Law Career Pathways & Advice
If you’ve got an analytical mind and enjoy winning an argument – but also get a kick out of helping people and seeing justice served – a career in law might be exactly the right choice for you.
But what does a lawyer actually do? What is a solicitor? And how is it different from a barrister?
Firstly, the basics: the word 'lawyer' is an umbrella term used to describe both solicitors and barristers.
The clearest difference between solicitors and barristers is that solicitors perform the majority of their work outside the court, whilst barristers represent their clients within it.
At lower stages of the court process solicitors will represent their clients in court, whilst barristers work at the higher levels of the legal system.
At the highest levels of court, solicitors and barristers will work together – the solicitor passing on the information that they have gathered, and the barrister preparing the arguments of the case for court, where they will represent it before the judge.
Judges are senior lawyers with a number of years of experience, who have proved themselves and are classed as being qualified enough to make decisions on the case, including sentencing.
The skills needed for a career in law are extensive. You’ll need an analytical mind, the ability to think fast, to be organised, calm and patient, and have the ability to process a very large amount of complex information very quickly. You’ll need tact, diplomacy and control, as well as impeccable interpersonal skills.
Other essential skills include:
- Legal Advice
- Legal Research
- Legal Writing
- Verbal Communication
- Written Communication
As you gain more experience of working as a lawyer, you might decide to specialise in one particular area of the law. This is one way that you can elevate your career, giving you a better chance of becoming a judge.
You can of course also progress in your career by moving to larger, more prestigious law firms with more high profile clients and higher salaries. Here are 10 tips for junior lawyers, courtesy of Law Gazette.
There are various things that you can do to develop your career once you are qualified as a lawyer, and many of these might be supported or sponsored by your employer.
To build the amount you can offer your clients and enhance your standing within the sector, you might take the Higher Rights of Audience qualification, which allows solicitors to represent their clients in civil or criminal court as a solicitor-advocate.
There are also courses that you can do if you plan to specialise in a certain area of the law, including a large number of diplomas and training programmes.
The Association of Contentious Trust and Probate Specialists (ACTAPS) course is taken by many qualified lawyers, and covers your essential Continuing Professional Development (CPD) qualification. The University of Law describes the CPD as keeping you “up-to-date with the latest legislative developments” as well as allowing you to “expand your skills, improve your capabilities and build a successful and satisfying career.”
If you take time out from your career later down the line, you will need to comply with the Solicitor Regulation Authority’s continuing competence scheme. This means making an annual declaration that you have reflected on your practice and identified further learning that you might need to undertake.
The legal profession is known for paying exceptionally well. Although this might not be true at the very beginning of your career, it will pay off in the long-term.
Although since 2014 law firms are only required to pay their trainees the national minimum wage, in reality the majority of firms pay competitively in order to attract the best candidates, offering salaries between £25,000 and £40,000, according to All About Law. The higher paying firms tend to reside within the City of London.
Payment will rise once you are qualified as a solicitor, with firms in the City of London regularly paying up to £65,000, and the largest City firms paying in excess of £80,000. The largest salaries are likely to come from US firms with offices in the UK, which may have starting salaries as high as £100,000.
Trainee barristers may receive salaries of up to £50,000 during the year of their pupillage, although legally chambers are only required to pay £12,000. In context though, your training as a barrister is likely to cost between £25,000 and £35,000 – so these salaries are not especially high, even at the top end.
Barrister salaries can grow very high, very quickly. All About Law states that “A barrister may expect to earn between £12,000 and £90,000 in the first year of qualification. For some criminal work, a junior barrister may earn as little as £50 per day.
“As a barrister’s level of experience grows, so their clients and cases will increase in value: a barrister with five years’ experience may expect to earn a salary between £50,000 and £200,000, while wages for those with 10 or more years’ experience might range from around £65,000 to over £1 million.”
They place starting salaries for barristers “around the £25,000 mark, in line with other junior-level skilled professional roles, and may rise to more than £130,000, depending on experience and sector.”
Qualification requirements & subjects to study
A law degree is not required to become a lawyer – history, English literature or any science subject that demonstrates a deep level of thought will be attractive to a law firm.
Your first step after university will be to complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) if your degree isn’t in law, or to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) if it is.
How to get there
Work experience is essential in this industry. You should contact law firms directly and see if you can come in for work experience or to shadow an existing member of staff in your free time, and should also make sure you are active in your university’s debate team and Law Society. These societies will give you good practice for the kind of challenges that you are likely to face working as a solicitor or barrister.
The path to becoming a lawyer is clearly defined for both solicitors and barristers.
First up, if you haven’t studied law at university you’ll need to complete a GDL. You can apply for this during your final year of university, as you might for a masters or other type of postgraduate course.
After completion of your GDL, you’ll need to apply for and complete a LPC, which will give you the technical knowledge needed to work in the sector.
If you are studying law, you can apply for this straight after your degree (or in third year if you’re highly organised) – applications open through LawCabs in October.
Whether you’re studying law at university or not, you should boost your chances of success by using the Christmas and Easter holidays to get work experience via vacation schemes in law firms.
Your LPC will take one academic year, and during this you should apply for a training contract (usually last two years) with a law firm.
To become a barrister you’ll need to pass the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), which last one year and can be applied for whilst you’re still at university.
You will need to join one of the four Inns of Court before you take the BPTC (and you may be able to get a scholarship through them). Joining one of the Inns can give you information, networking and other opportunities that can increase your chances of getting a pupillage later.
Whilst completing (or after you’ve completed) the BPTC, you’ll need to secure a pupillage. A pupillage is a place within barristers’ chambers, and is compulsory to become a practising barrister. The application process is tough, so you might not get in first time round – don’t be put off if this is the case! At the end of your pupillage the chambers will decide whether you can work there as a “tenant”.