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Husnara Begum, editor & careers consultant

So, you want to be a lawyer? But do you have a sound appreciation of the legal sector, including the day-to-day responsibilities taken on by lawyers? And are you clear of the steps needed to qualify as a solicitor or barrister? If not, please read on for all you need to know about securing your dream job in the legal profession, the members of which include the likes Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.

Solicitor or barrister?

In England and Wales, the legal profession is split into two: solicitors and barristers, with the term “lawyer” capturing both. Incidentally, there are also alternative routes into the legal profession, including solicitor apprentices and legal executives.

Traditionally, the type of work handled by solicitors and barristers was very distinct. Solicitors were always the first point of contact for clients while barristers represented them in court. These days, however, the work of solicitors and barristers is becoming more difficult to distinguish with some solicitors now also permitted to stand up in court.

You’ll need to decide at quite an early stage which profession you want to join because although aspiring solicitors and barristers both need to complete a degree the route to qualification diverges following the academic stage. As things currently stand, anyone wishing to qualify as a solicitor can either complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) followed by a 24-month period of work-based learning known as a training contract. Note, however, this pathway is being gradually phased out and replaced with the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) and Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). If during the current transitional period when both routes co-exist you feel torn between which one to go down, click here.

Meanwhile, those who want to become barristers must take the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) followed by a year-long apprenticeship with a barrister’s chambers known as a pupillage. Note another subtle difference. Aspiring solicitors who graduate with a non-law degree can progress straight onto the SQE whilst barristers will still need to complete a law conversion course prior to starting the BPTC.

Areas of expertise

Most people’s knowledge of what solicitors do is usually associated with the work handled by high street firms such as advising on the purchase of a new house or on a divorce or representing someone being prosecuted for a crime. However, solicitors work for a variety of employers ranging from one-to-two partner firms to those with hundreds of partners and offices in several different countries. They also specialise in many different areas of law. Some are also employed by companies, banks, or the third sector, while others are based in local or central government. Such individuals are known as in-house lawyers while those who work for law firms are known as private practice solicitors. It’s worth noting that most training contracts and QWE vacancies are within private practice.

The work of commercial lawyers is split into many different practice areas covering banking, corporate, employment, litigation, and media and sport to name but a few. As a corporate lawyer, you may be advising on a multi-billion headline grabbing deal such as the recent takeover of supermarket chain Morrisons by US private equity outfit Clayton, Dubilier & Rice or a budding entrepreneur on the launch of a tech start-up. Meanwhile, as a sports and media lawyer you could even act for a world-famous footballer or rockstar.

The legal profession: fact v fiction

There are number of misunderstandings surrounding the legal profession. For instance, when students are asked why they want to become lawyers many often say they want to help people. But this is simply not always the reality, especially in the commercial arena where clients are typically large faceless corporations. Also, contrary to popular belief lawyers aren’t only called in when things go wrong. Legal advice is needed in many different scenarios that do not necessarily involve a conflict. These include a merger between two multinational companies or for something more straightforward such as a buying a house or preparing a will.

Working as a lawyer is usually not as glamorous as the media might suggest and is certainly a far cry from how it’s portrayed in hit Netflix drama Suits. What’s more, with the exception of the City where annual salaries for newly qualified solicitors can reach in excess of £100,000, earnings are not always as high as you might think. Indeed, some solicitors’ firms only pay their trainees the recommended minimum salaries set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority of £22,794 in London and £20,217 outside London. Note: your salary is chiefly determined by the type of firm you work for, the nature of your work and level of seniority. And in the event you’re invited to join your firm’s partnership you will be rewarded by taking home a portion of the profit.

Barriers to entry

Wherever you’re heading, be that a prestigious City law firm, boutique, or a small high street practice, the route to qualification is costly, lengthy and demands plenty of hard work and commitment. And once you’ve qualified, progression to join the partnership of your chosen firm can take at least 10 years of hard graft. Saying that, not all solicitors will eventually become partners with many choosing to move in-house and others quitting the profession to pursue alternative careers within law or elsewhere.

The importance of a stellar academic record cannot be stressed enough with many of the leading law firms still requiring candidates to achieve top A Level grades and a 2:1 in their degrees. And notwithstanding the emphasis law firms are now placing on diversity, many still have a bias towards applicants from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. And with some employers receiving on average more than 2,000 applications for around 40 to 50 training contract places they can afford to be as fussy as they like. That means, in the absence of a compelling mitigating circumstance, if you don’t make the grades getting beyond the dreaded rejection email will require you to be more resourceful and flexible about the types of firms you apply to.

But firms aren’t just after the most academically able candidates. After all, what’s the point in hiring someone with stellar grades if their knees turn to jelly when interacting with clients. As well as diligent and resilient candidates, firms want applications from individuals with additional qualities such as strong interpersonal, time-management and organisational skills.