Traditionally there are two paths to becoming a lawyer: one leads to a legal career as a barrister; the other to a solicitor. The boundary between the two careers has become blurred over the years but they remain separate for now. Barristers and solicitors have some attributes in common but they require different professional qualifications and the people who practise in the different fields tend to show quite distinct skills and aptitudes. Follow the advice below to assess (honestly) which profession best suits your needs and ambitions before taking on the financial commitment of legal training.
What is the difference between a solicitor, a barrister and a lawyer?
The word lawyer is an umbrella term used to describe anyone advising clients on legal matters. In England and Wales, however, lawyers either qualify as ‘solicitors’ (employed by a firm) or self-employed ‘barristers’, based in a set of chambers (a collection of offices): each career route has a distinct path to qualification. Alternative employment options to being a solicitor in a law firm or a barrister in a set of chambers include working ‘in-house’ for a business or professional services firm (such as the BBC, National Grid or Vodafone), or being employed by the Government Legal Service (GLS) or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as a lawyer (and as a civil servant).
What do lawyers do: solicitors?
‘Solicitors advise businesses and individuals in the UK and internationally on the legal side of transactions. The export of UK legal services is a huge part of our economy,’ explains Joe Egan, president of the Law Society. ‘Solicitors are integral to all forms of business running smoothly – whether this is in drafting contracts, setting up companies or the many other ways in which businesses need legal expertise. Solicitors are also trusted advisers to individuals, providing legal expertise and advice in all situations such as the buying and selling of houses, drawing up of wills or dealing with relationship breakdowns.’
What do lawyers do: barristers?
Barristers give advice to clients about how the law applies to their situation and may represent them in court. Barristers are normally contacted by a solicitor who seeks specialised legal advice on behalf of their client in a particular area, such as criminal, family or commercial law. Barristers may give written advice to a client or speak for them in front of a judge.
Lawyers’ qualifications: solicitors
Both solicitors and barristers must complete either a law degree or a non-law degree followed by a conversion course . However, the routes then diverge. Aspiring solicitors take a one-year vocational course known as the legal practice course (LPC) followed by a two-year training contract or ‘period of recognised training’, as it is officially referred to by the Law Society. Most training contracts are with a firm of solicitors but you can also do one with the GLS or CPS, a local authority or an in-house legal department. You will experience at least three different practice areas and receive further formal training during your training contract; successful completion will allow you to call yourself a solicitor.
The qualification process for solicitors is due to change from 2021. Find out how the introduction of the law super exam will affect you.
Lawyers’ qualifications: barristers
Barristers, in contrast, must complete the one-year Bar professional training course (BPTC) followed by a ‘pupillage’ (also one year). This will normally be spent in one or more barristers’ chambers, although the GLS and a very small number of other organisations also offer pupillage. You’ll then need to find a set of chambers from which to practise permanently (known as ‘tenancy’). Unlike other legal professionals, most barristers are self-employed.
Lawyers’ qualifications: legal executive jobs
It’s worth noting that there has always been a third path to becoming a lawyer through the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) and this is becoming increasingly popular. This route to gaining professional qualifications in law has the benefit of allowing students to earn while they learn, reducing the cost of training.
Kate Macnab, a criminal solicitor and director at Cartwright King, was already working in a solicitors’ practice as a paralegal when she was encouraged to qualify through CILEx. After completing the CILEx exams she worked through her qualifying employment period; her law firm funded her course fees in full and guaranteed her a job on completion. ‘I was exempt from a training contract so I was admitted to the roll the same year as the CILEx course and – having worked at the same firm for ten years – I already had a huge amount of experience,’ she says. ‘The benefits were undoubtedly the flexibility of the coursework, and qualifying without debt and with a job.’
If you have a law degree or have passed the graduate diploma in law (GDL) conversion course you can opt to study for the CILEx graduate fast-track diploma (which takes between nine and fifteen months depending on the amount of time you allocate to studying, at a cost of less than £3,500). Alternatively non-law graduates can study for the level 3 professional diploma in law and practice (two years), and the level 6 professional higher diploma in law and practice (two years) to attain the same grade. Either way, you also need to work for three years in qualifying employment that meets the outcomes specified by CILEx. This period of qualifying employment exempts you from completing a training contract in a law firm.
Do you want a career as a solicitor, barrister or legal executive?
As yourself the following questions before deciding which branch of the legal profession is best for you.
How important is a lawyer’s salary to you?
Lawyers’ earnings vary widely so don’t assume all lawyers are City fat cats! If it’s important to you to have a substantial income as soon as possible, you can try for a training contract with a big City firm or a pupillage at one of the larger commercial sets of barristers’ chambers. If your career takes flight, your earning potential is sky high. Elsewhere, starting salaries will be more modest (many criminal law pupillages, in particular, are funded at the Bar Council minimum of £1,000 per month); however, after a few years in practice most solicitors and barristers can expect to earn a good living. Compare what trainee solicitors earn here and compare pupillage awards here. CILEx members who pass all the qualifications and satisfy the three-year employment requirements (two of these can take place concurrently with studying) to become chartered legal executives can earn a salary of between £35,000 and £55,000 – or more, especially if you become partner in a law firm. The qualifications allow you to become a judge, a coroner and to represent your clients in court with more aspects of practice opening up as CILEx lawyers become more established and push at traditional boundaries.
Where do you want to work as a lawyer?
The majority of barristers’ chambers are found in London and other major cities such as Birmingham and Bristol. Solicitors and chartered legal executives can find work in most parts of the UK, from international firms in large cities to high street firms in smaller towns. Solicitors often have opportunities for national and international travel; barristers travel within the UK but mainly to courts outside of the capital, when required.
How do you want to train?
Many larger solicitors’ firms will fund your studies, though these places are competitive. Would-be barristers will usually be expected to fund their own studies and only one in four will become a practising barrister at the end of them. Legal executives have the chance to study while they earn.
How do you manage your money?
Barristers are self-employed and have to build their reputation (through their clerks) to become established. They are responsible for their own finances – financial uncertainty is par for the course as a junior family or criminal barrister whereas commercial barristers earn high fees from the start. Solicitors and legal executives, on the other hand, are employed by their firms and paid a regular wage.
How important is client contact to you?
Solicitors and legal executives deal extensively with clients face to face and over the phone; barristers are instructed by solicitors who do most of the initial client liaison work.
Whatever degree subject you’re studying at university, a career in law is open to you. What’s more, the path to qualification as a lawyer is straightforward and very well trodden – approximately 50% of those who become solicitors or barristers each year have degrees in subjects other than law. Recruiters are far more interested in your skills, experience and personal qualities than what you’ve studied. Qualities such as commercial awareness, intelligence, motivation and communication skills are high on recruiters’ wish lists, as are relevant legal work experience and high academic achievement.
Specific degree subjects can be particularly useful in certain areas of law: for example, languages can be of help for those practising European law or in firms with a significant number of international clients; science degrees are useful in intellectual property law; and a numerical background will give you a head start in areas such as tax and personal injury, which can involve complicated calculations.
‘Non-law graduates undoubtedly bring a different perspective to a firm – our broad client base means there are very few backgrounds not relevant to a role at this law firm,’ says Sarah Harte, graduate recruitment manager at Taylor Wessing. ‘Our client base within life sciences ranges from small biotech companies to global pharmaceutical giants – clients appreciate lawyers who are able adapt to changing environments, and who utilise their finely-honed critical and evaluative thinking skills in order to meet their needs.’
Converting a degree to law
Qualifying with a non-law degree will entail an extra year’s study. After you graduate you’ll need to take a one-year conversion course that covers all the key elements of a law degree. These are known as the CPE (which stands for ‘common professional examination’) or the GDL (short for ‘graduate diploma in law’) and are run by numerous course providers throughout the country. Once you’ve completed your conversion course you’ll be able to join law graduates on the next stage of the qualification process – for solicitors, the legal practice course and for barristers the Bar professional training course .
Funding your law conversion course and LPC or BPTC
A number of the larger solicitors’ firms will pay their future trainees’ LPC fees, and possibly also conversion course fees and/or a sum towards maintenance. Barristers’ sets do not tend to provide financial assistance for the BPTC, although a handful will allow future pupils to draw part of their pupillage funding in advance to help with costs. CILEx students usually earn a salary (between £16,000 and £30,000) by working in a law firm at the same time as studying, with income increasing as the various stages of the qualification are achieved and experience is gained.
Training to be a solicitor or advocate in Scotland
The qualification process and terminology differ in Scotland. See our special features on training in Scotland for useful information provided by the Law Society of Scotland on the qualification process in north of the border: