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Your non-law guide to a career in law – everything you need to know about converting to law
updated on 31 January 2023
Career changers and mature candidates can make great lawyers. Many solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers value the transferable skills and experiences that career changers bring, with some explicitly encouraging career changers to apply. Read on to learn how you can make the change from your old career into law.
Reading time: 11 minutes
Legal recruiters love the wide skill sets and experiences that career changers and mature students can bring to the table. According to the most recent stats, the average age of people admitted onto the Law Society’s roll of solicitors in 2020-21 was 30 – when you factor in the thousands of career starters who join the roll in their early 20s, this likely means there’s a significant number of people joining the profession in their 30s, 40s and beyond.
It’s, therefore, no surprise that some firms go out of their way to attract career changers in their recruitment brochures, and organise workshops and other events specifically aimed at career changers.
However, securing a position at a solicitors’ firm or barristers’ chambers isn’t easy – expensive course fees and the demands of studying while pursuing legal work experience must often be balanced against family and employment commitments.
To find out more about becoming a career changer, read this Oracle: ‘Career changers: how can I fund my legal studies?’
On top of that, the high level of competition for a limited number of training contract and pupillage vacancies means that only candidates who really impress a firm’s recruiters will secure one. That said, with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), there’s now greater flexibility regarding how and where aspiring solicitors can train due to the qualifying work experience (QWE) requirement, which aims to widen access to the profession.
You can find out more about the SQE and the steps you need to take via LCN’s SQE hub.
This article maps out the road ahead for mature candidates and career changers, as well as the challenges that might arise.
To requalify as a solicitor or barrister, you’ll need an undergraduate degree in any subject (law or non-law). Alternatively, you can take the solicitor apprenticeship approach, which involves a six-year programme of on-the-job training.
Bear in mind that the way that solicitors qualify has changed with the introduction of the SQE. To qualify as a solicitor you must:
To find out more about QWE, read this LCN Says: ‘How to get qualifying work experience’.
Law schools will eventually stop offering the Legal Practice Course (LPC), while new law conversion courses have started to emerge alongside the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), offering a range of options to help students prepare for the SQE. The new system involves a series of exams that have been divided into two stages, SQE1 and SQE2 – this differs from the GDL and LPC as it doesn’t involve any formal education or training, so universities and law schools are offering SQE preparation courses to help students prepare instead.
You can find out more about the SQE preparation courses on offer via LCN’s guide.
However, if you started the ‘old’ route (GDL or LPC) to qualifying before September 2021, you can still qualify without having to take the SQE. You’ll have until 2032 (depending on the firm) to complete this route and qualify as a solicitor – however, you can choose to qualify via the SQE if you’d prefer.
Have some more questions? Check out these ‘SQE qualifying work experience FAQs’ to find out more about what to expect.
Candidates who started any undergraduate course after September 2021 must take the SQE.
The final stage of the process is the training contract or QWE, a two-year period of paid, on-the-job training at a law firm or other organisation employing solicitors.
Looking for more help? Check out these five tips for those switching careers to the legal profession.
Academic requirements to become a barrister
If you have a law degree, you can progress straight onto a vocational Bar course, successful completion of which makes you eligible for the final stage of training – pupillage.
However, if you studied a non-law degree, you must complete a law conversion course/GDL before you can progress to the vocational stage. You’ll also have to join one of the four Inns of Court.
To find out more about joining one of the Inns of Court, read this LCN Features: ‘Becoming a barrister: the Inns of Court’.
Employers receive far more applications than available training contracts or pupillages, and therefore use both A-level and degree marks to filter applications, so it’s important to achieve the highest grades you can.
The importance recruiters place on A levels is likely to decrease the longer ago they were awarded, but a 2:1 at degree level is generally regarded as a minimum requirement.
There are a few examples of practising lawyers who graduated with a 2.2, but other impressive achievements or genuine extenuating circumstances often explain these exceptional cases.
Remember, the bigger and more prestigious the law firm or chambers (think City and international), the more likely it is that perfect academic credentials will be taken for granted as a prerequisite for an interview, so consider which kind of firms to target your applications at if your record is solid but not spectacular.
It’s also a common misconception that undertaking a master’s degree can make you a more attractive candidate, but most employers won’t give any extra credit for having one if the candidate doesn’t meet their main criteria of having a good undergraduate qualification and the relevant skills to succeed in the profession.
Use the LawCareers.Net course search tool to learn more about both undergraduate and postgraduate law courses, as well as SQE preparation courses.
Don’t forget though, that the QWE element of the SQE means you can actually build up your two years of training in up to four organisations, including law firms, law centres and university pro bono clinics. The experience you undertake must offer you the chance to develop some or all of the competencies on the SRA’s statement of solicitor competence.
You can find out more about what work counts as QWE in this Oracle.
All work experience can be used to demonstrate relevant transferable skills when writing your CV, completing application forms and answering questions in an interview.
Career changers often have years of professional experience in other roles by the time they decide to make the switch to law, and this can set you apart from other, less experienced candidates.
Previous experiences are particularly valuable if they have some relevance to the kind of work undertaken by the firms that you’re interested in applying to. For example, a previous role in the financial sector would be particularly impressive to a firm with a strong banking or corporate practice.
However, past experiences don’t always have to join up neatly with a firm’s practice for your application to be worth considering – we know of various examples of practising lawyers who joined the profession from all kinds of diverse work backgrounds.
One solicitor who spoke at a Law Society seminar for career changers attended by LawCareers.Net joined the Government Legal Profession in his early 40s, having begun his law degree at the age of 38 with a background that included roles in accounting, media and communications, and even commercial radio.
Two other solicitors at the event had joined commercial firms with backgrounds in IT, while a future trainee who, at the time hadn’t begun his training contract, had made a successful application with no business experience, having spent the previous four years as an officer in the Navy.
In all these cases, the essential soft skills and life experience that these career changers had gained in their previous roles had given them an edge, which shows the importance of presenting previous work experience in a way that best demonstrates your skills and maturity when applying.
That said, relevant legal work experience remains a key ingredient for application success, the importance of which can’t be underplayed. Many firms and chambers run work experience placements of one to four weeks’ duration during university holiday periods.
These are known as vacation schemes or work placement schemes among law firms, and mini-pupillages among barristers’ chambers, and often form a major part of the recruitment process for both.
Vacation schemes and mini-pupillages often finish with an interview for a training contract or pupillage, or an invitation to an assessment centre, so they’re perhaps the best way of securing an interview and – hopefully – a training position at a firm or chambers.
However, competition for places on these schemes is high, so it’s important to spend plenty of time researching and crafting your applications, tailoring them to the specific firm or set you’re targeting.
Vacation schemes and mini-pupillages are not the only forms of legal work experience available. There are many other opportunities – such as volunteering at a legal advice clinic or tapping any legal contacts you know – that you can explore.
The main thing to remember is the importance of having some kind of legal work experience, even if it’s not a vacation scheme or mini-pupillage – otherwise you’ll find it difficult to adequately explain and reference why you want to become a lawyer or work at X firm when writing your applications.
The need to gain some legal work experience can present difficulties to career changers that won’t necessarily be encountered by first-time students and applicants.
As already mentioned, vacation schemes and mini-pupillages are often scheduled outside term time to accommodate students, but a career changer may face the challenge of making time for this work experience alongside various other family and work commitments.
Want to learn more? Read this Oracle on balancing becoming a lawyer with a family.
However, many candidates coming into law as a first career will also have family and employment responsibilities, so it’s fair to say that the road to qualifying as a lawyer is a hard slog that universally requires the careful management of candidates’ time.
Applications for vacation schemes and mini-pupillages close months in advance of the scheme taking place, so it may be possible to book holiday for any work experience you secure (although this won’t be the most relaxing use of your time off work!).
Use the LawCareers.Net deadlines page for vacation scheme and mini-pupillages to stay organised.
Alternative ways of qualifying as a solicitor: equivalent means
Anyone thinking of making a career change into law should also be aware of the ‘equivalent means’ route to qualifying. It’s possible to work as a paralegal and compile a portfolio of the essential competencies achieved, demonstrating that the work done meets the ‘qualifying work experience’ requirements.
The route is becoming more codified and formalised with the introduction of the SQE. There are transitional arrangements in place that determine whether you can qualify via this route or whether you need to do the SQE.
The application process
Many firms’ and chambers’ recruitment and application processes are geared toward university students and graduates embarking on their first careers. This can be seen at every stage, from the attendance of many of these organisations at university law fairs to the scheduling of work experience placements outside of term time.
However, this doesn’t (nor is it meant to) exclude career changers and mature applicants – the reason organisations’ application processes are geared this way is the simple expedience of targeting the largest pool of candidates, while many firms have clear diversity policies to prevent all forms of discrimination in their recruitment.
Don’t be discouraged from applying – firms will welcome your application as long as you can demonstrate the twin criteria of good academics and relevant legal work experience discussed above.
The challenge is to show off your strengths as much as possible. For example, when writing your CV or an application form, it may be difficult to include potentially decades of professional experience in the limited space provided (remembering that a CV shouldn’t usually stretch beyond a double-sided page of A4).
With online application forms, also bear in mind that there may be other opportunities to talk about your previous experiences in later questions.
It bears repeating that your previous experience should really be used in your favour when making applications – even if it doesn’t seem to directly relate to law. Skills that are highly prized by legal recruiters include written and verbal communication (eg, establishing rapport with different kinds of people of all levels of seniority), teamwork, time management and commercial acumen.
Target your applications carefully, making sure to research the firm or chambers’ work areas and culture so that you can confidently set out why you’d be a good fit for that exact firm or chambers.
This includes keeping up with the legal and commercial press so that you can talk about what’s going on in the organisation’s practice areas.
The need to spend plenty of time crafting each application can’t be emphasised enough, so leave yourself lots of time to redraft and check your applications. We’d also advise that you submit them well ahead of the deadline, as firms and chambers will also begin sorting through the many applications they receive before the closing date.
It’s important to think carefully about the kind of legal career you want. There are many different working lifestyles in the legal profession, and they suit different personalities and circumstances.
A career at a top commercial firm will prove exciting and very well paid for those interested in business, but it’s also likely to involve long hours and pressured deadlines, so if your personal work preferences or circumstances don’t tally with this, it may be worth thinking about other possibilities.
Another factor to consider is, if you’re currently working in a role you’ve been in for a while, you might have to take an initial pay cut. You’ll also be starting again in a junior position, meaning that you must be prepared to be managed by someone who might be younger and less experienced in the world of work than you.
Once you decide that this is a change you want to go for, you’ll be best served by being proactive in attending relevant employer-hosted events, networking and making applications.
You should also get involved with your local Junior Solicitors Network, which can help you to access opportunities. With determination and hard work, the legal profession is an excellent environment in which to leave an old career behind and start a new one.
Katherine Bryant (she/her) is a content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.