Mapping out a career in the law can be both confusing and expensive. Alison Laferla investigates the routes available and how much they are likely to set you back.
Most people tend to think of lawyers as one of two things – rich, successful Ally McBeal types or pompous old duffers in wigs and gowns.
The reality is quite different. Jobs in the legal profession vary tremendously and so do the opportunities for training.
The key to finding a traineeship, say graduate recruitment officers, lies in targeting your efforts to meet your needs, and in recognising that different people are suited to different jobs.
Anyone wishing to qualify as a solicitor has to meet certain training requirements. They must hold a law degree, an approved Diploma in Law, or have completed the Common Professional Examination (CPE), and they must complete the one-year Legal Practice Course (LPC). But, when it comes to securing a training contract, there are several options available.
Solicitor in private practice
In terms of status, securing a training contract in a leading City firm is usually considered to be the most desirable option, and competition for places is intense. Allen & Overy receives about 4,500 applications for 110 places a year. Most trainees will be offered a job at the end of their traineeship.
A spokeswoman for Clifford Chance says there are many advantages to training in a City firm. These include financial assistance with law school fees, good training, greater opportunity for international placements, advanced office technology and a wide range of social activities.
But although City traineeships undoubtedly offer good job prospects and give exposure to life at the high-flying end of the law, they do not suit everybody.
Training in a very large organisation can be rather anonymous and might offer less hands-on experience than in a smaller practice.
One trainee at a large City firm says: “My traineeship has been nothing like I expected it to be. In my first seat, the department was handling these huge deals and I was hardly involved at all. I ended up wondering why I bothered bringing my brain to work.
“My next seat was the opposite. On my first day I was told: 'These are your files, get on with it.' I was terrified.”
The most difficult part of a traineeship, he says, is coping with the feeling that you do not understand what is going on around you because you are such a small cog in a large machine.
Clifford Chance admits that some people are put off by the size of the firm, but stresses that trainees work as part of a smaller team.
Claire McCracken is a second-year trainee at Leeds firm Walker Morris. Having spent a year working as a paralegal in a large City firm, McCracken deliberately chose not to take a traineeship in the City.
“I chose to go to Walker Morris because I didn't want to go to London and be one of 100 trainees, a very small fish in a big ocean.
“At the same time, I didn't want to compromise on the quality of work, I still wanted to work in a commercial practice that does City-type work.”
Walker Morris takes on about 10 trainees a year, as opposed to the 215 trainees taken on by Clifford Chance annually. McCracken says she gets a lot of hands-on experience and there is always somebody there she can get advice from.
On a completely different scale, training in a small niche practice can offer very good experience in a particular area of law.
The difficulty is that niche firms cannot offer a broad enough range of subjects to cover an entire traineeship, and so trainees will have to find another firm that will take them on for the other seats.
David Hodson, partner at niche practice The Family Law Consortium, says Law Society regulations make this sort of traineeship very difficult to organise.
His firm gets inundated with unsolicited applications for traineeships and usually takes on one trainee a year.
He says: “Trainees in niche firms are likely to get very hands-on exposure to that area of work, and see how a cutting-edge practice works.
“We are totally committed to helping the next generation of lawyers, but the Law Society does not make it easy. It is very frustrating.”
Generally speaking, the advice from legal recruitment officers is: think hard about what sort of working environment would suit you and try to get work experience with a variety of firms.
Going to the bar
It hardly seems possible, but students hoping to become barristers must compete in an even more competitive and expensive world than those going into law firms.
In order to be called to the bar, students have to hold a law degree, an approved postgraduate diploma in law or have completed the CPE. They then have to complete the year-long Bar Vocational Course (BVC), a two-year part-time scheme, followed by a year's pupillage.
At every stage of this process there are far more applicants than there are places. In 1999/2000 there were 2,018 applications for 671 advertised pupillages. In 1995, 1,158 people started the BVC and only 199 obtained tenancy.
One very important consideration to take into account is the substantial cost of training to be a barrister.
The BVC cost around £6,500 for 1999/2000 and most pupillages are not funded, so the majority of potential barristers will have to fund themselves for the two years. The Bar Council estimates that living costs in London can be as high as £7,500 a year. Then there is a host of additional expenses – buying a wig and gown for pupillage, for example, costs £550.
The situation may have been improved slightly following a test case which decided that pupil barristers do come under the terms of minimum wage legislation.
Yet the unfortunate truth is that many people who try to go to the bar end up in huge debt and without a tenancy. Lawyers generally predict that the bar will get smaller in coming years, so only outstanding barristers will find work.
If you want to become a barrister, obtaining work experience in a chambers is an invaluable help. Many chambers offer mini-pupillages lasting one or two weeks and, for some, undertaking a mini-pupillage is a prerequisite to joining the chambers.
The Bar Council's Chambers, Pupillages and Awards Handbook, available from the General Council of the Bar, BVC providers, and the Inns of Court, is an indispensable guide for anyone hoping to go to the bar.
Further information is available from the education and training department at the Bar Council.
Working as a lawyer does not restrict you to working in private practice.
Many solicitors work in the public sector, the civil service, for a local authority, or in-house at a company. In fact, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is the largest employer of lawyers in England and Wales.
Louise Read trained with, and now works for, Surrey County Council's legal department.
Having concentrated on public law at Hull University, and worked at the Department of the Environment for a year, Read felt getting a job in the public sector was a natural progression.
During her traineeship she rotated through four seats, working on everything from contracts to child care, and was given a lot of responsibility. In every seat she was given her own case load and by the end of her traineeship she had experience of conducting her own hearings in the magistrates' court.
Read says training with a local authority does not pigeonhole you – other trainees from Surrey County Council have gone on to work for large City firms, where their public sector experience is in demand.
Some companies also offer training contracts in-house, although most prefer to recruit lawyers with at least two-and-a-half years' post-qualification experience.
Glenn Del Medico, head of the programme legal advice department at the BBC, says: “We have taken on occasional trainees in the past, but only one or two and we have no plans to take one on at the moment. We take on one about every 18 months, and we are constantly getting applications.”
Other companies which are authorised by the Law Society to take on trainees include Barclays Bank, London Electricity, Marks & Spencer and British Telecom.
Many firms can organise for a trainee to join a company, usually a client, for a seat as part of their training contract. This is often regarded as a good way of building client relationships and offering trainees a different perspective.
About a quarter of barristers are also employed in-house, working in a range of organisations including the Government Legal Service (GLS), the CPS, industry and the armed forces.
The Bar Council plans to change its regulations to allow pupils to go directly into industry without having to spend six months in chambers first.
The CPS and GLS
The CPS is responsible for the prosecution of criminal cases in England and Wales. Unfortunately, the CPS no longer runs its trainee lawyer scheme, although the situation is under review. Qualified lawyers joining the service undergo two years of internal training that focuses on advocacy and criminal law.
The GLS employs about 1,110 qualified lawyers in around 30 government organisations, such as the Treasury Solicitor's Department and the Charity Commission. It takes on a small number of trainees each year under its legal trainee scheme, and sometimes offers sponsorship for the vocational year and, more rarely, for the CPE.
Pupil barristers spend the first six months of pupillage in chambers and the second six months in a government department. Solicitor training contracts are tailored to individual needs. Applicants need to plan ahead, as recruitment takes place two years before the traineeship starts.
Wannabe lawyers who have not got the academic qualifications to study for a law degree, or who want to go straight into work, could consider qualifying as a legal executive.
Legal executives are qualified fee-earning lawyers who combine study with work in a law firm. They can go on to qualify as solicitors. The Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex) training allows direct entrance to the LPC, without the need for completing the CPE.
The average cost of a four-year part-time training course is around £2,500.
The downside is that salaries tend to be more restricted than for solicitors in private practice. The most experienced legal executives can expect to earn about £30,000.
Stephen Farnham completed a BTEC qualification at college before deciding he would like to work in the law. He couldn't face the idea of several more years of full-time education to obtain a law degree and so chose to work and study through Ilex. Farnham now specialises in personal injury work and, nine years after leaving college, is going on to qualify as a solicitor.
Farnham says one benefit of the Ilex route is that it offers great flexibility because you can choose how long you take to get through the courses.
“I would recommend the Ilex route,” he says. “It is not for everybody: it takes longer than if you qualify straight away. But for me it was cheaper than going away and doing a law degree.”
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