Making a career change into law

The legal profession is generally very welcoming of career changers and mature candidates. 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.

Legal recruiters love the wide skillsets and experiences that career changers and mature students bring to the table. The average age of people admitted onto the Law Society’s roll of solicitors in 2017-18 was 29-30 – when you factor in the thousands of career starters who join the roll in their early 20s, this means there is 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 put on workshops and other events specifically for career changers.

However, securing a training position at a solicitors’ firm or barristers’ chambers is not easy – expensive course fees and the demands of studying and pursuing legal work experience must often be balanced against family and employment commitments. On top of that, the high competition for a limited number of training contract and pupillage vacancies means that only candidates who really impress a firm’s recruiters will succeed.

This article maps out the road ahead for mature candidates, as well as the challenges that might arise.

Academic stage

To requalify as a solicitor or barrister, it is first necessary to either have a law degree or – if you already have a degree in any other subject – its postgraduate equivalent, the conversion course known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). A law degree will usually take three years to complete if studied full-time (though it can be accelerated), and longer if studied part-time. Meanwhile, the GDL takes either one year (full time) or two years (part time) to complete.

Once you have a law degree or GDL qualification, you must then complete the vocational stage of training to either become a solicitor or barrister. The qualification for aspiring solicitors is the Legal Practice Course (LPC), while those wanting to become barristers must study the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). Both the LPC and the BPTC can either be completed in one year if studying full-time, or two years if part-time.

Academic grades are important. To be in with a realistic chance of securing a training contract or pupillage, in most cases you will need a 2.1 or higher in your undergraduate degree.

Employers receive far more applications than they have available traineeships and therefore use both A-level and degree marks to filter candidates’ applications, so it is 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 is generally regarded as a minimum requirement.

There are examples of practising lawyers who graduated with a 2.2, but other impressive achievements or genuine extenuating circumstances generally explain these exceptional cases. Remember that 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 kinds of firm to target your applications at if your record is solid but not spectacular.

It is also a common misconception that undertaking a master’s degree can make you a more attractive candidate to employers, but most employers will not give any extra credit for having one if the candidate does not meet their main criteria of having a good undergraduate qualification and relevant legal work experience.

Work experience

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 be one of your big strengths that sets 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 to which you are interested applying. For example, a previous role in the financial sector could be particularly impressive to a firm with a strong banking or corporate practice. However, past experiences do not always have to join up neatly with a firm’s practice in order 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 yet to begin 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 of 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 the way that best demonstrates your skills and maturity when applying.

However, relevant legal work experience remains a key ingredient for application success, the importance of which cannot 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 are 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 is important to spend plenty of time researching and crafting your applications, tailoring them to the specific firm or set you are targeting.

Vacation schemes and mini-pupillages are not the only forms of legal work experience available and there are other opportunities – such as volunteering at a legal advice clinic or tapping any lawyer 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 is not a vacation scheme or mini-pupillage – otherwise you will 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 will not 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 among various other family and work commitments. However, many candidates approaching law as a first career will also have family and employment responsibilities, so it is 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!).

Alternative ways of qualifying as a solicitor: equivalent means

Anyone thinking of making a career change into law should also be aware of recent rule changes that have opened up a new way to qualify as a solicitor, known as ‘equivalent means’. Under the altered regime, it is possible to work as a paralegal and compile a portfolio of the essential competencies achieved and different areas of law experienced, demonstrating that the work done is the equivalent to what someone would experience on a formal training contract. Our Feature explores paralegal work and the equivalent means route in more detail.

Currently, the equivalent means route still requires candidates to complete the LPC, but this too could be changing over the next couple of years.

Change ahead – the Solicitors Qualifying Examination

The GDL and LPC are set to be phased out from 2021 and replaced by a new ‘super exam’ that all solicitors will need to pass in order to qualify – this is called the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). However, there will be a transition period where people who have already started a GDL or LPC will be able to continue and qualify through the current route described above.

LawCareers.Net has more information and advice on whether to take the old LPC route or the new SQE route.

The application process

Many firms’ and chambers’ recruitment and application processes are broadly 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 does not (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 should not 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 (including 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 formulate convincing reasons to set out why you would be a good fit for that firm or chambers. This includes keeping up with the legal and commercial press so that you can talk about what is going on in the organisation’s practice areas.

The need to spend plenty of time crafting each application cannot be emphasised enough, so leave yourself lots of time to redraft and check your applications before submitting well ahead of the deadline (as firms and chambers will also begin sorting through the many applications they receive before the closing date).

Advice

It is 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 is 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 that if you are currently working in a role, you might have to take an initial pay cut. You will also be starting again in a junior position, meaning that you have to 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 will 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 Lawyers Division, which can help you to access opportunities. With determination and proactive hard work, the legal profession is an excellent environment in which to leave an old career behind and start a new one.

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