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Law solicitors
trendence UK law barometer

Graduate expectations vs reality for a career in law

International research firm trendence surveyed aspiring lawyers about their expectations for a career in law and shared their findings with TARGETjobs.
Politics students who were surveyed about their law career expected to work more weekly hours than any other student

Last year, over 3,700 of you took part in the trendence UK Graduate Law Barometer and you told us what you expect from the early stages of your law career and the application process. We gathered information from aspiring law students from over 120 universities across the UK and here’s what we found:

  • future lawyers expected to earn an average starting salary of £28,300 per annum
  • aspiring lawyers expected to work an average of 48.6 hours per week
  • graduates heading for law expected to wait an average of 7.6 months before obtaining their first position
  • those searching for a law-related placement expected to fill out an overall average of 29 applications before being accepted

Politics students heading into law expected to work harder

trendence found that, on average, aspiring lawyers studying politics tended to have higher expectations. Politics students who were surveyed about their law career expected to work more weekly hours than any other student, while those studying social sciences degrees expected to work the least. The aspirations of politics students don’t end there, with 52.5% of those surveyed expecting to earn a starting salary of £28,000 or more. At the other end of the scale, 23.6% of future lawyers studying psychology expected to earn £16,000 or less per annum in their first professional position.

Privately educated students have higher expectations of a law career

trendence also found a difference in the expectations of independent and state school students. On average, students from the private sector expected to work 51.1 hours per week, whereas students who had attended state schools expected to work 47.4 hours. Private school students also expected to earn an average starting salary of £30,000, while students surveyed from state school backgrounds expected to earn a starting salary of £27,100.

First-year students are more optimistic about law

Students in their first year appeared more confident in their earning capabilities, with nearly 35% expecting to earn a starting salary of £31,000 or more. But as graduation approaches, students in their final year appear less optimistic, with only 16.5% thinking this is possible.

So, where do these expectations meet reality?

How much can graduates really get in their first law job?

In 2014, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) lowered its minimum salary level from £16,650 (outside of London) to the minimum wage. There is currently no data on high street firms' salaries, but this could mean that the small firms will pay lower wages to new graduates.

However, within central London, and certainly for the coveted ‘magic circle’ firms, competition for the best students is still fierce. Starting salaries can range from £30,000–£40,000 and rise to a potential £75,000 on qualification. Firms’ regional offices tend to offer between £24,000 and £50,000 for training contracts in the regions. Students can normally expect to earn less outside of London, but much of this is a result of the high cost of living in the capital.

As for hopeful barristers, the Bar Standards Board sets the minimum pupillage award at £12,000 for a 12-month pupillage. This must be paid in monthly instalments of at least £1,000 in the first six, and as awards or guaranteed earnings of £1,000 per month in the second six. In reality some carry pupillage awards well in excess of this figure – up to £65,000 at commercial or chancery sets such as Wilberforce Chambers or 4 Pump Court.

The jobs available to graduates and the hours worked by aspiring lawyers

The number of training contracts offered by each solicitors’ firm can vary. Magic circle firms such as Allen & Overy LLP take on up to 85 trainees each year, while smaller firms such as Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP may only take on four. For aspiring barristers, pupillage vacancies are even scarcer and remain predominantly in the low single digits.

Self-employed barristers tend not to have an enforced number of ‘weekly working hours’ and, once they have obtained tenancy, can generally choose their own hours (determined, in part, by their need to earn and maintain a stable of clients). As for solicitors, it is hard to give a concrete average number of working hours due to the varied nature of the role; the hours may be set as 9.00 am to 5.30 pm, but with such high competition for places, students will almost certainly find themselves working beyond this time frame.

Are students realistic about their prospects for a career in law?

Ultimately, for those wishing to pursue a career in law, it would seem that the gap between expectation and reality is not actually that wide. Aspiring solicitors expecting an average starting salary of £28,300 can find themselves earning in excess of this figure if they manage to secure a training contract at a big City law firm. However, with such fierce competition the likelihood of obtaining such a sum can be slim. Law students are faced with the decision of exceeding their salary expectations in London or seeing them fall short in the smaller regional firms.

About trendence and the UK Graduate Barometer

The trendence UK Graduate Barometer is one of the largest career-related surveys of UK undergraduates. By working in partnership with TARGETjobs and university careers services, trendence was able to gather the opinions of over 27,000 students in 2014. trendence uses this data to create the employer rankings in The Guardian UK 300 and to produce research reports for universities and for employers.

Click here to see the new 2014/15 survey.

For more information about trendence UK and the work that we do, please contact David Palmer (UK Project Manager) at david.palmer@trendence.com.

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