legal career guide

1. Understanding the legal market

This StEP provides an overview of the legal profession in different areas of practice, clarifying what solicitors and barristers do to enable you to think about what type of lawyer you want to be.

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Key Decisions

1. Do you want to be a solicitor or barrister?

Solicitors form the largest part of the profession and deal directly with clients. Around three quarters of solicitors work in law firms (known as ‘private practice’) and others are employed by companies, charities and the government (known as working ‘in-house’). The range of work falls mostly into two main areas: contentious (litigation) and non-contentious (transactional).

The Bar is a relatively small profession and the majority of barristers work at the self-employed Bar (known as the ‘independent Bar’). They operate from sets of chambers, with a small number of barristers working in-house. Barristers specialise in two key areas: advocacy and specialist opinion on specific areas of the law.

2. What type of legal employer do you want to work for?

Law firms

Most people who want to become a solicitor, start their career in private practice. Examples of these include:

  • International and City firms (Magic Circle, US firms in London, other City firms)
  • National and regional firms
  • General commercial firms
  • Private client firms
  • General practice/ High Street practice
  • Legal aid firms
  • Niche firms

Barristers’ chambers

Most barristers train at the self-employed Bar. If this is what you want to do, you will need to make a choice between working at the following different types of chambers:

  • London sets
  • Regional chambers
  • Specialist chambers
  • Generalist sets

Alternative routes

Not all lawyers work in law firms or chambers. Other employers include:

  • In-house in commerce and industry (not-for-profit sector and charities)
  • The Government Legal Service (GLS)
  • Local government
  • Magistrates’ courts
  • Law centres and Citizens Advice
  • The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)

3. Which legal practice areas are you interested in?

The work of lawyers is often split into practice areas and you will usually specialise in one or more areas of law as your career progresses. There is a big difference between being a corporate lawyer or a criminal lawyer and even significant differences within a practice area, depending on the type of organisation undertaking the work.

To find more details on each practice area click here.

The training and pupillage market

After deciding the type of lawyer you might like to be, you need to research the number of opportunities available and the level of competition for training contracts and pupillages.

As with any rewarding career, competition to enter the profession is high. However levels of competition vary depending upon the recruiter, location and popularity of the work you want to undertake.

The legal market is changing as a result of globalisation, technology, the economy and regulation, so if you are seeking to enter the legal profession, you need to stay up-to-date on these issues.

Activity

Do you answer mainly YES or mainly NO to the following questions?

1. Do I want to spend much of my time speaking in public, presenting arguments on behalf of my client in court rooms?

2. Would I enjoy the freedom of self-employment and managing my own financial affairs? Can I manage without a formal support structure which employers provide, for example no sick leave pay?

3. Am I prepared to try to enter a profession where there are fewer than 500 training positions (pupillages) per year?

4. Do I want to become an expert in a particular field of law and write specialist opinion answers to questions about complex areas of law given to me by other lawyers?

5. Am I comfortable with the idea of only being given a short amount of time to become familiar with a case before going to court? This means getting to know the client, understanding all relevant documents and preparing an argument at short notice.

6. Do I have the stamina to appear in a variety of different courts across the country, often preparing cases in the evenings and weekends?

7. Do I have excellent academic grades (at least a 2:1 degree)?

8. Do I want to work on a case from start to finish, from taking initial instructions from a client through to potentially attending court with them at the end of the case?

9. Do I enjoy drafting documents?

10. Do I wish to work in an employed capacity?

11. Would I prefer to avoid speaking in court?

12. Do I want to establish long term relationships with clients who return to me with their legal matters?

13. Would I enjoy being based in an office for much of my work?

14. Would I prefer to try to apply to the side of the profession with slightly less competition for training places and where the occasional lower grade is more likely to be forgiven?

If you answered YES to most of questions 1 to 7 above you may wish to consider a career as a barrister.

If you answered YES to most of questions 8 to 14 above you may wish to consider a career as a solicitor.

Frequently Asked Questions

No, many students join us with no particular sector or practice area in mind.

However, if you think you may want to apply to large corporate or commercial, City and regional firms, be aware that the deadlines are usually in July and they recruit 2 years ahead. We advise you to apply early so that you don’t miss the deadline and have to wait another year.

Often the process of making applications, researching employers and understanding your skillset, helps you decide. Knowing which type of firms you’re interested in helps you build up your CV and experience in areas that are most likely to impress your future employer.

Start by working through the first 5 StEPs of this programme to clarify the size, location and kind of client you want to work with, as well as what motivates you. Our experienced career consultants can also help you decide.

Around a quarter of all training contracts are with big City firms in London and over half of all vacancies are concentrated in London and the South East of the UK.

Most training contract opportunities are found in private practice (i.e. law firms).

Look at The Training Contract & Pupillage Handbook and student guides, such as Chambers and Partners, which give you a breakdown of the training contract market each year.

Further statistical information is available from the Law Society.

The Bar Standards Board has the latest statistics and additional information.

There are certain terms you’ll need to get to understand. The main terms to understand now are BPC (formerly known as BPTC) meaning the Bar Practice Course, and pupillage which is the period of work based experience you need after your course, before you can be a practising barrister.

Pupillages are broken down into a first six (first 6 months of your pupillage) and a second six (second 6 months). In the first six, you are non-practising and will assist your pupil supervisor. During your second six you can work on your own cases under supervision and can accept instructions with the approval of your supervisor or head of chambers.

After completing the first and second six and then qualifying, it is possible to undertake a third six. Sometimes barristers continue working at the same chambers while they wait for a tenancy opportunity to arise or switch to another set for a third six, in order to gain experience in a new area of law.

Other terms associated with the Bar is squatters - the name given to those who work from a set of chambers, taking on work from the clerks, even though they are not a member of chambers. Squatters are responsible for themselves and are not supervised as a pupil undertaking a third six would be. Squatting usually occurs when a barrister is waiting for or trying to secure tenancy.

Another term is deviling which means doing paperwork for other members of chambers to use as their own.

The Bar Standards Board has more information on legal terms.

Read legal press websites including Lawyer2B – a publication aimed at the student market.

Next step: 2

Go to step 2 in the Student Employability Programme.

Next step

Employability

Find out how to make the best start to your career through our Employability and Careers Service.

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