Passport to Qualification
Law is one of the most popular career paths for graduates. Real World takes a look at the profession and finds out what you need to do to become a qualified lawyer
Why do you want to become a lawyer? It’s a simple question, but perhaps not that easy to answer. Maybe you’ve been inspired by the books of John Grisham, or it could be the work of human rights lawyers such as Cherie Booth who’ve prompted your interest. Or perhaps it’s just the thought of swishing around in a barrister’s gown. Whatever it is, you are not alone.
According to Ucas, in 2007 law was the most popular degree to study at university, with a whopping 84,860 applications. Then there are all the students who undertake the law conversion course known as the graduate diploma in law (GDL) or common professional examination (for more information on converting, see our feature on page 44).
In England and Wales the legal profession is, generally speaking, split into two, with solicitors and barristers carrying out different functions. Although nowadays the line between the two professions is becoming blurred, it is still useful to think of the legal profession in this way.
Historically, solicitors have been responsible for handling any legal matter except conducting proceedings in court – although solicitors do largely handle cases tried in magistrates’ courts. Barristers carry out the bulk of advocacy in the rest of the courts. There are also a growing number of "solicitor advocates" who can act in any level of court.
The most common route to become a solicitor starts with taking an undergraduate law degree, or a degree in any subject followed by the GDL. But you can also qualify as a solicitor via the Institute of Legal Executive (ILEX) route. For more information on ILEX, turn to our case study in the alternative careers section.
Future solicitors then take a one-year course, known as the legal practice course (LPC), while student barristers follow the bar vocational course (BVC) – see below. The LPC is the vocational part of becoming a solicitor. The course comprises skills, compulsory subjects, optional subjects (also known as electives) and pervasive topics.
Depending on the course provider, the LPC can be studied full-time or part-time – on weekday evenings and at weekends. The cost of the LPC can vary significantly, and fees can range from £5,000 to £9,000. Those students who already have a training contract lined up when they start the LPC may have their fees paid by the training contract provider.
The training contract for solicitors comprises two years where trainee solicitors put into practice the knowledge and skills they have garnered to date. During the training contract you are required by the Law Society to cover at least three areas of work. You will be supervised by a qualified solicitor during this time.
At most large law firms, your training contract will be split into "seats" – you might spend six months in four departments, or four months in six departments. To find out more about different seats, take a look at our case studies.
During the training contract you are also required to complete the professional skills course. This aims to make sure trainee solicitors have reached an appropriate level of knowledge and skills during the LPC and training contract.
Establishing what type of firm you want to work for can be a difficult decision to make. Solicitors firms vary from single-partner "high street" firms, to multinational law firms with hundreds of partners. To learn more about the types of firms there are, turn to our solicitor-focused section.
Unlike solicitors, the vast majority of barristers are self-employed, working in
"sets of chambers". They share the cost of premises and support staff with other members of chambers.
However, there are exceptions to self-employment. Around 3,000 barristers are employed in companies or solicitors’ firms as "in-house" counsel. The Government Legal Service and the Crown Prosecution Service also offer opportunities.
Future barristers need to undertake the BVC. To do so, they need to have at least a 2.2 degree in either law, or in another subject coupled with the GDL.
The BVC course attempts to bridge the gap between academia and the practical work of a barrister. It includes core modules such as advocacy, drafting, opinion and professional ethics.
The cost of the course ranges from around £8,000 to £11,500, depending on the
Once students have completed the BVC they are then "called to the Bar" and are give the title "barrister-at-law", although this will change from 2008.
To practise independently, they need to undertake 12 months of pupillage. During their first "six", pupils shadow senior practitioners. It is only in their second "six" that they can start doing court work of their own.
Getting pupillage is incredibly difficult – the number of BVC students far exceeds the 600 or so vacancies. According to a Bar Council survey in 2006, more than half of BVC students applying for pupillages did not even get interviews. What’s more, of those students who did get an interview, half had not been offered pupillage.