Independent Graduate: A law unto themselves

Want to become a legal eagle, even though you don't have a law degree? Don't despair, you can convert.

Being a lawyer may be hard work with little play, but the good news is the rewards can be huge - and you don't need a law degree to start with. After a one-year course to convert your degree into a law degree, you'll be at the same level as those poor, hard-working law students. "I had this thought that being a barrister would combine research - which I was quite good at - with practical work. In fact, most of it is much more common sense," explains Stephen Trowell, 31, a doctor of English who six years ago quit his research post to become a barrister.

Graduates' reasons for going into law are as diverse as the field itself. Solicitor Angela Jackson, 37, had a degree in German and French, and started her conversion course when her application to do a postgraduate degree was turned down.

"I wanted to work in the media, and I saw media law as a platform to get into the media in some form," she says. Jackson subsequently trained with a firm of solicitors in their feature film department. Twelve years later, she is running her own practice, working on film projects.

Even better news for graduates is the fact that there are more places than there are applicants for the conversion course: the Common Professional Examination (CPE). For the 1997-98 course, only 136 out of 3,449 applicants were turned down. Even if you're applying after the deadline, you should stand a good chance.

But there the good news ends for a while. Before you lies one year of soaking up legal knowledge. "It was like army boot camp," says Jackson.

The CPE is very facts-based, and Trowell compares the course to doing lots of GCSEs. "It's just knowledge-based exams. They teach you things and you have to repeat them in the exams. There is no analysis or reasoning. But if you're a good sponge learner, it's easy."

Having successfully completed the CPE, you join the crowd of law students competing for a place at either law school or bar school, depending on whether you want to be a solicitor or a barrister.

About half of all applicants for the Bar Vocational Course (bar school) get a place. Out of those, only half again get a pupillage with a set of chambers, and you need one year as a pupil before you are a fully fledged barrister. And, what's more, only about 60 per cent of all pupils get a tenancy. In other words, only one in eight applicants for bar school end up as barristers - therefore, be warned: three years down the line, you may have to consider other job options.

The solicitor route is statistically easier. Almost 80 per cent of all applicants for the Legal Practice Course (law school) get a place. Last year, there were 4,826 two-year training contracts for the 4,460 students that had passed the exam, but they had to compete with a backlog of applicants from the past four of five years.

The average salary for trainee solicitors is around pounds 14,000, rising to pounds 18,500 in London. A pupil barrister was traditionally not even paid, but the Bar Council now recommends that a pupil is paid an annual wage of pounds 5,000.

Then, in a first job, the average solicitor is paid pounds 19,000, rising to pounds 28,000 after five to seven years, although there is a great difference between London and the rest of the country.

As all barristers are self-employed, their position is more uncertain.

"The first two or three months after you are taken on, you get virtually nothing in," says Steven Trowell. "It probably took about six months until anything started coming in that I could live on."

Three years later, however, he has a taxable income of just over pounds 50,000 a year - after his chambers rent, clerks' fees and other costs.

Experts agree that if you're considering a career in law, try work experience with a firm of solicitors or a mini-pupillage, which involves following a barrister around for a couple of days. Only then can you get a real taster for a career in law.

SOLICITOR OR BARRISTER? HOW THEY DIFFER

BASICALLY, SOLICITORS are the ones with the direct contact with the clients; barristers are the ones with the wigs.

Barristers are instructed by solicitors to take cases to court and give specialist advice. Solicitors can represent clients in the lower courts without instructing a barrister.

Solicitors are also the ones to deal with contracts, wills, property transactions, insurance law; in short, all things legal that have nothing to do with a court room, as well as preparations for cases that may go to court.

For more information, contact your university careers office, or check out the following web sites:

The Law Careers Advice Network: www.prospects.csu.ac.uk

The Bar Council: www.barcouncil.org.uk

The Law Society: www.lawsociety.org.uk

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