Although it takes both time and money to qualify, those rising to the top of the legal profession can eventually earn six-figure salaries. A legal qualification can be the foundation for a rewarding and lucrative career: Civvy Street investigates.

“The law,” according to Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, “is an ass.” Yet studying for a legal qualification certainly isn’t stupid. Take, for instance, a former Oxford law graduate by the name of Tony Blair; he may no longer be a practising barrister, but the skills and talents honed through legal training and practice took him to the top. Meanwhile, his wife Cherie Booth QC – as she’s professionally known – stayed in the profession, and reportedly earns even more than her husband – around £250,000 a year.

Alongside detectives, doctors and nurses, legal professionals continue to provide many of our most popular fictional characters – at least if TV and Hollywood are anything to go by. From Perry Mason in the 1950s and 1960s to the likes of Ally McBeal, LA Law and – in the UK – This Life, Judge John Deed and current BBC drama New Street Law – lawyers remain a focus of both drama and comedy. Yet TV and film seldom give an accurate picture of the profession in the UK as they inherently focus on the exciting parts of the job. In reality legal work can be slow and time-consuming, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also ultimately rewarding – be it as an intellectual challenge, an opportunity to ensure justice is done, or an opportunity to benefit from one of the top ranking professions when it comes to salaries.

In the UK, there are three main kinds of qualified lawyer: solicitors, who give advice and assistance on matters of law to the public, commercial companies and other organisations; barristers (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland), who advise on court cases and represent clients in court (a role taken on in Scotland by advocates); and legal executives, who are qualified lawyers (but not registered on the Law Society’s roll of solicitors) specialising in a particular area of law, such as property, inheritance or business law.

Particularly in England and Wales, much day-to-day work undertaken in solicitors’ and barristers’ offices may actually be carried out – under qualified supervision – by professionals called paralegals; these are people who have substantive legal training but are not (or not yet) qualified as either solicitors or barristers.

The majority of people wishing to become qualified lawyers study Law at University: in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this will be a three-year Bachelor of Laws (LLB) or BA course, while an LLB in Scots Law can be studied, north of the border, as either an Ordinary degree over three years or as an Honours degree over four. After completing a degree, those wishing to become Solicitors will need to complete a year-long (full-time) Legal Practice Course (LPC) – the equivalent in Scotland is the Diploma in Legal Practice.

Students then need to successfully complete a two-year training contract with an authorised legal firm, during which time they will receive supervised practical training in both their chosen area of specialism and other aspects of law. After satisfactorily completing this training contract, students can officially join the roll of solicitors held by either the Law Society, the Law Society of Scotland or the Law Society of Northern Ireland.

Graduates wishing to become barristers must, after their law degree, complete a year-long, full-time Bar Vocational Course (BVC), followed by at least a year’s pupillage within barristers’ offices (referred to as ‘Chambers’); this is usually divided into two six-month periods referred to as ‘sixes’. In Scotland, those wishing to become advocates start as ‘Intrants’ to the Faculty of Advocates; subsequent professional training includes up to 21 months in a solicitor’s office followed by approximately nine months ‘devilling’ as a pupil to an existing advocate before sitting the Faculty’s examination in Evidence, Practice & Procedure.

Not everyone begins their legal career by studying law; some people may choose another degree subject entirely and take a conversion course later on. As the Law Society’s Isobel Rowley explains: “A lot of people complete another subject, even though they may have always wanted to go into law. After your first degree you complete a course which is either referred to as the Common Professional Exam (CPE) or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). This is quite a difficult course as you are condensing almost three years of legal knowledge into one year.”

If you prefer to avoid going to university full-time, you have two options. With the vocational approach, you can initially qualify as a legal executive and then become a solicitor later. If you can find work within a legal firm approved by the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX), you can then combine both practical and theoretical training. While this process is undoubtedly more time consuming than full-time study at university, it does allow you to ‘earn while you learn’ – which, if nothing else, can alleviate funding difficulties. Qualified legal executives can then complete further courses to comply with the criteria set by the Law Society and – thanks to the largely practical experience of their training – may be exempted from having to complete the standard two-year training contract before becoming a solicitor.

Alternatively, it may be possible to complete the CPE/GDL if you hold other academic or vocational qualifications recognised by the Law Society or meet their mature student requirements – that is, ‘display considerable experience or exceptional ability in an academic, professional, business or administrative field’ and have ‘satisfied the Society as to character and suitability to become a solicitor’. Each case is considered on its own merits, but time in the Armed Forces could count. Isobel Rowley said: ‘I would imagine that some qualifications people get if they’re with the Armed Forces might meet the needs of our wavers for the degree.’ If you believe you have relevant experience, you should contact the relevant Law Society direct.

Although a small proportion of law graduates use paralegal work as a stepping stone on their way to becoming a qualified solicitor, barrister or advocate, paralegals are increasingly recognised as being valued and skilled professionals in their own right – not least because they undertake a significant amount of work that would otherwise need to be done by the solicitors or barristers they work alongside. Formal education for paralegals is available from colleges, universities and other training organisations; many of these courses are supervised by the National Association of Licensed Paralegals and range from the Higher Certificate in Paralegal Studies (available on a day-release or evening class basis from many further education colleges or by distance learning from the Association itself) to joint degrees and postgraduate Diplomas in Paralegal Practice.

Whatever route you choose, you need to budget well, particularly if you’re opting for a full-time degree course. While Enhanced Learning Credits (ELCs) can help military personnel when it comes to paying for legal courses, the introduction this year of variable tuition fees in England and Wales means that undergraduates will have to eventually pay back tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year. (Scottish students studying Scots Law will only have to pay the one-off Graduate Endowment Payment of currently £2,145.) Fees to complete the LPC can vary from £5,000 – £10,000, while a postgraduate Diploma – through the NALP – costs £950.

“The average age of people becoming solicitors is 29,” according to the Law Society’s Isobel Rowley. “This is partly because the training process is quite long, but also because people are transferring in from having done other things.” Indeed, according to Holly Swaby from the College of Law, experience from other careers is increasingly viewed as beneficial when entering the profession. “Many law firms and barristers’ chambers welcome the broad experience that non-law graduates can bring to the profession – meaning that CPE/GDL students are well-placed to compete with law graduates for training contracts and pupillages.”

However, it’s important to realise that the legal world is highly competitive. “There are more people who want to do law degrees than there are training contracts available” admits Isobel Rowley. “There is a bottleneck. It’s not uncommon for people to have to write hundreds of letters to find a training contract.” But that’s not to say it’s impossible; and the ‘bottleneck’ varies across the legal sector. There are very few places on offer each year at the Bar, yet the number of solicitors is growing. “The profession has grown by half in the last 20 years,” Isobel Rowley adds. “Generally you’re looking at a profession where there are expanding opportunities, which I always think is rather encouraging.”

As Prime Minister Tony Blair and, indeed, current Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell show, training in law doesn’t restrict you to a legal career. Indeed, skills honed during legal training – such as the ability to research, collect and analyse large amounts of information, and to both form and communicate cohesive and logical arguments – are highly valued by many employers, including accountancy and financial firms, the Civil Service, local government (coroners, for instance, must be either solicitors, barristers or doctors), and industry. The Government Legal Service also employs some 1,700 lawyers across 40 central government departments, agencies and public bodies, who provide a comprehensive range of legal services.

Isobel Rowley calls the path towards a legal career “tough but rewarding”, and she isn’t just referring to salaries that can – in time – rise to six figures. “A lot of people go into law because they want to help people at difficult times of their lives, or have a strong belief in international justice.” And for many of us, being able to make a real difference is what makes life worthwhile.

Minimum salary for trainee solicitor (from August 2006) recommended by the Law Society: £15,332 (£17,110 in central London). According to specialist legal recruitment company Hays Legal, newly qualified lawyers (including both solicitors and barristers) will earn from £22-45,000 a year, depending on their location in the UK and the size of the firm; in London this can range from £39-50,000 (£45-52,000 in the City of London). After seven years, lawyers outside of London can earn £34-85,000; in London the figures rise to £63-82,000 (£82-110,000 in the City of London). Salaries can rise even further – as Cherie Blair has shown – depending on your skill, expertise and reputation.

Paralegals will begin on salaries from £13-20,000, depending on location and size of firm; according to Hays Legal, after four years this could rise to between £18-31,000. Legal executives working in London can start on £16-25,000 as students, rising to £27-65,000 as fully qualified ILEX Fellows.


The Law Society
01527 504433

Law Society of Scotland
0131 226 7411

The Law Society of Northern Ireland
028 9023 1614

Institute of Legal Executives
01234 841000

Faculty of Advocates
0131 226 5071

The Bar Council
020 7242 0082

National Association of Licensed Paralegals
0117 927 7077

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