How to become a lawyer

Welcome to your go-to guide covering the different paths you can take to become a lawyer. We take you from secondary school, all the way through to qualification and your first role as a lawyer.

We look at what is required to become a solicitor or a barrister in detail, as well as covering some alternative career paths within the legal industry.

Whether you’re still at school, finishing your degree or considering a career change, there will be a qualification route for you. Read on to discover how you could become a lawyer.

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Be aware that there’s change ahead for aspiring solicitors – the proposed Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) has now been approved by the Legal Services Board and will replace the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) from 2020.

As most of the details haven’t yet been released, we cannot offer a complete overview. However, we have shared what we know so far below.

If you want to become a solicitor but won’t start your LPC before 2020, this is particularly relevant to you.

What is the difference between a barrister and a solicitor?

Traditionally, the legal profession in England and Wales has been divided into the roles carried out by solicitors and barristers.

Solicitors are responsible for providing legal advice and, in some cases, representation for individuals or organisations. Some solicitors work in law firms, while others work in the legal department of an organisation, or for government.

Barristers spend much more time representing their clients in court. The majority are self-employed and work in chambers. They might receive instructions from solicitors.

The legal profession has started to diversify in recent years. If you want to work in the legal profession but life as a solicitor or barrister isn’t for you, there are plenty of options out there. For example, chartered legal executives now do similar work to solicitors. Take a look at profiles below which cover some alternative legal careers.

Step 1 – Perform well at school

What grades do you need to study law?

Intellectual ability is essential for those who want to pursue a career in law. That is why most universities have such high entry requirements for their legal courses and law firms will expect you to achieve at least a 2:1 in your degree. (See the chart below to get an idea of the grades required for universities that offer law degrees.)

This is also a very competitive profession, many who begin the qualification process don’t finish it. If you want to become a solicitor or a barrister, only the best grades and high levels of commitment will get you there.  

 

Make an appointment with your careers advisor

If you’re not sure whether or not the legal profession is for you, talk to your school careers advisor who should be able to help you work out whether your personality and academic ability would be a good fit for the industry.

 

Consider which legal career path you might want to follow

It is important to start thinking about the particular branch of the legal profession you might want to work in early on. For some careers, you might not need to go to university but have the option to start earning while you complete your qualifications through an apprenticeship (as in the case of chartered legal executives). We’ve provided some examples of alternative legal careers below. 

Step 2 – Get a degree

This is a list of universities in the UK that offer law degrees with entry requirements to give you an idea of where you might be able to study. We have included Bachelor of Laws degrees (LLBs) and the minimum entry requirements for 2018 according to the UCAS website.

 

 

What to expect from a law degree

As with many degrees, most institutions will require you to complete a series of compulsory modules in your first and second years. These will give you a grounding in the essential foundations of legal knowledge:

  • Contract
  • Criminal
  • Equity and Trusts
  • European Union
  • Property
  • Constitutional/Administrative
  • Tort

As well as these compulsory topics, you’ll be able to take some optional modules which will allow you to start specialising in areas you are particularly interested in. You’ll usually be able to find a list of the options on each university’s course page. It’s important to take these into account when deciding which university to apply for. By the time you come to choose the modules, you should have an idea of what part of law really interests you and the sort of direction you’d like your career to head in and be able to choose your topics accordingly.

Do you need to do a law degree to become a lawyer?

The simple answer is no. You don’t need a degree in law specifically, and in some instances, you don’t need a degree at all.

You can take another degree and complete the year-long Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) which will quickly get you on equal footing with LLB graduates. Check the SRA website for the list of qualifying law degrees to find out whether or not you’ll need to take the GDL.

There are several ways to qualify as a solicitor that don’t require a degree. For example, you could qualify as a chartered legal executive first or you could qualify via the equivalent means route. For further details on this, jump to the ‘Becoming a lawyer without a degree’ section.

Step 3 – Graduate Diploma in Law (If you graduate with a non-law degree)

The GDL is a law conversion course for those graduates who want to qualify as either a barrister or a solicitor but completed a degree other than a qualifying law degree. The year-long course will put you on the same level as those who did complete an LLB.

You should not be at a disadvantage when applying for training contracts or jobs by taking the GDL route. You will learn many of the same skills required to become a successful lawyer by taking another degree, such as research and communication skills.

There are two options for completing the GDL:

  • Full-time over one year
  • Part-time over two years

You’ll cover the same foundations of legal knowledge as you would in a law degree and you will be assessed in each of these areas.

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Note: The old name for the GDL is the Common Professional Exam, or CPE. Some institutions still use this term.

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Step 4 – Take the LPC (solicitors) or BPTC (barristers)

By this stage, you should have decided whether you want to become a solicitor or a barrister as this is where the qualification route starts to differ. It is important that you think about which your personality and skill set is best suited to.

Solicitors

Solicitors are qualified to give clients legal advice and to take legal action on their behalf when required. The day-to-day responsibilities of a solicitor will vary depending on the area in which they work. See below for the possible qualification routes for solicitors.

The Legal Practice Course (LPC)

The LPC is a one-year course (when taken full time) which is designed to prepare graduates for life in a law firm and their training contracts. There are both knowledge-based and skills-based elements and is a more practical method of preparation than a law degree.

The course is divided into two: Stage one and stage two.

Stage one: You will cover compulsory topics in the core practice areas.

Stage two: You will choose three courses from a range of subjects.

Depending on your course provider, the ‘skills’ element may be incorporated into stages one and two or they may be taught separately.

You will be assessed through a combination of written exams, coursework and skills assessments.

Barristers

Barristers are responsible for giving legal advice to clients and representing them in court. The majority of barristers work in chambers and are self-employed. There are fewer routes to qualification for barristers but remember that it’s a highly competitive career choice.  

The Inns of Court

Before you can start the BPTC, you’ll need to join an Inn of Court. The Inns provide their members with support right through their careers starting from their time as students. They also have scholarships available for the GDL and the BPTC, so it’s worth applying early to be eligible for this. The four Inns are:

Read our guide to find out more about the Inns of Court.

Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)

The BPTC is a one year (full-time) or two years (part-time) course which prepares future barristers for pupillage. This is practical training which includes debating and mock trials.

Step 5 – Training contract or pupillage

Training contract

The final stage of qualification is a two-year training contract under the supervision of a qualified solicitor. This is when you will receive your most practical preparation for your career as a solicitor.

You will also need to complete and pass the Professional Skills Course (PSC) while on your training contract. This course is designed to ensure that all trainee solicitors have reached the standard required to become fully-qualified.

Pupillage

The final stage of training that you must complete before you can practice as a barrister is a year-long pupillage. This year is divided in two – known as the ‘first six’ and the ‘second six’. You will usually spend the first six months of your pupillage shadowing your supervisor and assisting where possible. You will spend the ‘second six’ starting to work on cases of your own.

Becoming a lawyer without a degree

The legal industry is diverse and there are many roles that don’t require a university degree. However, you can also qualify as a solicitor or a chartered legal executive without a law degree. There are alternative qualifications and apprenticeships available.

 

Legal apprenticeships

If you like the idea of starting to earn while you learn, an apprenticeship might be for you. You can even qualify as a solicitor through an apprenticeship. It will still take around the same amount of time to qualify, however, you’ll avoid the high university fees.

Intermediate apprenticeship: This apprenticeship will provide you with the skills required to take on administrative roles within the legal industry. This course takes between 18 and 21 months to complete.

Paralegal apprenticeship: This apprenticeship will equip you with the skills and legal knowledge to work as a paralegal in a law firm. This is a 24-30 month course. Many paralegal apprentices go on to complete the chartered legal executive apprenticeship or the solicitor apprenticeship.

Chartered legal executive apprenticeship: Those who start this apprenticeship will usually have completed an intermediate apprenticeship or a paralegal apprenticeship already. It is a five-year course.

Solicitor apprenticeship: This is a six-year course and you will be awarded a law degree at the end of your fourth year. This on-the-job training might be better suited to your style of learning than university lectures and seminars.

 

Becoming a solicitor without a degree

In addition to the solicitor apprenticeship mentioned above, there are several qualification routes for solicitors that don’t require a degree:

  • Equivalent means: This is a new route where paralegals who have accrued the necessary experience in three areas of law can qualify as solicitors. The SRA determine whether or not their experience qualifies and they still have to pass the Professional Skills Course.
  • CILEx route: You could also qualify as a chartered legal executive by passing the CILEx diplomas and completing the required qualifying employment. You could then take the LPC and the PSC to qualify as a solicitor.

 

Becoming a chartered legal executive without a degree

An alternative to the chartered legal executive apprenticeship is to qualify via the CILEx route. You will need to pass two diplomas, at Level 3 and Level 6 and then complete 3 years’ qualifying employment.

Find out more about legal careers that don’t require a degree here.

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Solicitors Qualifying Examination

This is the new qualification route for solicitors, planned to be in place by ‘late 2020’. The Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA) is currently saying that the last chance to take the qualification route currently in operation will by August 2020.

The proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) has been described as a ‘super exam’ which future solicitors will have to pass in order to qualify. This has been proposed in light of the recent changes made to the qualification system. Now there are more routes available to prospective solicitors, the SQE will be put in place to ensure that the same high standards are being met before qualification.

The SRA hopes that the SQE will help to demonstrate that no one qualification route is better than the others. This will help to maintain public confidence in legal professionals.

Under the new system, those who wish to qualify as a solicitor will have to:

  • Have a degree (or an equivalent qualification)
  • Pass the SQE
  • Complete two years’ qualifying work experience
  • Pass the SRA’s character and suitability test

This is much the same as the old system on three of the four stages. The other main difference apart from the introduction of the SQE, is that the work experience required will now become more flexible. Most solicitors in the past have completed a two-year training contract at a law firm. Other types of experience will now count towards this requirement, such as placements secured while at university or the work you do as a paralegal. This is to help a more diverse range of candidates qualify as solicitors.

The SRA is currently developing and testing the new assessment. It will be divided into two stages – the first designed to test students’ legal knowledge and the second to test their practical legal skills.

The SRA expects the new examination to cost less than the LPC (which can cost around £15,000).

Should you do your LPC now, or wait for the SQE?

If you’re at university already and wondering whether or not you should wait for the SQE to come into force or whether you should go ahead with the LPC (and the GDL for non-law students), here are a few things to consider:

  • While it is very likely that the SQE is going to happen, details haven’t been finalised and released. It’s currently set to be rolled out in 2020, however, this might change and you could end up qualifying later than planned.
  • Are you happy being part of the first few years when they might need to deal with a few teething problems?
  • The SRA expects the SQE to be cheaper than the LPC.
  • You could use the time before the SQE is rolled out to gain some valuable work experience which will help your applications stand out from the crowd when applying for your first full-time role. Some of this might also count towards your Qualifying Work Experience (QWE).
  • It looks as though the SQE will have a narrower curriculum than the LPC. If you have a clear idea of what you’d like to specialise in, the LPC might give you more opportunities to study subjects other than the core topics.

Alternative legal careers

If life as a barrister or a solicitor doesn’t sound like your thing, take a look at some of the other options below. The ‘i’ icons will take you through to more detailed profiles on each of the roles.

Chartered Legal Executive

Chartered Legal Executives carry out similar work to solicitors, however, their focus tends to be on less complex and high profile cases as there is a less rigorous process to qualify.

Patent Attorney

Patent attorneys support their clients through the process of protecting designs or inventions via patents.

Court Usher

Court ushers ensure that the day-to-day operations in court are carried out smoothly and efficiently.

Licensed Conveyancer

Licensed conveyancers are specialists in property law. They advise and act on the legal matters surrounding the buying and selling of property.

Trade Mark Attorney

Trade mark attorneys help their clients protect their brands and logos.

Legal Secretary

Legal secretaries provide administrative support to legal professionals.

Paralegal

Paralegals support the work of lawyers in a firm but are not fully-qualified lawyers themselves. Many paralegal roles are filled by graduates looking for training contracts.

Barristers’ Clerk

Barristers’ Clerks are the support staff for barristers working in chambers. They will assist with the day-to-day running of chambers including administrative tasks and assisting barristers with marketing their services.

Lawyer salaries

See the maps below to get an idea of the salaries that lawyers earn in different areas of the UK. The figures represent the average salaries for the jobs posted on Simply Law Jobs over the past year for solicitor and barrister roles. Please note, these figures are intended as a guide.

Average solicitor salaries in the UK

Average barrister salaries in the UK

Commercial awareness

Commercial awareness is an essential part of your skill set if you are going to secure a job as a lawyer. Employers look for an up-to-date understanding of what’s happening in the business world and how this relates to the legal sector.

We publish articles on the top legal news and a weekly round-up of the top commercial news every Friday. Start with the articles below and head to our Industry Insights section for more.

To find out more about what commercial awareness is and how you can develop yours, read our comprehensive guide.

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