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There are a number of different careers within the law profession. It is best to find out the differences between them and determine which would be best suited to your skills and requirements.
There are three main sorts of lawyer – solicitors, barristers and legal executive lawyers.
Solicitors are the main advisers of law to the public. They are often the first port of call by someone seeking legal advice. They meet with clients and usually resolve issues themselves through giving advice, sending letters and sometimes representing their clients in court.
Where a barrister is needed, the Solicitor will appoint them, advising how they should present the client’s argument in court.
Most solicitors work in private practices. They can work in general practice, meaning they deal with public legal matters such as buying houses, making wills, representing clients in divorce cases and can advise or represent clients in court relating to criminal proceedings.
Solicitors can also work in specialist practices, which are usually larger, and whose clients are usually corporate.
It is also possible for a solicitor to work in-house for a corporation, acting as an adviser to their employer. For instance, working at a newspaper could mean advising on media laws such as libel and defamation, to ensure the paper doesn’t get sued for running a less than complimentary story about someone.
A barrister is a lawyer who primarily works in court. They are their client’s voice in a court of law, acting as an advocate and presenting a person’s case in the best possible way, as advised by the solicitor working on the case. They also provide advice to solicitors.
Barristers have an in-depth knowledge of the legal system. They usually have specialist knowledge relating to a particular area of law, such as criminal law and commercial law. They will study laws and rulings that have come out of previous cases similar to their own in order to work out the best strategy for winning the case they’re working on.
The more senior barristers are made Queen’s Counsel, or a QC, and they work on the most serious and complex cases. The majority of senior judges were once QCs.
A barrister is usually self-employed. In Scotland, where the system is slightly different, the equivalent of a barrister is an Advocate.
A legal executive has a similar job profile to that of a solicitor. They can carry out all of the roles that a solicitor does, under the supervision of a solicitor. However, they don’t have a Right of Audience in court, meaning that they can’t appear in court, except in a few circumstances.
How to get into law
The quickest route to becoming a solicitor is to take a degree in law, which usually takes three years full-time.
The next step is to take the Legal Practice Course (LPC), which takes 7-10 months full-time or two years part-time. After the LPC, candidates enter a two-year training contract with a firm or approved organisation, where they are paid full-time for their work as a trainee solicitor.
Barristers also start out with a law degree, before taking the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), which is a one-year full-time or two-year part-time course. Once a candidate has completed their BPTC, they will be ‘Called to the Bar’ to graduate. Following this, they must undertake a pupillage, which is a year-long apprenticeship that incorporates six months of non-practise shadowing pupil supervisors and members of the chambers, followed by six months of practise, where they can accept professional instruction but still shadow a pupil supervisor. Upon completion of this year, pupils receive a Full Qualification Certificate. The fully qualified candidate then has to gain a tenancy in chambers or employment.
Legal executives don’t require a degree in law. They can find employment at a legal practice and then take the necessary qualifications on an accredited course part-time over four years. The candidate’s employer may pay for the course fees. Upon completion, they register with the Institute of Legal Executives - only Fellows of the Institute of Legal Executives are allowed to call themselves legal executives.
Qualifications and experience
Due to the competition to study law, and the demands of the course, A-Levels in academic subjects are needed. Law A-Level isn’t essential, however subjects that require in-depth thinking and analysis such as English and History can be beneficial. Grade requirements vary between institutions, but those wishing to go on to become a barrister or a top solicitor have to demonstrate high and consistent grades, given the high competition for such careers.
Extra-curricular activities that demonstrate a passion for law, advocacy and public speaking can also be beneficial, especially for candidates interested in becoming a barrister, where competition is so fierce.
The average salary for a solicitor is £45,000. Salary levels usually vary depending on location – starting salaries in regions range from £17,000 to £20,000, while in London it can be £30,000 to £36,000. Partners can earn anything from £100,000 to £1million.
The average salary for a barrister is £50,000. The starting salary can range from £10,000 to £90,000, while senior barristers can earn £65,000 to £1million or above.
The average salary for a legal executive is £28,000. Starting salaries are around the £14,000 mark, while those that are fully qualified can be on £35,000.