Life in Northern Ireland has improved dramatically in recent years. The peace has brought dividends in commercial transactions and an increase in investment in the province, with the result of a greater range and volume of commercial work available for lawyers. English law firms are now expressing an interest in work in Belfast, while Dublin firms have opened offices in Belfast or formed links with existing firms. By the same token, law students from Northern Ireland are more aware of the opportunities to qualify in England or Dublin. So can Northern Irish firms compete with the competition?

To qualify as a solicitor in Northern Ireland you must attend the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, established at the Queen’s University of Belfast (affectionately known as “the Institute”). Trainee solicitors complete a two-year apprenticeship, which combines time spent in the office and in the classroom.

Places at the institute are limited. Each year, around 350-450 people sit an entrance exam for 120 places (95 solicitors, 25 bar). Unlike in Dublin, the exam is practical rather than academic. Around 40 based bursaries are available from the Department of Higher & Further Education, Training & Employment to cover the tuition and registration fees. Students not fortunate enough to receive a bursary must fund the course fees (around 5,000) themselves. Law firms rarely discharge these fees for their trainees.

The entrance exam for the Institute takes place each December. Places are awarded on merit, taking into account the results of the exam and each student’s degree classification. The results of the entrance exam are published in March but are conditional on the degree result and the student obtaining a training contract with a law firm. Unlike the Legal Practice Course (LPC), a place on the course cannot be accepted unless the student possesses a training contract. Places at the institute cannot be deferred. As a result, students do not know until June if they are able to accept a place beginning in September.

The approach that training contracts in Northern Ireland take is still very traditional: students obtain a “master” to supervise their “apprenticeships”. In reality, there will be a nominated master within the firm, but the apprenticeship will involve training in the various departments. The apprenticeship begins with a three-month stint in the office from September to December. This is a difficult period, as a law degree does not equip the average apprentice to do much around the office. As a result, the standard of work is limited. From January to June there are classes at the Institute from Tuesday to Friday, with a visit to the office every Monday. The course aims to be as practical as possible. For most students, the aim is to pass rather than reach great academic heights. Easter and summer holidays are spent in the office, with a final period of classes from September to December. The last nine months are spent in the office in the run-up to qualification.

There are real benefits to qualifying in Northern Ireland. For one thing, you are fully qualified in two years and can then transfer in England or the Republic of Ireland without any retraining. The profession is smaller in Ireland, and as one in a class of 95 you are likely to form close ties with your classmates, who you will deal with regularly.

There are, however, downfalls too. There are no maintenance bursaries available while at the Institute, some firms choosing to pay their apprentices all year round, while others pay only while they are in the office. The level of pay varies from firm to firm; one thing is for sure – there are few trainees who are exercising a plan to get rich quick. Average salaries for apprentices are in the region of IR4,000-7,000 per annum. An apprentice in Dublin can expect to earn in the region of IR14,000-19,000. The disparity in pay applies across the board, even at partner level. Some firms have retained the old-fashioned attitude that the apprentice should be grateful for their place, and quips can still be heard about the days when the apprentice paid the firm for their training. Most firms are unlikely to have a structured training or education programme, and there is no guarantee of a job on qualification, so it remains to be seen whether this programme can compete with those of Dublin or London.

Clare Cairns is an associate in the litigation department at Carson McDowell