8 October 2010 | Updated: 8 October 2010 9:40 am
So you want to be a lawyer. But 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?
If not, read on because our guide contains all you need to know about securing a job in a profession whose members include the likes of US president Barack Obama and Mahatma Gandhi as well fictitious lawyers Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) and Miranda Hobbes (Sex and the City).
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 distinct. Solicitors were always the first point of contact for clients, while barristers represented 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 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 a 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 Professional Training Course (BPTC) (formerly the Bar Vocational Course) followed by a
year-long apprenticeship at one or more barristers’ chambers, known as a pupillage.
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. For example, legal advice is needed when two multinational companies merge, or on something as simple as buying a house.
Working as a lawyer is not as glamorous as the media might suggest. What’s more, with the exception of the City, where salaries for newly qualified solicitors can reach the dizzying heights of £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 £18,590.
Areas of expertise
Most people’s knowledge of what solicitors do is associated with the work typically handled by high street firms, such as advising on the purchase of a house, 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 countries. They also specialise in many areas of law. Some are employed by companies or charities, while others work for the government. These
individuals are known as in-house lawyers, while those who work in a law firm are known as private practice solicitors.
The Lawyer (www.thelawyer. com) and its sister title Lawyer 2B (www.lawyer2b.com) focus on commercial law. Therefore, this guide is aimed mainly at those who want to work as business lawyers.
A commercial lawyer’s work is split into various areas, such as banking, corporate, employment, litigation, personal injury, and media and sport (see pages 22-35). As a corporate lawyer you may be advising on a multibillion-pound, headline-grabbing deal, such as the merger between British Airways and Iberia. As a sports and media lawyer you could be acting for a world-famous footballer or rock star.
Barriers to entry
Wherever you are heading - the City, a high street practice in a sleepy market town or the bar - the route to qualifying as a solicitor is long and hard. 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, getting beyond the dreaded rejection letter is unlikely.
Firms are not just after the most academically able.
After all, what is the point of 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 most universities now charge more than £3,000 a year in tuition fees.
Finally, there are the fees for the postgraduate courses, the Graduate Diploma in Law, the LPC and the BPTC, which can be around £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 such fees themselves.
Famous lawyers: Mahatma Ghandi, Keir Starmer QC, Elle Woods, Barack Obama, Cherie Booth QC, Lord Denning, Shami Chakrabarti, Ally McBeal, Nelson Mandela, Miranda Hobbes
The legal profession: some myths dispelled
- 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 the inside of one in a professional sense.
- You do not have to study law to qualify as a lawyer, but you do have to complete a conversion course known as the Graduate Diploma in Law.
- 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 never call them companies. But thanks to the Legal Services Act that may soon change.
- Not all lawyers make megabucks.
- There are huge costs involved in breaking into the profession, but financial help is available from larger commercial firms and the Inns of Court.
- Working in the commercial arena is not for the faint-hearted, as hours can be long and unpredictable.
For further help and advice visit www.lawyer2b.com