Head start: How to launch a career in the legal profession

Far from paper-pushing, solicitors enjoy an exciting and privileged career. Kate Hilpern rounds up the routes to success
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The Independent Online

"Most people think 'boring' when they hear the word solicitor," says Cara Roberts, a trainee solicitor at Cardiff law firm Dolmans. "They assume it's all about paperwork, with barristers getting to do all the fun stuff in court." Roberts admits that she even thought it herself until halfway through her degree. "But after undertaking a number of work experience and vacation placements, you realise that there's massive scope and variety in the work and it's far from dull."

Indeed, lawyers point to the buzz of having a unique position in society where they allow people to access justice and bring about wider change as a result. Moreover, a growing number of solicitors qualify for rights of audience in the higher courts, making the profession ideal for people who enjoy being a mouthpiece in court, but want the client contact too.

Like many solicitors, Roberts chose the fastest route available and went straight through from school to a law degree to the one-year legal practice course (LPC), to the two-year training contract. "The hardest part by a long way was getting a training contract," says Roberts, echoing the experience of many solicitors. "But I was extremely fortunate and was offered two out of the three interviews I attended."

Increasing numbers of solicitors, however, do a non-law degree and only decide on the profession part-way through the course – or even after graduating. In both cases, it's necessary to do a one-year conversion course, at the end of which you'll take the common professional examination before joining your law graduate peers for the LPC course. But if you think being a late starter will go against you, think again. "We absolutely don't mind if people have done a non-law degree," says Danny Gowan, senior partner at Davies Arnold Cooper, the commercial law firm. "In fact, in some respects the broader the background of the individual, the better equipped we believe he or she will be during their training contract."

If you've embarked on a first career too, better still, he says. "We find that individuals who have, say, worked in other commercial organisations before deciding to train as a lawyer, generally have a greater commercial awareness and understanding about what our clients require."

Mona Taheri, whose first degree was in biochemistry and pharmacology, agrees that people coming from a non-law background bring added value to their role as a solicitor. "In making the decision to convert to law, you need to learn how you stand out from the crowd and use that to your advantage to develop your legal career. More often that not, the skills and experience you pick up at university will be your unique selling point in law," she explains.

Don't fall into the trap of becoming a solicitor because of what you've seen on the television, she cautions.

"Being a solicitor is not like a scene out of Ally McBeal or LA Law. It is not as glamorous. We don't have same-sex toilets and we don't win every case in court. Be prepared for the reality, which is lots of hard work together with ups and downs you would expect in any career you follow."

That said, the rewards are huge, says Anne Compton, managing partner at Rickerbys, the Cheltenham-based solicitors. "The law provides a satisfying career with lots of responsibility and opportunities to solve client problems and make a real difference," she says.

Hannah Shield, a solicitor at PricewaterhouseCoopers, agrees. "Being a solicitor is intellectually challenging, with lots of opportunities to keep learning and to progress in your career."

No two days are the same, adds James Wilders, graduate recruitment partner at Dickinson Dees, the law firm based in Newcastle. "I encounter clients from all sorts of different backgrounds, from the proprietor of a small business to the chief executive of a fully quoted public limited company to the owner of a landed estate."

There are four types of law firms in which solicitors work. City firms, which tend to focus on commercial law; international firms, where there is a bias towards corporate and finance work; national and regional firms, some of which deal with the same kind of clients as top City firms or regional clients in a more local setting; and specialist or niche firms, which tend to be based in London and usually have a strong reputation for excellence and specialist knowledge in one or more practice areas, such as construction or media. It doesn't stop there – you could also choose to work in a business or organisation, in local government or in the courts.

According to the Law Society, all these options are as popular as ever.

"Law still remains a premium choice for students," says Rita Oscar, who is in charge of career development at the Law Society. "Recent anecdotal evidence suggests that students now see a career in the legal profession as more viable than the financial world."

Not that being a solicitor is recession-proof. Helplines are reporting calls from solicitors in conveyancing who are facing redundancy, says Oscar. "Calls are also being received by trainees who are being made redundant because of the closure of departments and firms."

But, points out Neil Smyth, graduate recruitment partner at Taylor Wessing, "Some practice groups are more recession resilient than others, depending on the root cause of the recession. Insolvency and litigation are examples of practice groups that thrive in recessions."

Every year, Taylor Wessing offers 24 training contracts. Smyth says that as well as high intellectual ability, he looks for candidates who are team players and have the potential to build relationships with clients and who have a desire to take on responsibility and make a real impact on the business. "Excellent communication skills, energy, ambition, an open mind and a willingness to learn are also key attributes," he says.

Tony Hyams-Parish, partner at employment group Rawlison Butler, says that experience is also key. "Candidates need to set themselves apart. We look for any additional experience candidates can show – whether work experience or voluntary work."

If you're lucky enough to land a training contract – and be warned that there are normally 2,000 fewer training contracts than students trying to secure them each year – you have reason to celebrate. You'll have kick-started a very exciting career, and while you'll have to work hard, you'll still have time for a life, says Hyams-Parish. "There's an assumption that becoming a solicitor means you'll not have a home life. Here, people work hard and do work long hours if a job needs to be done – but it is not part of our culture. We have a good work-life balance."

'Your undergraduate study will always help you as a solicitor'

Nishant Sood is a trainee solicitor at Browne Jacobson. He joined the firm as a trainee in March this year, having originally embarked on a medical career.

"I think there will be a lot of people at university who have lost interest in the particular subject they are studying, or realise they were just too young and inexperienced to choose the direction of their future career at school. There will also be many people already in work who no longer find their job fulfilling. Both of these things happened to me and I started to consider alternative careers.

What ended up attracting me to law was the possibility of variety, still being able to make an impact with other people and being able to blend my previous medical background with the law in the clinical negligence sector. Generally, your undergraduate study will always help you as a solicitor, regardless of what subject you studied.

I didn't find getting onto the law conversion course a problem at all. Getting the training contract at Browne Jacobson was certainly harder. I think you have to be quite tactical as to what applications you make. A lot of people will use a scattergun approach and apply everywhere, but you need to make sure that your application is specifically tailored to the firm you're applying to. There is plenty of help and advice about how to apply from careers services and online legal websites.

My first placement was in social care and education, which lasted until September. I have since joined the health team, where I will work until February next year. Most of my work is in and around clinical negligence, acting for NHS trusts. The firm also does a lot of work for NHS bodies, advising them on their provision of services. I sometimes get involved in this as well.

I think most people will rate their work in terms of their salary, and lawyers are generally comfortable. However, the best thing about being a solicitor for me is the chance of finding something you are happy doing long-term within the profession. The legal sectors themselves are completely different, ranging from commercial work to human rights and immigration, from private client work to negligence. This will always give you the opportunity to find your niche."

'I enjoy the day-to-day contact with clients'

Beth Lovell is a former drama student-turned solicitor at Matthew Arnold & Baldwin, a commercial law firm that she joined in 2005.

"My first degree was in radio, film and television studies with English literature. After I graduated in 2001, I sought work in the media industry. But I soon realised this was not where I wanted to be. I enjoy problem-solving, analysing situations and drawing conclusions and I thought that these skills would be well suited to the legal profession.

The law conversion course is very intensive. The aim is to deliver the content of a three-year law course in a single year. I found it harder than studying for my first degree. Revising for seven exams to be taken over a two-week period at the end of the course was particularly hard but I got my rewards, passing with distinction.

Securing a place on the CPE and LPC had been fairly easy, but obtaining a training contract was a different prospect. I attended a number of interviews without success. However, I got two offers in the end – one of which was from Matthew Arnold & Baldwin, a commercial law firm. Being particularly interested in commercial law, I chose to accept their offer.

Working as a solicitor, there is a real sense that you are helping people. I enjoy the day-to-day contact with clients who come from different backgrounds and working with them to try to achieve their objectives. The work of a solicitor can be varied and the law is ever-changing.

As with all jobs, there are downsides to the legal profession, whether it be the long hours or having difficult opponents or clients to deal with. But on the upside, I do not worry about the recession. It is expected that litigation work will increase during the current economic climate, particularly debt recovery litigation.

I would advise anyone who is considering embarking on the CPE and then LPC to first try to obtain some work experience in a solicitors' firm, in-house legal department or similar. Not only will this enable you to judge whether it is the career for you – but it will also and stand you in good stead at any training contract interviews."

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