10 December 2009 | By Corinne McPartland
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With the jobs market still dismal, why not rethink your career plan and consider studying as a legal executive.
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. But what many fail to realise is that you can train to become a legal executive, which is cheaper to fund and can now lead to partnership or even a coveted spot on the bench.
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 have their own clients and in some cases can even represent them in court. Nick Hanning from Poole law firm RWPS, who was the first legal executive 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,” he says. “The fact that we’re now being recognised shows that lawyers in all branches of the profession are of equal standing.”
Hanning also dislikes the fact that legal executives are often confused with paralegals, who do not have to hold any official legal qualifications.
“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,” he says.
Hanning adds that training to become a legal executive is great for those who want to combine work with study and “earn as they learn”, and 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 with 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,” says Hanning.
Although there are no specific entry requirements, Ilex recommends that you hold a minimum of four GCSEs at grade C or above, including English language or literature, or O-levels 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 completed a postgraduate LPC.
Ilex Tutorial College managing director Noel Inge says that during the four-year study period would-be legal executives get to specialise in their chosen area of law.
“When people sign up to do the LPC, they’re often studying things they will never use again,” Inge says. “Our students really become experts in their chosen field because they specialise in one area of law when they’re studying.”
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.
“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,” explains Inge. “They’re also getting a very focused course that they can put to good use when they start their careers full-time.”
And legal executives can expect to earn a very competitive salary upon qualification. Salaries obviously vary according to your location and chosen area of law, but fully qualified legal executives can expect to earn around £35,000 to £55,000, although salaries for those who make it to partner level are significantly higher.
Ilex has recently applied to the Government for the power to grant members litigation and probate rights. If successful, fellows would be able to set up their own practices providing litigation services to clients in civil or family proceedings and probate services, without needing to ‘borrow’ a supervising solicitor’s rights.
With things looking dismal in the jobs market for prospective solicitors, it looks as though law is going to be a tough industry to crack. But dreams of partnership in a law firm need not be a thing of fantasy for those prepared to think outside the box and consider a career as a legal executive.