Louise Sethi: 'Many students thinking of a law career will need a flexible attitude and a plan b'

Careers consultant, MLP, careers and employability division, The University of Manchester

A History student has just booked a careers appointment to find out how to become a lawyer. They haven't got around to reading anything yet, but like the idea of being a solicitor. Many a successful career has been built on flimsier foundations. However, to stand a chance, this student, like any other thinking of entering the law professions, needs to do their research and honestly appraise whether they have the ability and tenacity needed for the road ahead.

Law careers are popular with law and non-law students alike because they offer status, potentially high earnings and a chance to do something intellectually challenging, often for the greater good. The programme of career talks universities put on give a chance to learn about commercial and non-commercial law and the life of a solicitor or barrister. These are complemented by regional law fairs where exhibitors give detailed information about recruitment. Also helpful are court visits and open days, arranged by larger law firms, allowing a glimpse at the working environment.

Those who don't seek information could come unstuck. Entry is competitive and the routes to becoming a solicitor or barrister have strict timelines. The solicitor's pathway includes deadlines for the legal practice course (LPC), vacation schemes and two-year training contracts. Aspiring barristers need to meet deadlines for the bar professional training course (BPTC), mini-pupillages and pupillages with barristers' chambers. However, because the Bar is very small, most will take the solicitor route. Non-law students and graduates also need to apply for a law conversion course – the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).

The cost of training can be in excess of £8,000 for a GDL, £12,000 for an LPC and £14,000 for a BPTC. A small number on the LPC will be sponsored by corporate law firms who usually recruit for their training contracts two years in advance of the starting date. Those they select are among the highest achievers who have displayed commercial awareness and a well-informed enthusiasm for the profession. Funding from an Inn of Court is one of the main sources of help available for the BPTC. However, most students on both courses are self-funded and, as the number of training places is limited, some may need to keep up the search for training contracts and pupillages even after they have completed their course. The current economic climate only adds to the pressure.

Many thinking of a law career will need a flexible attitude and a plan B. For those who have completed the LPC/BPTC, but have yet to secure a training contract or pupillage, paralegal work can be a good way to build relevant experience while continuing the search. Otherwise any work experience, even outside a legal setting, will complement a CV. Due to the small number of pupillages and tenancies with chambers, those seeking to become a barrister may find their pathway to the Bar is blocked. Some will decide to "cross qualify" and make the transition from barrister to solicitor where the role of Solicitor Advocate provides an opportunity to represent clients in the higher courts of England and Wales.

Becoming a legal executive is an increasingly popular option, particularly as holding an LPC or BPTC qualification gives exemption from the ILEX academic qualifications. Others consider working in related occupations, such as the police, or as a company secretary, where they can capitalise on their training. Skills also transfer well to positions within both the commercial and public sectors. For information on all this, go to www.lawcareers.net.

For a student just thinking about a career in law, the amount they need to know may seem overwhelming. If so, they should ask themselves if they are suited to a profession where distilling large amounts of complex information is a routine demand. If still keen, they should take a look at student activities on campus to get off to a good start – for example, a student law society, mooting or debating clubs and relevant voluntary work. And, like the history student, if they are eager to know more and grab opportunities to build useful experience, they stand a much better chance of success.

The Law Fair on 29 October in Manchester will have more than 100 exhibitors from City, national and local law firms, representatives from the Bar, legal course providers and professional bodies. See www.manchester.ac.uk/careers/lawfair

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