Guide to a career in law
L2B Guide to a Career in Law 2009-2010
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?
Solicitor or barrister?
In England and Wales the legal profession is split into two: solicitors and barristers. The term ‘lawyer’ captures 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.
These days, however, the work of solicitors and barristers is becoming more difficult to distinguish, with some solicitors being permitted to stand up in court. Some law firms, such as Eversheds and Herbert Smith, now even have their own in-house barristers’ chambers.
You need to decide at quite an early stage which 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 following the academic stage. Aspiring solicitors have to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and a two-year period of work-based learning known as a training contract.
In contrast, those who want to become barristers must take the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) followed by a year-long apprenticeship at one or more barristers’ chambers, known as a pupillage. Note that the BVC is being replaced by the Bar Professional Training Course from Autumn 2010.
The legal profession: facts and fictions
There are a number of misunderstandings surrounding the legal profession. For instance, when students are asked why they want to become lawyers they often say they want to help people. But this is simply not always the reality, especially in the commercial arena, where the clients are typically large, faceless corporations. Also, lawyers are not only called in when things go wrong: legal advice is needed when two multinational companies merge, for example, or on something as simple as buying a house.
Working as a lawyer is also not as glamorous as the media might suggest. What is more, with the exception of the City, where salaries for newly qualified solicitors can exceed £100,000, the pay is not always as high as you might think. Indeed, some firms only pay their trainees the minimum salary set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority of £16,650 for the regions and £18,590 for London.
Areas of expertise
Most people’s knowledge of what solicitors do is usually associated with the work handled by high street firms, such as advising on the purchase of a new house or on a divorce, or representing someone being prosecuted for a crime. However, solicitors work in a variety of firms, ranging from two-partner niche practices to those with hundreds of partners and offices in several different countries. They also specialise in many different areas of law. Many are also employed by companies or charities, while others may work for the Government. These individuals are known as in-house lawyers, while those who work at a law firm are known as private practice solicitors.
Commercial lawyers’ work is split into different areas, such as banking, corporate, dispute resolution, employment and media and sport. As a banking or corporate lawyer you may be advising on a multibillion-pound, headline-grabbing deal, such as the UK Government’s £35bn bank bailout. As a sports and media lawyer, meanwhile, you could act for a world-famous footballer or rock star.
Barriers to entry
Whether you are heading for the City, a high street practice, a sleepy market town in Devon or the bar, the route to qualification is lengthy and hard work. Once you have completed your A-levels you need to study for at least another four years, and then spend an extra two years as a trainee before you can receive your practising certificate. Following qualification it takes a minimum of six years to be promoted into a partnership.
The importance of a stellar academic record cannot be stressed enough. A number of law schools at top universities insist on three A grades and the minimum requirement for securing a training contract at a reputable commercial law firm is typically a 2:1 degree.
Historically, City law firms were notorious for their bias towards graduates from Oxford and Cambridge universities. 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 around 50 training contracts, they can be as fussy as they like. So if you do not make the grade, then getting beyond the dreaded rejection letter is unlikely.
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.
Another obstacle is the cost of qualifying. A typical student accumulates as much as £20,000 of debt while studying for a degree. And do not forget that English universities now charge £3,225 per year in tuition fees.
Finally, there are the fees for the postgraduate courses, the Graduate Diploma in Law, the LPC and the BVC, which can be in excess of £8,000, £12,000 and £14,000 respectively. Thankfully, though, those who secure training contracts with large commercial firms receive sponsorship and will not have to worry about paying for such fees themselves.
The legal profession in a nutshell
- The profession is split into two, solicitors and barristers. You do not have to train as a solicitor before you can qualify as a barrister.
- Law is not always as glamorous as the media might suggest.
- Lawyers are not only called in when things go wrong.
- Not all lawyers wear wigs.
- Lawyers do not spend all their time in court. Indeed, some do not even see one in a professional sense.
- You do not have to study law to qualify as a lawyer, but you will have to complete a conversion course.
- Strong academics are a must, with most law firms and barristers’ chambers requiring a 2:1 degree in a traditional subject.
- Firms still favour red brick universities, so it is important to start planning your career before you complete your Ucas form.
- Law firms vary in size and the areas in which they specialise.
- Law firms are typically structured as partnerships, so they should never be referred to as companies.
- Not all lawyers make megabucks.
- There are huge costs involved in breaking into the profession, but financial help is available from larger commercial firms.
- Working in the commercial arena is not for the faint-hearted, as hours can be long and unpredictable.