How to become a lawyer in the UK
How do you become a lawyer? And what is the difference between a solicitor, barrister and lawyer? Get familiar with the qualifying process here.
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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. 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. 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 law students are choosing the flexibility of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) route to qualification, allowing you to work and study side by side. Other alternative employment options include working ‘in-house’ for a business or professional services firm, or being employed as a Government Legal Profession (GLP) or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyer.
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, former 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
The route to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales changed in 2021. Graduates from 2021 onwards will need to qualify by passing the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE). You need a degree in any discipline to take the SQE, which tests your law knowledge, ethics and skills. 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 GDL courses before September 2021 will qualify through the old route by studying for the vocational qualification known as the legal practice course (LPC), rather than via the SQE route.
Whichever route you take, the next stage is to complete two year 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.
Discover more about the SQE , about how to become a solicitor without a law degree and which firms will fund your LPC, SQE preparation and GDL/PGDL course fees .
Lawyers’ qualifications: barristers
The typical route to the Bar currently consists of three stages: academic, vocational and professional:
- The academic stage is either an undergraduate law degree or a one-year postgraduate conversion course, commonly the graduate diploma in law (GDL).
- 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).
- The professional stage is undertaking a pupillage with a barristers chambers (although a small number are available with other types of organisations such as the Government Legal Profession). Pupillage is a form of on-the-job training that lasts one year.
However, the Bar Standards Board has introduced 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 part of their pupillage funding (see below) in advance to help with costs.
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 new 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.
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, depending on the law firm or chambers, the location and the type of law specialised in. 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.
The larger City law firms typically offer trainees a pay packet of £40,000–£50,000 and £90,000+ on qualification. Salaries at regional firms and offices will be lower to reflect differences in living costs – and high street firms won’t be able to offer this sort of money. For context, the Law Society recommends that all firms pay trainees a minimum of £22,794 in London and £20,217 outside of London.
Instead of a salary, pupil barristers receive a ‘pupillage award’ for the year. The most generous pupillage awards are available from commercial and chancery sets of chambers, where they are typically in the region of £40,000–£70,000 for 12 months. Sets carrying out publicly funded work cannot compete with these rates and are moe likely to offer awards around the minimum rates: for 2021, £18,960 for pupillages in London and £16,601 for those outside of London.
CILEX says that salaries for its members are between £15,000 and £28,000 while you are studying. When you pass all the qualifications and satisfy the three-year employment requirements to become a fully qualified legal executive lawyer, you 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 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.’
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 LPC students or career changers. Most students apply for pupillage during the final year of their law degree or during their conversion course.
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: