A career in law: It’s not all court battles and cross-examinations

Russ Thorne looks at the realities of practising law in the UK and explains exactly who does what

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The Independent Online

The image of the legal profession created by countless TV dramas can often be one of tense stand-offs played out against grave courtroom backdrops. While elements of this can certainly be true, the on-screen stories represent the merest tip of the iceberg in terms of the work done by solicitors and barristers.

Barristers can and do wear elaborate wigs and argue in court, for example, but this is only one facet of their role. Likewise solicitors may well pursue personal injury claims for those involved in accidents at work, but this is far from their only function. In fact, the legal profession is very broad and there is often a crossover between the work of solicitors and barristers: see lawcareers.net for more information, or rollonfriday.com for a slightly more irreverent approach.

Solicitors

What they do: According to figures from the College of Law, solicitors make up the largest part of the legal profession with some 100,000 practising solicitors currently working in the UK. They offer legal advice and counsel to clients, and, depending on the kind of firm they work for, could be involved in drawing up contracts between large multinational corporations, resolving employment disputes within large UK companies, or helping private clients arrive at a divorce settlement or draw up a will.

They also work with barristers and brief them on cases due to go to court. Solicitors may also plead cases themselves in front of a judge and jury at the Crown Court if they gain Higher Rights of Audience, allowing them to fulfil the same role as a barrister.

Who they work with: A solicitor can be employed at one of several levels within the profession. The top five “Magic Circle” firms in the UK (Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Allen & Overy, and Slaughter and May) and other large commercial firms work exclusively with major organisations and PLCs throughout the world, dealing with business and financial law. Slightly smaller national and regional firms will work with public and private companies, again advising on business law, litigation, tax and so forth, while “high street” firms work with private clients on more day-to-day matters including wills, probate and conveyancing. There are also niche firms specialising in specific areas of law, such as construction.

Solicitors don’t work exclusively for law firms. They can also be employed in-house by corporations, public bodies (such as the Crown Prosecution Service), government agencies or charities.

How to qualify: There are two routes into the profession. Applicants can take a three-year law degree (LLB) followed by the legal practice course (LPC) and a two-year training contract – much like an apprenticeship – within a law firm, before beginning work as a newly qualified solicitor; or those with a first degree in a separate subject can convert to law via the graduate diploma in law (GDL) before following the same LPC and training contract route. The GDL and LPC can be taken as full-time courses (lasting a year each) or part-time (two years each), and are offered at law schools throughout the UK, such as the College of Law.

Rates of pay: Solicitors’ pay varies hugely depending on their seniority, the kind of firm they work for and geographical location to a certain extent – rates of pay in London tend to be higher. Recent figures from the Solicitors Regulation Authority put minimum salaries for trainees in London at £18,590, and £16,650 for those in the rest of England and Wales. In practice, the actual figures can be higher in large commercial firms: lawcareers.net puts starting salaries in major firms between £25,000 and £35,000.

Barristers

What they do: Barristers will plead cases in court in front of a judge and jury on behalf of a solicitor and their client, when specialist advocacy is required. Usually this takes place in the higher courts, such as the Crown Court, with solicitors generally appearing in county or magistrates’ courts. However, their roles are far from limited to appearing in court, says Angela Smith of the College of Law. “I do sometimes have the impression that students’ desire to become a barrister has been fuelled by watching too much TV,” she says, explaining that barristers also spend a significant amount of time researching points of law to advise clients, drafting legal documents, writing opinions or negotiating settlements.

Who they work with: The Bar is a fairly small profession, incorporating some 15,000 barristers throughout England and Wales. The majority – around 80 per cent – are self employed and work in chambers (an office where several barristers are based), with the remainder employed in-house by companies and government, much the same way as solicitors. Barristers are generally hired by solicitors rather than working directly with the public; in addition to advocacy and advising on legal issues, barristers working in chambers must also contribute to their running and management.

How to qualify: In the first instance, barristers take a three-year LLB law degree, or a first degree in a different field followed by the graduate diploma in law, in much the same way as a prospective solicitor.

After the GDL they’ll study the Bar professional training course (BPTC) to learn the practical skills necessary to work as a barrister, before applying for a year-long pupillage at a set of chambers – again, the pupillage is similar to an apprenticeship and fulfils the same role as a solicitor’s training contract, providing opportunities for work-based learning. Applicants should be prepared for a competitive field, says Smith: “Every year there are slightly fewer pupillages on offer, so the competition to obtain one is immense.”

Access to the Bar is governed by the four Inns of Court (Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn), and candidates must join one Inn before commencing the BPTC. Popular myth has it that dining at the Inns of Court provides access to the profession; in reality the Inns offer mandatory “qualifying sessions” (some of which do indeed include formal dinners), training, support and networking opportunities – while still maintaining a certain air of mystery.

Rates of pay: During their year of pupillage barristers can expect to be paid a minimum of£10,000, although larger sets can pay upwards of £30,000. Once qualified, salaries can vary a great deal, with top barristers and QCs earning six-figure sums; in-house barristers (such as those in the CPS) might earn between £29,000 and £80,000 per year.

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