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Overview

Lawyers advise people on various aspects related to the law. The type of work you will undertake during your law graduate career depends on the kind of lawyer you want to be and the type of area you want to specialise in. Solicitors work in a wide range of firms broadly representing the specialisms which they have chosen. Firms vary enormously in atmosphere, training opportunities and methods, working hours, salary and location, however they be classified into several broad categories.

There are over 80,000 solicitors working in private practice in England and Wales today. Around 11,000 of these are employed in-house by commercial and industrial organisations. Also, about 4,000 solicitors work in local government, 1,000 in the Government Legal Service (GLS) and roughly 2,300 work for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The biggest City law firm in London employs nearly 3,000 solicitors, while a private practice on your local high street might have only one or two people. Equally, the annual turnover of various solicitors' firms ranges from £50,000 per year to £1 billion.

There are around 12,000 barristers most of who are self-employed and work in chambers. They can also work in financial services, industry and the armed forces. Finally, there are an estimated 300,000 paralegals in England and Wales which is more than the number of solicitors and barristers combined. They may work in solicitor’s practices, government, charities or in new paralegal law firms.

There are three different legal systems in the UK, with Northern Ireland and Scotland having separate systems from England and Wales. These differences give rise to slightly different areas of employment and training. Legal professionals may work in the court system, firms of solicitors, barristers' chambers (advocates in Scotland), private companies, central and local government and other organisations.

Global and international firms operate on a truly worldwide basis with offices in London and many countries within and outside Europe. The work is extremely complex, involving large billion pound contracts. City firms are predominantly based in the centre of London. Many also have offices overseas and in other areas of the UK. The work involves handling a range of complex commercial work often with an international element. National firms have offices in many of the major cities in the UK, often in London. They have many similarities to City firms, generally handling commercial cases but without the international element. Medium sized firms are present in most major cities in England and Wales, dealing with most of the local commercial and private client work as well as offering expertise in some specialised areas. Many have offices in the west end of London. High street firms tend to be small firms of partners handling work for local businesses and people. Work may involve family issues, wills, tax, crime, employment as well as legal aid. Specialised or 'niche' firms are small firms dealing with a very specific area of law. This is regarded as a growth area within the profession.

The legal profession offers a huge variety of challenging and high profile opportunities for graduates across a range of different environments. It has a big attraction for graduates with its prestigious status, the potential for a rewarding career and a generous salary. However, the competition for posts is intense and the training required to qualified in certain areas of law can be very expensive and an equally extensive process.

Once you have decided to pursue a legal career, it is vital that you take some time to consider which particular field you wish to move into, as training is separate and it is very unlikely you will be able to transfer later on. There are many different ways of approaching a law-related career and careful planning should help you match your personality and abilities to the most suitable area of the profession.

The main graduate employers within this sector are covered by the 'Magic Circle'. These are considered to be the five leading law firms in the UK , including: Allen & Overy, Clifford Chancel, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, Slaughter and May. According to the High Fliers report, there are 780 graduate vacancies with an average starting salary of £40,000 for law firms in the UK's top 100 employers.

Average Law Graduate Salary

Law Graduate Career Path

There are two divisions of the legal profession - barristers and solicitors. Barristers practice in a particular field of law, such as criminal or commercial law, and are able to offer the clients specialist legal advice. They do not deal directly with the public, instead they represent clients. When a solicitor can't resolve a case and it goes to court, this is where a barrister is called in. He or she specialises in advocacy, presenting cases in court on a solicitor's instruction. Barristers may specialise in criminal practice and undertake criminal defence and prosecution. Alternatively, chancery barristers undertake cases involving commercial or property matters.

A barrister's work can include:

  • standing up in court and presenting for prosecution or defence;
  • advising solicitors and other legal professionals;
  • meeting clients on a one-to-one basis;
  • drafting legal documents.

If you prefer working more independently, are confident in front of an audience and relish the prospect of being self-employed, then this could be the right law graduate career for you.

Before an individual can qualify as a barrister and achieve tenancy (a permanent position in a chambers) individuals must first undertake training. Training is done over two years with one year being spent completing the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and the other doing a pupillage. A pupillage is typically segmented in two to three six month periods. For the first six months pupils spend most of their time work-shadowing, before getting limited opportunities to do cases themselves in the second period. Pupillages tend to be not only exciting and informative but also quite stressful experiences, as competition is intense with, for example, 4-5 pupils all trying to secure one of the two tenancies available. Even after achieving tenancy, individuals, as self-employed professionals, must then set about establishing themselves in their speciality.

A solicitor is the first point of call for anyone seeking advice on legal dealings. Solicitors are likely to find themselves advising corporate clients on business matters or representing private clients over issues of tax, property , wills etc. and so need to have expert knowledge of areas such as EC law, litigation and intellectual property rights. They can work in high-street firms or as part of huge multinational organisations.

Qualification as a solicitor will start only after completing the LPC (Legal Practice Course), followed by a two-year period working within a firm and experiencing several different areas of law, as governed by the Law Society. All types of law firms, from High Street Legal Aid practices to huge multinational partnerships, take on trainee solicitors. While smaller firms may recruit after or near completion of the LPC, the larger firms typically recruit two years in advance, offering to pay both fees and maintenance to successful candidates through sponsorship.

Larger firms advertise training contracts, vacation placements and open day opportunities at careers fairs and presentations, as well as on websites and in publications specialising in legal recruitment. These placements and open days are offered to law students during the summer following their second year and after finals for non-law students. Christmas and Easter placements are often reserved for non-law graduates.

Early application is strongly advised. Although many firms may use vacation placements, as a means of recruiting for training contract, this is by no means the only way they recruit. Therefore, you should not be put off applying for a training contract at a firm where you have not undertaken a vacation placement.

The Online Pupillage Applications Scheme (OLPAS) invites first applications one to two years before the pupillage is due to start. Not all sets of chambers have elected to recruit through OLPAS although they will advertise their vacancies on Pupillage Online. In Scotland, the route to both professions is via a traineeship as a solicitor, after the Diploma in Legal Practice. Larger firms (who often recruit up to two years in advance) and the public sector may advertise through their websites, law faculties/careers services and the press. Many firms do not advertise at all so speculative applications are extremely important. In Northern Ireland, students pursue the Certificate in Professional Legal Studies prior to following the Bar or solicitor route into the legal sector.

Around half of law graduates become solicitors and barristers - the rest go on to do something different, as many employers value the skills law graduates have gained from their university courses. Other jobs in this sector include legal executives and paralegals (who can assist solicitors in areas of the law and can be employed on either a short term or permanent basis).

A career as a legal executive, and the professional training route offered by the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX), is a good alternative, particularly to the training contract option.

Qualified legal executives provide specialist technical support to solicitors, offer support and advice, and can act on behalf of clients in a similar way to solicitors. Although the work may be similar, the range of experience is generally more limited than that of a solicitor. However, legal executives have considerable responsibility and are offered the appropriate financial rewards to accompany it.

Paralegal work typically involves chasing paperwork, handling documents and other administrative duties. The role is flexible and really depends on what your employers want you to do - it's a good idea to check what sort of work paralegals do at your chosen firm. You'll often start as a general assistant and go from there.

A legal PA offers admin and back-up services to a solicitor or a barrister. Like legal assistants, the role and work vary. In a small firm, you may work mostly as a secretary. In a larger firm, the role may be more demanding - you may be responsible for everything except detailed and technical legal tasks.

Paralegals already working within the firm are often chosen to be legal personal assistants once they have proved themselves. Applications from law graduates with good organisational and IT skills are usually welcomed.

Many graduates find work in this sector in a research and analysis role. Law libraries are a popular choice - but you may need to take a postgraduate course. Legal publishing is a popular alternative career. You could work for a law publisher's editing, marketing or sales department. Online law directories and guides may offer you the chance of work too. Many private firms use researchers to collect and analyse findings. Graduates with a legal background and research and analysis experience should be in demand.

Qualifications and Skills Needed

What proportion of candidates as a percent we place into Law graduate careers and the typical qualities graduate employers look for.

GRB Placements for Law by Degree

Typical Candidate Attributes

Commercial firms offer the largest number of solicitor training contracts. Many such firms operate in the global market allowing for opportunities to develop international experience, especially, although not exclusively, for graduates with fluency in one or more foreign language. More importantly, trainees aiming to work for one of these firms would be required to have a strong interest in commercial law, as the work involves a sound understanding of business around the brokering of multi-billion pound deals on an international platform.

Law graduates, in England and Wales, are usually recruited for the training contract, before starting the final year of their degree. Trainees will have their course fees paid. Non-law graduates are recruited in their final year and also funded for the CPE/LLDip. Applicants should establish if the firms have a preferred provider for the CPE/LLDip and LPC.

High street firms recruit graduates in smaller numbers. Requirements for entry are much the same but the skills and experiences required are very different. They are less likely to sponsor students through the LPC and the CPE/LLDip. Recruiters here are looking for a strong interest in family law and private client work.

Government legal service and large local authorities will offer small numbers of training contracts. The entry requirements are high as well as a requirement to understand and enjoy law in relation to government policy.

All university degree subjects are acceptable although graduates of law and subjects that might be useful for specialist areas (e.g. engineering, maths and sciences) might have an advantage. The Common Professional Examination (CPE), also known as the LLDip, offers a fast-track route to a professional law qualification. Offering non-Law graduates the chance to change career direction, the course provides the same opportunities open to those who have graduated with an LLB-exemption from the academic stage of training for the Law Society and Bar Council exams. Successful completion of the LLDip allows you to study on the Legal Practice and Bar Vocational Courses (BVC) and ultimately to qualify as a solicitor or barrister.

You must have a high academic ability (minimum 2:1, although a 2:2 will be considered, and good UCAS points) as well as possessing additional skills considered to be of high priority in the profession. These include sound commercial knowledge, numeracy, and integrity, diplomacy backed up by the expected good communication, time, project and people management skills. You will also need strong analytical skills to decipher the key facts from complex and often lengthy documents of information.

Employers want recruits who are lively, energetic and show initiative and stamina. An applicant who can only demonstrate academic prowess in an interview is not likely to excite the interest of potential recruiters. For example, team-work is crucial in modern business and the typical law curriculum does not offer extensive team-work experience, since academic results rest on individual performance. Participation in various extra-curricular activities is a definite bonus, so emphasise this on your CV and cover letters. Bear in mind that you may be cross-examined at interview and so be careful not to exaggerate. Relevant extra-curricular activities range from running a student society, to voluntary work in the community, to activities such as mooting and competitive client interviewing, free representation and advice, patient or community advocacy.

Sources for Further Information

General Council of the Bar www.barcouncil.org.uk
Institute of Legal Executives www.ilex.org.uk 
Law Society www.lawsociety.org.uk
Crown Prosecution Service www.cps.gov.uk
City of London Solicitors' Company www.citysolicitors.org.uk
The Solicitor Group http://www.thesolicitorsgroup.co.uk/