When I was networking with prospective lawyers at She Who Achieves – organised by the Us Programme (founded by the incredible Victoria Azubuike) – I was asked by some of the girls to cover the basics of becoming a lawyer on my blog.
This post is the first of a ‘Becoming a Lawyer 101’ series which will cover what I (as a humble GDL student and having spent two years in my university’s Law Society Committee) know about becoming a lawyer. It should answer your questions if you’re learning about this for the first time!
There’s more to lawyers than defending or prosecuting people accused of crimes…
Lawyers represent you if you are accused of a crime, but they are also instructed to represent the individuals involved in any other dispute over whether a particular rule of law has been broken or not. This can occur in any area of life or business that leads to conflicts. These can range all the way from whether or not you should pay a parking fine to whether or not a multi-national corporation should pay more taxes.
So when you think that broadly, it becomes clear that lawyers do a massive amount of work in many different areas. You can be a lawyer and not defend criminals but represent the government or even a charity. There is no one type of lawyer and they do all sorts of different work.
Two types of lawyer: What are the differences between Solicitors and Barristers?
In the United Kingdom, ‘lawyer’ is actually a general term used to refer to ‘Solicitors’ and ‘Barristers’. These are the two types of professionals qualified to give legal advice and represent you in legal matters. They are trained and qualified to serve different roles in the legal system and there are different circumstances that would require the use of one over the other.
Speaking generally, barristers stand for you in court and speak on your behalf to present your case. They have what is called ‘higher rights of audience’ – a term used to refer to the right to stand before a judge and represent someone in the higher courts. On the other hand, solicitors are trained to focus more on the legal work outside of the courtroom. Although, in some special cases they are granted the ‘higher rights’ to appear in court.
What specific things do lawyers do?
Lawyers are first and foremost the qualified professionals who represent individuals for all legal matters. They are the only people qualified to give legal advice and interpret the law on your behalf. The alternative is self-representation which is when you stand for yourself in a legal dispute or claim. This seems simple in principle, especially if you think your argument or case is very straightforward.
However, it is understood that although everyone abides by the rule of law, they may not know exactly what all the different rules are. They also may not know how the law does or doesn’t apply to their particular situation. Given the complexity of the legal system and the massive amounts of specialist advocacy that is required when arguing certain legal points, professionals who have studied the law and are trained to interpret it are required to represent people.
Without Lawyers, legal disputes would be extremely difficult to settle
As a result, lawyers study the law and develop the skills to research and interpret it and make those arguments on your behalf. That’s why lawyers need to do a Law degree or a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). The Law is simply too complex to tackle alone or without specialist knowledge.
It’s also good to have someone external from your situation look at it through unbiased eyes and give you frank advice about whether it’s worth pursuing or not. That’s why everyone from divorcing couples to the biggest and most experienced companies will still instruct lawyers to get involved in their disputes, even if it’s something they believe to be relatively simple. Your time as a lawyer is valuable because it is your job to know all the different ways a case could be argued.
You can think about learning the law in the same way as learning a language. When you’re learning Spanish you’ll learn the basic grammatical rules and then on top of that you’ll learn all the different definitions and phrases. So when a lawyer is called to assess a situtation, they are essentially using their knowledge of the law to translate it and explain to you, in English, what the law has to say about it.
If you think that you are good at remembering large amounts of information, making arguments and can think quickly and creatively then this is definitely a career path you might enjoy. It’s definitely what attracted me towards it!
A Law Degree alone isn’t enough, you have to undergo specialist training to become a Barrister or Solicitor
Doing a law degree isn’t enough to become a practicing solicitor or barrister. After your Law degree or GDL you must complete either the Legal Practice Course (LPC) if you want to become a solicitor or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) to become a barrister. These courses teach you the fundamental practical and professional skills to practice as either a solicitor or barrister and they each take one year to complete.
Following the LPC or GDL solicitors and barristers undertake two different types of vocational training before they are allowed to practice independently without supervision. For solicitors, they must undertake a ‘Training Contract’ (also known as a ‘TC’). During your TC you’ll spend two years in different ‘seats’ in a particular firm depending on their practice areas. For example, in a Commercial firm you would likely complete four six-month seats in areas such as Banking, Litigation, Corporate or Tax. A ‘seat’ is where you undertake work under a supervisor and they give you various types of feedback.
Barristers complete a 12-month process known as ‘Pupillage’. During this time, barristers generally spend the first six months working under a supervisor and assisting more senior barristers with their work. The second six months is generally where barristers are allowed ‘on their feet’ and begin to take on their own clients and cases.
Solicitors generally spend more time dealing directly with clients and Barristers are hired for specialist legal knowledge and advocacy
When you want a divorce for example, you will go to your solicitor who will provide you advice and then, should you agree to pursue a case, will build that case with you. If the details of your claim or dispute can be resolved by liaising with the lawyers on the other side without having to go to court, then you will generally only deal with your solicitors.
Solicitors are involved in various types of out-of-court dispute resolution. However, once it becomes clear that neither party can agree on a certain point of contention, then your solicitor will instruct a barrister to represent you in court. The solicitor will prepare a ‘bundle’ which is the documents that contain the different arguments and evidence for each side. Multiple copies are of the bundle are made – one for your lawyers, one for the judge and one for the opposing side.
Solicitors can be granted ‘higher rights’ as I mentioned earlier. Increasingly, more criminal defendants in the Magistrates and Crown courts are defended by ‘Solicitor Advocates’ and some corporate firms have specific opportunities that allow you to pursue higher rights for litigious work. I’ll be comparing becoming a barrister to becoming a solicitor advocate in a future post.
How likely are you to get a job as a Solicitor or Barrister after completing your training?
Being a lawyer isn’t really like having a normal job. Barristers are actually self-employed and are independent practitioners of the law. Barristers aim to be offered tenancy which is the life-long membership of a particular ‘Chambers’ or ‘Set’ – the name given to groups of barristers who work together and share the same office space. In exchange for a for a contribution to Chambers’ expenses, barristers receive the benefits of having ‘Clerks’ who take instructions from solicitors and bring work to the Chambers or specific barristers.
Solicitors are hired by a particular firm and therefore receive all the employee benefits such as sickness pay, maternity leave and so on. When you are offered a TC it can come with a guarantee that after your two year training period you will have a job in that firm. In exchange for covering the costs of your LPC and sometimes your maintenance costs to move to the city where the firm is based, you may be contracted to work for that firm for a certain period after your training. As a result, TC offers are generally made two years in advance and are usually granted in your second or final year of university. That’s why it’s really important to be certain about the firm you apply to for a TC.*
* Amendment* – I’ve updated this section on TC’s after a really helpful piece of clarification that most TCs don’t necessarily come with the guarantee of a job at the end. It’s not uncommon for a firm to lose a few trainees at qualification either because they don’t have a position available in the trainee’s department of choice, or because the trainee hasn’t impressed them enough during the TC.
There are many firms that recruit for newly qualified positions. Rarely will a firm retain all of its trainees at qualification – only about 6 that managed it in 2017 see http://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/where-to-start/newsletter/trainee-retention for more details!!
(Thank you so much for this clarification! I copied her comment near verbatim!) – B x
Similarly, there is no guarantee that pupillage will be followed by an offer for ‘tenancy’. Becoming a barrister is potentially a more uncertain choice but the work is extremely rewarding.
Overall, Lawyers do a wide range of interesting and different work
Becoming a lawyer is a long task but the range of different areas of life that lead to disputes mean that there is an abundance of work for lawyers to do. I remember when I was deciding over which area of law to focus on and I discovered the role played by barristers in government inquiries, their role in ‘test cases’ with massive political and social significance and their professional and public activism to protect civil liberties. This opened me up to ‘Public Law’, an area of practice I hadn’t even heard of before university!
I hope that this post has been helpful and has covered the basics for you. Good luck with your future law career!