So you want to be a lawyer?
1 February 2013
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? If not then read on
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? If not then read on, because this, the latest edition of The Lawyer 2B Guide to a Career in Law, contains all you need to know about securing your dream job in the legal profession, the members of which include the likes of US President Barack Obama and Mahatma Ghandi.
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. There is, however, a third route into law that is gaining increasing recognition. Training as a legal executive lawyer is, indeed, a very attractive alternative way into the profession, as you do not even have to go to university first.
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 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) followed by a year-long apprenticeship at one or more barristers’ chambers, known as a pupillage.
The legal profession: the facts
There is 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, for example, when two multinational companies merge, or for something as simple as buying a house.
Working as a lawyer is usually not as glamorous as the media might suggest. What is more, with the exception of the City, where salaries for newly qualified solicitors can reach in excess of £90,000, 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 (SRA) of £18,590 - a figure that has remained static for the past three years.
From 1 August 2014 the minimum salary for trainees will drop to the level of the national minimum wage - currently £6.08 an hour.
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. Some are also employed by companies or charities, while others work for local or central government. Such individuals are known as in-house lawyers, while those who work at law firms are known as private practice solicitors.
Lawyer 2B and its sister title The Lawyer (www.thelawyer. com) focus on commercial law. This guide, therefore, is aimed mainly at those who want to work as business lawyers.
Commercial lawyers’ work is split into different areas, such as banking, corporate, employment, litigation and media and sport. As a corporate lawyer you may be advising on a multibillion-pound, headline-grabbing deal, such as the takeover of Instagram by Facebook. As a sports and media lawyer you could even act for a world-famous footballer or rock star.
Barriers to entry
Wherever you are heading, be it the City, a high street practice, a sleepy market town or the bar, the route to qualification is lengthy and demands 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 solicitor before you can receive your practising certificate. Following qualification it takes many years of hard work before you are invited to become a partner. Saying that, not all solicitors become partners in law firms, with many deciding to leave the profession to pursuealternative careers within law or elsewhere.
Others, meanwhile, may stay on as consultants, a role that many firms have introduced for senior lawyers who want to carry on advising clients but who do not want to climb the greasy pole to 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, while 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. And with the cap on tuition fees being lifted it is now a whole lot more expensive.
Finally, there are the fees for the postgraduate courses, the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), the LPC and the BPTC, which can be as much as, if not more than, £9,000, £13,000 and £16,000 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: fiction vs fact
- You do not have to train as a solicitor before you can qualify as a barrister.
- Law is not as glamorous as the media might suggest.
- Lawyers are not only called in when things go wrong.
- Not all lawyers wear wigs.
- Not all lawyers make megabucks.
- 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 will have to complete a conversion course, either the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or the Common Professional Exam (CPE).
- Strong academics are a must, with most law firms and barristers’ chambers requiring a 2:1 degree in a traditional subject.
- Law 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 they specialise in.
- Law firms are typically structured as partnerships, so never call them companies, although since the Legal Services Act, some companies have entered the legal arena.
- There are huge costs involved in joining the profession and this has gotten worse with the hike in university tuition fees. But financial help is available from larger law firms and the Inns of Court, or you could go down the less costly route of becoming a legal executive.
- The commercial arena’s hours can be long and unpredictable.
- For further advice, visit www.lawyer2b.com.