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Beginner's Guide

Key law career questions

updated on 23 August 2021

Why should I choose law over other professions?

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

What is commercial awareness?

How important are grades at A level and uni?

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

Why are work placements so important?

How do I go about getting legal work experience?

Do law firms prefer candidates to have a law degree?

How much longer will it take to qualify if I choose a non-law undergraduate degree?

What do I need to know about the postgraduate law courses?

I keep hearing about SQE: what is it and how will it affect the postgraduate stage?

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

Have all lawyers been to private school and Oxbridge?

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

How can my careers service help me?

How can I find out more?

 

Why should I choose law over other professions?

Don’t pursue a legal career for the sake of it or because you’ve heard that it pays well; you must have a passion 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, both legal and non-legal.

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

Several core skills are needed to be a good lawyer – many of them you can hone through your academic studies and work experience. The strengths that legal recruiters look for include:

  • 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 choice for you!

What is commercial awareness?

Law firms want their lawyers to be ‘commercially aware,’ but what does this mean? In essence, lawyers deal with more than just the law. They must understand their clients’ business/personal circumstances and the market/environment in which they operate. Commercially aware lawyers are proactive in spotting and suggesting solutions to potential problems for the client. As a student, you are not expected to be an expert – commercial awareness at this level is not the same as for an experienced lawyer. 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.

How important are grades at A level and uni?

Law is an intellectually rigorous career, which is why some 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 important 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?

Some lawyers begin their careers immediately after leaving school by taking the apprenticeship route, which enables an aspiring lawyer to learn ‘on the job’ in a paid role, with some time each week allocated for study. Solicitor apprenticeships also allow those with A levels to qualify as a solicitor without going to university, while there are various other kinds of apprenticeship for candidates at different stages, including paralegal and chartered legal executive apprenticeships. See The Law Apprenticeships Guide 2022 for more detail.

Why are work placement schemes so important?

Getting work experience at law firms is often an essential aspect of securing a training contract. Work placement/vacation schemes (usually run during university holidays) provide an opportunity for you to find out about not only the law, but also individual firms. Firms increasingly rely on work placement schemes to figure out 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.

How do I go about getting legal work experience?

As above, work placement schemes are a great way to learn more about the profession and many firms run schemes specifically for first years. You can see 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. All these experiences provide a valuable introduction to the types of work and client relationships that lawyers are involved with every day.

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, 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 university and complete a law conversion. This postgraduate course squeezes the essential elements of a qualifying law degree into one year. You then join the law graduates and do either the Legal Practice Course (LPC), Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) 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).

How much longer will it take to qualify if I choose a non-law undergraduate degree?

It only takes one year longer to qualify if you choose a degree other than law (if studying full time). After graduating, you will need to complete a law conversion which covers the key parts of a law degree, before progressing onto the LPC, SQE or Bar course.

What do I need to know about 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 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. The SQE introduced in September 2021, is the new route to qualifying as a solicitor – find out more about the SQE below and via LCN's SQE Hub. Alternatively, CILEX offers a Graduate Fast Track Diploma.

I keep hearing about SQE: what is it and how will it affect the postgraduate stage?

The SRA is introducing the SQE in 2021 to replace the LPC as the assessment that all solicitors must pass in order to qualify. The SQE is designed 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 providing new courses to prepare students for the SQE. Anyone who commences a law degree, GDL or LPC before September 2021 can qualify through the old system. Check LawCareers.Net’s dedicated SQE Hub for the latest information.

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

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 up to £12,250, £17,500 or £18,500 (plus living costs) for, respectively, each of the GDL, LPC and Bar course in 2021-22. 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. The cost of taking the SQE is broken down into two parts, with SQE1 costing £1,558 and SQE2 costing £2,422. SQE preparation course fees vary depending on the provider and course content but could cost up to £16,500. For more detailed funding advice, look at the finances section.

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 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.

How can my careers service help me?

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.

How can I find out more?

Pick up a copy of this year’s The LawCareers.Net Handbook or our companion publication, The Law Apprenticeships Guide 2022, from your careers service or read it online via LawCareers.Net. Attend law fairs – either virtually or in person, when restrictions allow. Law fairs are a great place to speak to recruiters and current trainees/pupils. In addition, check out LawCareers.Net for news, advice, features and interviews.

Further reading

See the Oracle on LawCareers.Net for answers to a huge range of questions from students about careers in law.