Training and progression

How to become a lawyer in the UK

18 Oct 2023, 11:45

How do you become a lawyer? And what is the difference between a solicitor, barrister and lawyer? Get familiar with the qualifying process here.

A graduate at the Inns of Court: discover how to qualify as a lawyer and which legal profession is right for you

Traditionally there are three paths to becoming a lawyer: one leads to a legal career as a barrister (known as an advocate in Scotland), one to a solicitor and one to becoming a qualified legal executive. The boundary between the careers has become blurred over the years, but they remain separate for now, so it is important to decide early on which one is for you. Below we give a snapshot of the different roles and qualifying routes, before pointing you to further resources, so you can be confident in your decision. Go to:

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. Many lawyers work either as solicitors in private practice (employed by a firm) or as self-employed barristers based in a set of chambers – although other options to these traditional routes to qualification are becoming increasingly popular; some students are choosing the flexibility of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) route to qualification, enabling them to work and study side by side to become a chartered legal executive and later qualify as a solicitor if they wish.

Other alternative employment options include working ‘in-house’ as a solicitor, barrister or legal executive for a business or charity, or being employed as a Government Legal Profession (GLP) or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyer.

What do lawyers do: solicitors?

At its heart, being a solicitor is about giving legal advice and facilitating legal matters for all aspects of society: individuals, families, commercial enterprises, government and not-for-profits. Thinking, perhaps, more of the commercial aspects of the role, Joe Egan, former president of the Law Society, explains: ‘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. 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.’

He adds: 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 advocate for individuals or organisations in court and give related legal advice. Barristers are normally contracted 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. It is possible for solicitors and chartered legal executives to represent clients in some courts, but it is still much more usual for barristers to do so.

What do lawyers do: legal executives?

The work of legal executives is very similar to that of solicitors. Fully qualified chartered executives manage their own client caseloads and provide similar legal advice. A key difference between legal executives and solicitors is that legal executives specialise in an area of law much earlier than solicitors do, qualifying in one area of law. Another is that they typically earn less, although it is usually cheaper to qualify as a chartered legal executive than a solicitor.

How do you become a solicitor, barrister or a legal executive?

Take a quick look at our outlines before delving into more detail in our qualification-specific articles.

Lawyers’ qualifications: solicitors

The route to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales changed in 2021. Graduates from September 2021 onwards will need to qualify by passing the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) . This comprises two assessments, SQE1 and SQE2, which tests your law knowledge, ethics and skills. You need a degree in any discipline to take the SQE.

Before the SQE, non-law graduates would be required to pass a conversion course (most commonly the graduate diploma in law or GDL) before undertaking further qualifying steps. Now there is no longer an absolute requirement to undertake a conversion course, but it would be hard to pass the SQE without some form of legal knowledge preparation. Some course providers have updated their training for the SQE to include a postgraduate diploma in law (PGDL), which is designed specifically for non-law graduates.

However, students who began, or accepted offers to begin, law degrees or conversion courses before September 2021 can still technically qualify through the old route by studying for the vocational qualification known as the legal practice course (LPC), rather than via the SQE route until 2032, as long as there are still courses and law firms willing to provide the required workplace training (see below). However, many firms are switching to the SQE route from 2024 onwards if they haven’t already. Current or recent LPC students who wish to switch to the SQE route do not have to take the SQE1 assessment.

Whichever route you take, the next stage is to complete two years of qualifying work experience . Under the old route, this work experience was known as a ‘training contract’ and many law firms are still using this term for the required work experience. However, there are other types of work experience that can now be used to qualify, as long as it meets the criteria required for the SQE.

Many law firms will support future trainees through the qualification by hiring them two years before they are due to starting work and paying for them to undertake the required further study.

Lawyers’ qualifications: barristers

The typical route to the Bar currently consists of three stages: academic, vocational and work-based.

  • The academic stage is either an undergraduate law degree or a one-year postgraduate conversion course, commonly the graduate diploma in law (GDL) or postgraduate diploma in law (PDGL).
  • The vocational stage is known as the Bar course. The name of this qualification differs between providers but was formerly known as the Bar professional training course (BPTC). You will need to have joined an Inn of Court at least 12 weeks before the start of your Bar course.
  • The professional stage is undertaking a pupillage with a barristers chambers (although a small number are available with other types of organisations such as with the Government Legal Profession). Pupillage is a form of on-the-job training that lasts one year.

However, there is now the option to undertake the academic and vocational stages as part of an integrated course, such as a Bar-focused LLM or undergraduate degree, before undertaking pupillage.

After pupillage, you will need to find a set of chambers from which to practise permanently (known as ‘tenancy’) – unless you find an organisation to employ you in-house. Most barristers, however, are self-employed in a set of chambers.

It’s worth noting that chambers do not tend to provide financial assistance to candidates undergoing the Bar course, although a handful will allow future pupils to ‘draw down’ part of their pupillage funding (see below) in advance to help with costs. The Inns of Court also offer a range of bursaries and scholarships to their members.

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.

CILEX launched its CILEX Professional Qualification (CPQ) in 2021. It is divided into three stages: CPQ Foundation (after which you become a CILEX Paralegal); CPQ Advanced (after which you become a CILEX Advanced Paralegal); and CPQ Professional (after which you become a CILEX Lawyer). If you have a law degree or equivalent, you can start on stage two – CPQ Advanced. To complete the CPQ, you will also need to complete qualifying employment that meets the professional experience requirement specified by CILEX. If you want to qualify as a solicitor, paralegal experience counts towards the qualifying work experience required to pass the SQE.

Becoming a solicitor or barrister without a law degree

University students don’t need to have studied law to qualify as a solicitor or barrister. In fact, specific degree subjects can be particularly useful in certain areas of law: for example, languages can be of help for those working across jurisdictions; 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 Lydia Block, graduate talent 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.’

As noted, however, aspiring barristers are required to complete a recognised conversion course and aspiring solicitors are strongly encouraged to; in fact, some law firms insist upon it.

While we are on the subject of not having a law degree, it’s worth noting that school leavers with A levels (or equivalent) can do a level 7 solicitors apprenticeship. This involves working for a law firm while studying for a bachelors and masters degree in law over six years, before taking the SQE route to qualification. But the focus on targetjobs is on giving advice to current university students seeking training contracts.

When to start applying for training contracts and pupillages

It is typical for law students to apply for training contracts (likely to be the most common form of SQE qualifying work experience) in their second year, while non-law students apply in their final year. However, the timetable isn’t quite as fixed as it was, so, while you should check out our application timeline below, you might find that some law firms have opportunities at other times of year or specifically for postgraduate students or career changers.

Most students apply for pupillage during the final year of their law degree or during their conversion course.

Getting law work experience

It is hugely advantageous to undertake a vacation scheme with a law firm if you want to be a solicitor or a mini-pupillage with a chambers if you want to be a barrister. Some law firms and chambers only recruit from former ‘vac schemers’ and ‘mini-pupils’. However, there are lots of other ways to gain law-related work experience, such as first-year insight programmes with law firms (which can be a gateway to vacation schemes) and volunteering for Citizens Advice or a legal aid centre.

Training to be a solicitor or advocate in Scotland

All aspiring solicitors and advocates need to take the one-year PEAT1 qualification – otherwise known as the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice. To be eligible for this, you will need to have already completed the Scottish LLB, either as a four-year degree or via the two-year accelerated route if you have studied another degree. Then solicitors complete a two-year traineeship (PEAT2), most commonly with a law firm.

Those who wish to become advocates must ensure that they have taken specific modules in their LLB or during the diploma. After they have completed the diploma, they too will take a traineeship in a solicitors’ office (most likely) but also join the Faculty of Advocates as an ‘intrant’. The next step to becoming an advocate is a period of ‘devilling’, which lasts for eight to nine months and comprises a combination of classroom-based learning, cross-examining witnesses, giving submissions and shadowing experienced advocates as part of a stable (chambers). Devils also need to pass faculty examinations to become members of the Faculty of Advocates.

Find out more in our special features written with the Law Society of Scotland:

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