A career choice is often inspired by a conversation or passing comment, and this is no less true for lawyers. But unlike some careers, law isn't something you drift into. Once an interest is triggered, options need to be well researched to get onto the right pathway and meet a stream of deadlines.

Law is a popular career choice and one which is also open to non-law graduates if they do a conversion course, the graduate diploma in law. The current economic climate with all its uncertainty could lead greater numbers to enter law with its contrasting image of tradition and security. Students once set on the finance sector have said that law seems a safer bet.

But some areas of law, such as property, have been badly hit by the credit crunch, bringing news of redundancies in a number of law firms. Other areas, including commercial litigation and employment law, look set to receive a boost. Those starting out in a law career could benefit from being flexible about the type of law they specialise in.

The downturn in the economy is not the only factor to consider when deciding on a law career. For some time the legal profession has failed to absorb the number of graduates completing the legal practice course (LPC) and the Bar vocational course (BVC). With courses costing as much as £8,100 for a GDL, £11,550 for an LPC and £14,150 for the BVC, careful consideration is needed before embarking on an expensive journey with no guarantee of an end result.

This doesn't seem to deter many. The prospect of joining a profession offering the opportunity to apply knowledge and intellect, often for the greater good, is extremely appealing. The financial rewards will doubtless also influence a decision. A partner in a commercial law firm can expect to earn more than £100,000 a year, while a top QC can earn in excess of £1m a year. But this is at the top end of the profession. Non-commercial solicitors may earn the relatively modest sum of £35,000 and most barristers wait some time before building a reputation and a good income.

The route to becoming a solicitor is generally regarded as more straightforward than that for the Bar. The larger law firms recruit two years in advance and sponsor law students through the LPC, and non-law students through both the GDL and LPC, before taking them on for a two-year training contract. Most students will be funded by other means and will apply during the LPC for training contracts with smaller commercial firms and specialist legal practices. Getting a training contract can be tough, particularly with firms dependant on legal aid, and it's not uncommon to complete the LPC, then work in a paralegal position before securing one.

Proposed changes to the LPC will soon make it possible to study for the elective elements while undertaking work-based learning, for example, in a law firm. This would reduce the cost of studying and could particularly benefit someone established in a legal organisation and studying for the qualification. It's more difficult, however, to see how it will work for others seeking to enter the profession; logic suggests that law firms may prefer applicants who have completed the LPC.

A working group set up by the Bar Standards Board is reviewing the BVC and acknowledges that the large gap between the numbers of BVC graduates seeking pupillage versus the number available is "a cause for considerable concern". A key recommendation is the introduction of an aptitude test that students will need to pass before being admitted onto a course. This would at least prevent some from wasting their money.

Embarking on the BVC, pupillage and tenancy with a set of chambers is not for the faint-hearted. Securing a pupillage is hard enough, but bagging a tenancy is harder still. The role of solicitor advocate provides an alternative as it enables qualified solicitors to represent clients in the higher courts of England and Wales. This option is increasingly favoured by law firms looking to reduce their costs and avoid paying fees to a barrister.

A new cycle of recruitment is getting underway with application deadlines for the GDL, LPC and BVC coming up. The effects of the economic downturn on the number of training contracts and pupillages will soon become clearer. Meanwhile those who attend law fairs and access sites such as www.lawcareers.net and www.prospects.ac.uk will be better placed than those who simply put in an application and hope for the best.

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