Graduates who lay down the law

Whether you studied law or not at university, you can pursue a hugely rewarding career as a solicitor. Kate Hilpern investigates the options for inquiring legal minds
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The Independent Online

Want to become a solicitor, but don't have a law degree? Fear not. Your degree classification, as opposed to subject, is what recruiters will primarily look for. If you want to become a solicitor, and you do have a law degree, you get to skip a year's training. It is, as they say, a win-win situation.

But you'll need to be driven by a passion for using the law constructively, rather than seeing the opportunity to "get rich quick". While many lawyers in City firms get to make serious money, you'll earn it by way of long hours, hard work and a high degree of responsibility without constant supervision. Those who work in high-street practices may do all these things and never make a fortune.

Despite the hard grafting, particularly in the early years, most solicitors will tell you the work is varied and highly stimulating, with many feeling as though they are contributing something genuinely useful to society. Sue Page, an assistant solicitor who specialises in family law at the high-street law firm Osbornes, says, "For many of my clients, the work I do focuses on the most important thing in their life. When you get a good result for them, it's very satisfying."

The rewards can be ground-breaking, adds Makbool Javaid, head of the discrimination law group at top City law firm DLA: "Lawyers have a unique position in society whereby they allow people to access justice and bring about wider change as a result."

Kofi Owusu-Bempah, a trainee solicitor at Linklaters, says that even the training period can be enjoyable. "I particularly enjoy the learning process and discovering new areas of law," he says, "as well as the technical side of things. I also enjoy the client interaction."

And here lies the main difference between barristers and solicitors. While most barristers' work is confined to litigation, solicitors have overall conduct of a case and get to develop a working relationship with the client. According to Melissa Hardee, course director of the Legal Practice Course at the Inns of Court School of Law at City University in London, more and more solicitors are getting to do some advocacy.

"Some people confess they want to become a barrister rather than a solicitor because they have a desire to join an elite profession. One woman even once admitted to me that she was attracted to wearing a wig and gown. But if what you ultimately want is to be an advocate, then I think people should equally be considering solicitor advocacy roles as becoming barristers," says Hardee.

Indeed, a growing number of solicitors qualify for rights of audience in the higher courts, with some City firms encouraging this. "It's ideal for people who enjoy being a mouth piece in court, but want the client contact too," says Hardee.

She strongly opposes the suggestion that solicitors only carry out non-contentious work. "It's simply not true," she says. "In any case, even with the non-contentious work, if you enjoy helping people and working in a cognitive way, it's a great job."

So how do you get in? Those who don't have a law degree will need to do a one-year conversion course, at the end of which you'll take a Common Professional Examination (CPE). But this shouldn't put non-law graduates off, says Mark Blythe, managing director of the graduate specialists GTI. "Careers advisers are often surprised to learn that some employers actually have a preference for non-law graduates, while all of them are willing to consider people without a law degree. But it shouldn't be surprising because these graduates have a wider background and it means they may bring other useful knowledge to their law practice."

Mark Matthews, graduate recruitment officer at the international law firm Richards Butler, says, "Abut 60 to 70 per cent of our trainees have a law degree. But above and beyond that, we like people with varying subjects. You don't want everyone to have gone through the same course and have the same outlook."

Now that you'll have caught up with law graduates, it will be time to take the Legal Practice Course (LPC), which is a one-year postgraduate course. Then comes the really difficult bit - getting a two-year training contract with a firm of solicitors. Although competition isn't as fierce as for pupillages - the barrister's equivalent of a training contract - the Law Society admits it is increasingly tough. Although in 2003-2004 the Law Society recorded the highest number of training contracts ever registered, the organisation stresses that this needs to be balanced with the fact that the number of people doing the LPC is increasing at an even greater rate. The consequence is that some people never get a training contract.

Don't limit your chances by only applying to law firms. Local government and other government institutions are increasingly providing training contracts. You could also consider taking paralegal positions in smaller law firms, which can often lead to a training contract.

"Get as much work experience as possible," says Julie Swan, head of education and training at the Law Society. "Also, get involved in activities at university like debating, mooting, student representation, student law offices and the university law society."

Language skills may help you stand out too, especially in international law firms. "Keep your ear to the ground from the minute you embark upon your law degree or as soon as you discover you're interested in a career in law, for opportunities to meet law firm representatives through law fairs and firm presentations," she adds. "The bigger law firms tend to recruit two years in advance for training contracts."

What's more, getting into larger firms can be particularly difficult. But, says Mark Matthews, "If people have evidence of verbal reasoning, key analytical skills, good interpersonal skills, communication skills, initiative and proof of team working - as well as the academic ability - there's no reason they can't make it."

For those who want to get a training contract with a high-street practice, Richard Sutton, the training partner at Foot Anstey, has some advice. " The first thing is don't worry so much about your degree grade. Although we look for a 2.1, we do take people with a 2.2 if they make up for it in other areas." He adds: "Besides the educational background, we look for the fit-in factor - after all, it's no good having the brightest person in the world if they have no people skills."

If you're applying to a high-street firm, remember that the degree of specialisation varies enormously. Some offer general legal services, from conveyancing and drafting wills to acting for defendants in criminal cases. Others specialise in one or two areas, perhaps doing only corporate work or personal injury work. The smaller the firm and the broader its range of work, the less likely its solicitors will specialise in only one area.

Most newly qualified solicitors choose to stay on with the firm which trained them, since they will often have been offered a long-term contract and will be familiar with the practice and the members of staff. However, some choose to move, attracted by higher salaries, the opportunity for different specialisations or a convenient location.

Solicitors who don't want to work in a City firm or high- street practice can consider becoming an in-house lawyer with a non-corporate organisation. Alternatively, they could work in the public sector - for example, with the Crown Prosecution Service or in local or central government.

Louise Christian: 'I discovered that you could use the law as a weapon to achieve things'

Louise Christian has been a solicitor since 1978. In 1985 she co-founded Christian Fisher, now Christian Khan, a leading human rights firm handling personal injury, medical negligence, employment, mental health crime, family, immigration and public law cases.

During her career she has acted for victims of Lockerbie, the Marchioness, Southall, Paddington, Hatfield and Potters Bar disasters. She was lead solicitor for the victims of Southall and Paddington rail crashes in the public inquiries, as well as acting for the Marchioness victims for 10 years. Recently, she has acted for families of three British citizens detained in Guantanamo Bay.

"I wanted to be an academic," Christian admits. "But I was finding it hard to make ends meet when I did my PhD and then my supervisor left. I decided to give it up and thought I'd get a law qualification under my belt, then do something more exciting."

Having gone to the College of Law in Chester, she managed to get what would now be called a training contract at what is now the City firm Lovells. "It was very well paid," she recalls. "So when I was offered a job there doing litigation work, I took it because they'd been kind to me. Also, there was a lot of competition for the job."

But she became more and more interested in the voluntary work she was doing in legal advice centres, eventually leaving the City firm and setting up a law centre in Woolwich. A couple of years later, she moved to the GLC Police Committee, then briefly went to work for a law firm acting for the National Union of Miners and some individual miners in their strike, before setting up her own firm.

"What appeals to me about this career is what you can achieve by using the law, rather than the law itself," she says. "In fact, at the beginning, I thought law was rather boring. But then I discovered you could use it as a weapon to achieve things for people and to give people the power to achieve things for themselves, which is even more important."

Guantanamo Bay has, not surprisingly, been an important part of her recent career. "It's the biggest global legal case that there is and it's been fascinating because it's involved contact with lawyers and journalists from all over the world," she says. "I've always been really interested in international law and for me, trying to do a case raising international law issues in the UK courts was a challenge. We didn't totally succeed with it, but we got a long way towards raising the issues and putting pressure on the UK government."

Solicitors need persistence and they shouldn't see it is a nine-to-five job, she says. "You have to really care about it."

City or specialist? The choice is yours

City firms tend to focus on commercial law, although some have specialists who deal with family law and private client work. City firms offer a sizeable proportion of all training contracts available in the UK, but only candidates with an excellent academic track record succeed.

International firms have a bias towards corporate and finance work, so if you find big business deals, finance and status appealing, an international firm may be for you. Trainees sometimes take one of their training " seats" abroad and get experience of law in different jurisdictions.

National and regional firms often deal with the same kind of clients as the top City firms. Others work with regional clients in a more local setting. Beware that there are often few trainee places available at these smaller provincial practices.

Specialist or niche firms tend to be based in London, although not exclusively. They usually have a strong reputation for excellence and specialist knowledge in one or more practice areas, such as construction, media or intellectual property law.