree of snobbery out there, with law firms still favouring candidates from more traditional universities. And frankly, with a top City law firm receiving on average more than 1,000 applications for around 100 training contract places, they can be as choosy as they want to be. So if you do not make the grade, then slipping through the net and getting beyond the dreaded rejection letter is unlikely.
However, law firms are not just after the most academically able graduates. 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? That is why law firms want candidates with additional qualities, such as good interpersonal skills, a second language and work experience. You must also be flexible and robust enough to deal with a high and unpredictable workload.
The other obstacle you will have to overcome is the cost of qualifying. A typical student will accumulate as much as 20,000 of debt while studying for a degree. But if that were not enough, then do not forget that most universities will now charge 3,000 per year in tuition fees.
Finally, there are the fees for the postgraduate courses the Graduate Diploma in Law, the Legal Practice Course and the Bar Vocational Course which can be as much as 6,000, 9,000 and 12,000 respectively. Thankfully, though, graduates who are fortunate enough to secure training contracts with large commercial firms will receive sponsorship and will not have to worry about paying for such fees themselves.
Although The Lawyer and its student/trainee magazine Lawyer 2B focus on commercial law, solicitors work in several types of firms and specialise in many different areas of law.
Most City firms do not offer criminal law advice, although some practise in the expanding area of white-collar crime and fraud. The high street continues to be the home for most criminal solicitors, although there are a number of niche (specialist) and larger general practices around. Other practice areas you would find in a broad-based practice serving a local community would be matrimonial (the law relating to marriage), landlord and tenant and wills and probate (the law relating to the distribution of a deceased persons assets). The Crown Prosecution Service also employs criminal solicitors and now takes on trainees.
For the political animals out there government departments, such as the Government Legal Service, and local authority legal departments are also worth applying to.
Most of the UKs largest companies have their own in-house legal departments, but training contract places are few and far between, as they tend to take on trained solicitors or train up existing staff to become lawyers.
Sponsoring students on the Legal Practice Course or who are studying for the Graduate Diploma in Law, or providing maintenance grants for those studying postgraduate courses, is practised mainly by large commercial firms; those who want to work outside the business environment will usually have to be prepared to fund themselves.