updated on 25 August 2020
Don’t pursue a legal career for the sake of it or because you’ve heard that it pays well; you must have a strong desire to be a lawyer in order to succeed. Do you find law interesting? Is there a particular area of law 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 work experience within and outside of the legal profession.
A number of core skills are needed to be a good lawyer - many of them you can hone through your academic studies and work experience. The core strengths sought by legal recruiters are:
If you have the majority of these, law could be a good option for you!
Law firms often stress that their lawyers must be ‘commercially aware’, which is a phrase that can cause confusion. In essence, it means that commercial lawyers deal with more than just the law. They must understand the client’s business and the market/environment in which it operates, and be proactive in spotting and suggesting ways to avoid potential problems that the client might face. Commercial awareness will not mean the same thing to a student as it will to an experienced businessperson, and nobody expects you to be an economic expert. What firms are looking for is a combination of basic knowledge, common sense, interest and enthusiasm for commercial matters, and, most importantly, the ability and willingness to ‘think business’. For more information, take a look at the commercial awareness hub.
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 vital that you get the best grades you possibly can.
Over the past couple of years, the chance to join the legal profession by way of a legal apprenticeship has become a real option to launch a career in law. Apprentices join firms as school leavers and work in roles similar to that of a paralegal, while receiving on-the-job training that takes them towards a formal qualification. Solicitor apprenticeships also allow those with A levels to qualify as a solicitor without going to university. See The Law Apprenticeships Guide for more detail.
Getting work experience at law firms is essential. Work placement/vacation schemes (usually run during university holidays) are a good place to start; they provide an opportunity for you to find out about not only the law, but also individual firms. Firms increasingly rely on extended work placement schemes to select which candidates they want to take on as trainees, so getting on a scheme is a great chance to impress and earn the offer of a training contract.
Work placement schemes are a great way to learn more about the profession and many firms run schemes specifically for first years. You can get a comprehensive list of firm schemes on LawCareers.Net’s work placement deadlines page. But you are not restricted to these structured programmes – you could get a day or two shadowing a trainee or lawyer simply by writing speculatively to firms/chambers you’re interested in or which are local to you. You should also get involved with university pro bono schemes or legal advice centres. Even if you’re stuffing envelopes or answering phones, it’s all a valuable introduction to the types of work and client interactions that lawyers are involved with every day.
Most firms are looking to recruit a balance of law and non-law graduates – in fact, roughly half of all solicitors are from non-law backgrounds. Studying another subject at university may also help to make you a more well-rounded individual. This 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 complete a law conversion (often called the Graduate Diploma in Law – GDL – but course names may differ between universities). This postgraduate course squeezes the seven foundations of legal knowledge into one year. You then join the law graduates and do either the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar course, 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).
Definitely – it’s something a lot of students do, especially if they don’t have a training contract or pupillage by this time. A year out gives you the opportunity to spend time making and improving your applications. Along with gaining work 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.
It only takes one year longer to qualify if you choose a degree other than law. After graduating, you will need to complete a law conversion (such as the GDL) which covers the key parts of a law degree, before progressing onto the Legal Practice Course or Bar course.
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 Bar course 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 sponsor, Nottingham Law School. Alternatively, CILEx offers a Graduate Fast Track Diploma.
The SRA plans to introduce the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) in 2021, which will replace the LPC as the exam that all solicitors must pass in order to qualify. The idea is to ensure that all qualified solicitors are of the same high standard, regardless of which route (ie, university, equivalent means or apprenticeship) they take to get there. Unlike the GDL and LPC, the SQE is not a course but a series of exams, which are divided into two stages. Universities and law schools are currently developing new courses to prepare students for the SQE. There is still uncertainty around its implementation, including potential new SQE preparation courses, affordability and quality of training. Anyone who commences a law degree, GDL or LPC before September 2021 can qualify through the old system. Check the SQE page on LawCareers.Net for the latest information as we find out more.
The total cost of qualifying as a solicitor or barrister should not be underestimated. Over and above the £9,250 per year that you are likely to have to pay for your undergraduate degree, you will have to pay as much as £12,050, £17,285 or £16,000 (plus living costs) for, respectively, each of the GDL, LPC and Bar course in 2020-21. And unlike undergraduate and master’s degrees, postgraduate loans are unavailable for the GDL, LPC and Bar course (unless they include a master’s on top of the core qualification). For this reason, it’s best to have a training contract or pupillage before embarking on any of the courses – many 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. For more detailed funding advice, look at the finances section.
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.
No. Take solicitors’ firms – the work and lifestyle that you would experience in a large City firm and a small high-street practice are completely different. And it’s the same 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 speaking to those in the know can you really start to get a feel for the kind of work that you think would appeal and that you would be good at.
Your school or university careers service is a key resource. Some advisers specialise in the legal sector and can help you to check 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.
Pick up a copy of this year’s The LawCareers.Net Handbook or our companion publication, The Law Apprenticeships Guide, from your careers service or order a copy online. In addition, check out LawCareers.Net for news, advice, features and interviews.
See the Oracle on LawCareers.Net for answers to a huge range of questions from students about careers in law.