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Key law career questions

Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about a career in the law. If you want to ask something not covered here, email your query to oracle@lawcareers.net.

Why should I choose law over other professions?

Don’t pursue a legal career for the sake of it; you need to have a strong desire to be a lawyer if you are to succeed. Do you find law interesting? Is there a particular practice area that has already caught your attention? Are you the kind of person who would thrive in a legal environment? The only way to really find out whether law is for you is by doing some quality work experience within and outside of the legal profession.

What skills and strengths do you need to be a good lawyer?

A number of core skills are needed to be a good lawyer - many of them you can hone during your academic studies and by doing work experience. The core strengths sought by legal recruiters are intellectual ability, motivation, resilience, accuracy/attention to detail, teamwork, leadership, commercial awareness and communication skills. If you have the majority of these, law could be a good option for you!

What is commercial awareness?

Law firms often stress that their lawyers need to be ‘commercially aware’. This phrase can cause confusion, as it means different things to different people. However, in essence, it means that commercial lawyers deal with more than just the law. They must understand the client’s business and the environment in which it operates. Commercial awareness does not the mean the same thing to a student as it will to an experienced businessperson. Nobody expects you to be a veteran of the boardroom or the shop floor; what firms are looking for is a combination of basic knowledge, interest and enthusiasm for commercial matters, and, most importantly, the ability and willingness to ‘think business’.

How important are grades at A level and uni?

Law is an intellectually rigorous career, which is why firms and chambers require excellent academics; in fact, many simply won’t look at applicants who have less than a 2.1 degree, and As and Bs at A level. It is therefore absolutely vital that you get the best grades you possibly can.

Should I go to university or try one of the new routes, such as an apprenticeship?

Over the past year or so, the chance to work in the legal profession by way of a legal apprenticeship has become a real option. A small number of firms have started schemes whereby they take on school leavers to work in a role similar to that of a paralegal, as well as receiving on-the-job training that takes them towards a formal qualification. In addition, a new government-funded Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Services launched in 2012. This is something to consider instead of going to university to study law – your reasons for doing so may be financial or the more vocational training might suit you better. Either way, it is certainly a viable option worth investigating.

Why are work placement schemes so important? 

Getting legal work experience at law firms (to understand what lawyers do) is essential. Work placement schemes (run by many law firms during university holidays) are a good place to start; they provide an opportunity for you to find out about not only law, but also individual firms. Firms increasingly rely on extended work placements to figure out which candidates they really want to take on as trainees.

Do law firms prefer candidates to have a law degree?

Most firms are looking to recruit a balance of law and non-law graduates - in fact, these days roughly half of all solicitors are from non-law backgrounds. That means that if you have a burning desire to study English literature, but think you might want a career as a lawyer, it’s fine to do English at uni and convert to law by doing the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). This postgraduate course squeezes the seven foundations of legal knowledge into one year. You then join the traditional law graduates and do either the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), followed by a training contract in a law firm or a pupillage in a set of chambers. But note: most firms do favour traditional academic subjects (eg, history or sciences) over more modern options (eg, media studies or drama).

Can I take a year out after uni?

Definitely - it’s something a lot of students do, especially if they don’t have a training contract or pupillage by the time they leave uni. A year out gives you the opportunity to spend time making and enhancing your applications. Along with gaining experience (both legal and commercial), travel and/or charity work are great gap-year favourites - and provided that you end up with more to talk about than the beach, they can really enhance your applications.

What’s the lowdown on the postgraduate law courses?

In brief, this is the compulsory vocational stage that must be completed before you do either the training contract (solicitor) or pupillage (barrister). The LPC and the BPTC are usually one-year courses, but each can be done two years part time, or by distance learning. Many providers around the country offer the courses, including our lovely sponsor, Nottingham Law School. Alternatively CILEx offers a Graduate Fast Track Diploma.

Are postgraduate law courses expensive? Do I have to pay for them myself?

The total cost of qualifying as a solicitor or barrister is not to be underestimated. Over and above the potential £9,000 per year that you may have to pay for your undergraduate degree, you will fork out between £5,000 and £16,000 (plus living costs) for each of the GDL, LPC and BPTC. Not exactly small change! For this reason, it’s best to have a training contract or pupillage before embarking on any of the courses – some large firms/chambers offer sponsorship (usually covering course fees and maintenance grant) to their future trainees/pupils. At the very least, you’ll have a job at the end of all the study. Bank loans are usually the preferred option for those who self-fund; note, however, that some banks have withdrawn the preferential loan products that they used to offer to postgraduate law students. For more detailed funding advice, look at the “Finances” section on LawCareers.Net.

Have all lawyers been to private school and Oxbridge?

No. Most firms and chambers fully understand the benefits of a representative workforce, which means recruiting the best candidates regardless of background. These days, most go further by establishing their own diversity policies to ensure that they provide a welcoming and supportive environment for people whatever their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, socioeconomic background and so on. That said, different firms and chambers do have different personalities and it’s important to find one that suits you - a compelling reason to attend law fairs, open days and get work experience.

Is the role of lawyers essentially the same in all law firms and chambers? 

No. Take solicitors’ firms - the work and lifestyle that you would experience in a large City firm and a small high-street practice are almost incomparable. And it’s the same thing with a London-based commercial barristers’ chambers and a small regional crime chambers. It's therefore vitally important that you find out which type and size of practice would suit you, by doing work experience and speaking to people in the profession. Only by getting first-hand experience and chatting to those in the know can you really start to get a feel for the kind of work that you think would appeal and what you would be good at.

What use is my careers service?

Your school or university careers service is a key resource. Some advisers specialise in the legal sector and are great for checking through work placement and training contract/pupillage applications (or speculative CVs and letters, if you’re trying to secure informal work experience). Some also have contacts at local law firms and chambers, so might even be able to help you set up some work shadowing.

How can I find out more?

There’s lots of info out there about careers in law. Pick up a copy of The Training Contract & Pupillage Handbook (updated every year) from your careers service or a law fair (held at universities in autumn). Law fairs are also a great place to speak to recruiters and current trainees/pupils. In addition, check out websites such as LawCareers.Net for news, advice, features and interviews.