If you are considering a career in law, it is worth spending some time investigating the various options available before committing your time and money. There is a bewildering array of areas of legal practice and each one has a variety of qualification routes and exemptions.
As the legal system in each country is different, a qualification in law will only permit you to practice in the country in which you qualified. This also applies within the United Kingdom. If you qualify in England and Wales, you will not be permitted to practice in Scotland or Northern Ireland unless you take a transferring qualification. This should be taken into account if you live near the border or are considering moving in the future.
Any legal career will involve hard work, organisation, precision and attention to detail, all carried out under pressure. You will also need to be able to deal with people of all kinds in a professional manner. The rewards can be substantial, both personally and, in some cases, financially.
What type of lawyer do you want to be?
You may first want to consider what type of legal practice appeals to you. There are many options over and above the familiar high street Solicitor. The term ‘lawyer’ refers to someone qualified and experienced in the law and is not limited to Solicitors.
Some lawyers specialise and are qualified in particular areas of law, such as Legal Executives and Licensed Conveyancers.
Solicitors are lawyers who advise clients directly on various areas of law and who sometimes appear in court.
Barristers advise Solicitors and represent clients in court, especially in the higher courts, where Solicitors and Legal Executives without additional qualifications may not be permitted.
There are also more niche areas of legal practice, including Costs Lawyers, Notaries, Patent Attorneys and Trade Mark Attorneys.
Area Of Law
You may wish to list what draws you to a legal career, in order of priority. If the cut and thrust of defending a client in court appeals to you, you might want to work as a criminal Barrister. A job as a property lawyer is unlikely to involve any time in court and so could be less suitable for you. To qualify as a Barrister, a law degree would be a good starting point.
On the other hand, if your main priority is to help people through difficult times, a position in family law might be more appealing. An in-house role working on commercial contracts might not fulfil your ambitions. Qualifying as a Solicitor might be the most appropriate route to a job as a family lawyer.
Some lawyers work in private practice, taking on cases for various clients. Others will work ‘in-house’, giving legal advice only to their employer. This could mean working for a local authority or for a large company. Many lawyers specialise in criminal cases and work for the Crown Prosecution Service. This involves advising the Police on whether a case is strong enough to prosecute someone suspected of a criminal offence, and representing the prosecution case in court.
The best way to reach your career goal may depend to a large extent on your current circumstances. The main options are:
- A professional qualification as a lawyer (ie a Chartered Legal Executive or Licensed Conveyancer);
- A law degree (or non-law degree with a law conversion course) followed by a legal practice course and a training contract (Solicitor)
- A law degree (or other degree with a law conversion course) followed by a Bar Professional Training Course and a pupillage (Barrister).
With university tuition fees on the rise, the cost of obtaining a law degree could prove prohibitive. A professional qualification as a lawyer is a cheaper alternative. A professional qualification also has the advantage of being more flexible and allowing you to work while studying. If you are a school leaver, it is more likely to allow you to remain living at home, so saving money which would otherwise be needed for separate student accommodation.
If your aim is to qualify as a Barrister, a professional qualification will not be acceptable and a degree will usually be required. It is possible to apply for an exemption to this requirement but there is no guarantee of acceptance.
It is possible to qualify as a Solicitor after first qualifying as a Legal Executive, but this can be a protracted affair. Fellowship of a professional body such as the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives is designed to produce experts in a particular field. Qualification as a Solicitor requires a more in depth grounding in other areas of law, even if you have no intention of specialising in these areas. This means you will need to sit additional exams before commencing the Legal Practice Course. You may, however, be exempt from the requirement for a two year training contract.
Finally, it is worth investigating how much time in court your chosen area of law might require. Solicitors and Legal Executives are not permitted to represent clients in all courts. They can obtain additional qualifications to enable them to do this, known as ‘higher rights of audience’. If you are at the start of your legal career, it might make sense to start off with the aim of becoming a Barrister rather than having to take additional qualifications.
Whether you are just starting out in your professional life or are considering a change of direction, a career in law could be for you. Whatever your chosen path, with hard work and commitment, you could soon be en-route to becoming a practising lawyer