How to become a legal eagle

The law is about more than a solid career path and a fat pay packet: some people want to use their training to make the world a better place, says Neil Midgley

Duty solicitors bailing pub brawlers out of police stations on a Saturday night may not seem to have much in common with the pin-striped lawyers who negotiate City mergers. But both careers start with the same academic paths - qualifications that also take graduates to the criminal bar, banking, industry and the public sector. That flexibility, along with the small fact that solicitors at top City firms can earn upwards of £1m a year, may account for the law's increasing popularity as a career. In the last 10 years, the number of solicitors has grown by more than 50 per cent. In 2003, 12 per cent more barristers qualified than in 2002. And, for those who really want to keep their options open, a career in the law doesn't even have to start with a law degree.

"Firms like to recruit a mixture of law graduates and converts," says Julie Swan, head of education and training at the Law Society, the regulatory and professional body for solicitors. "Some firms will be attracted by people with language degrees, or wider business skills, or a scientific background in order to practise, say, patent law." Students who take a non-law degree need to spend an extra year on a graduate diploma in law to complete the academic stage of their training. Fees for these one-year conversion courses can run to more than £6,000, with living costs on top - money that students with undergraduate law degrees don't have to shell out. Commercial law firms will pay the fees for people to whom they've already offered jobs, together with maintenance grants of about £5,000. But the Government's student loans scheme doesn't cover graduate courses like these, so many students are left with no option but to take out bank loans.

"Financing their studies is something that everyone should consider at the outset," says Swan. "But if money is no object, then pick the undergraduate course that you think you'll enjoy the most." And get the best degree you can: the top law firms have the pick of the graduate crop, and require at least a predicted 2:1. They only actively recruit from Oxbridge and other traditionally academically excellent universities, such as London, Manchester and Warwick.

When you exit the academic stage, you have to choose between qualifying as a solicitor or a barrister. The English legal profession is still divided between the two, with barristers retaining the bulk of advocacy work in court. Barristers are also self-employed, grouping together into "sets" of chambers for administrative and marketing purposes. Solicitors, on the other hand, work for law firms with a virtual monopoly on day-to-day client contact. They also deal with the bulk of non-contentious legal work (such as commercial transactions and conveyancing). Choosing to qualify as a barrister means an independent yet uncertain future. "Barristers need to be resilient, because they will inevitably suffer disappointments in their careers, which can be difficult if they're on their own," says Nigel Bastin, head of education and training at the Bar Council, the professional body for barristers. "But you're in charge of your own destiny - in control of what you do and don't do. If you want to specialise in human rights, and you're good enough, you're able to do so - you don't have to ask your senior partner's permission first."

The next stage is to obtain a professional qualification, either the Bar Vocational Course (to qualify as a barrister) or the Legal Practice Course (to qualify as a solicitor). Competition for places can be intense: for the BVC, for example, there are about 2,500 applications a year for less than 1,500 places. The courses reflect the professional focus of each branch of the profession, with the BVC concentrating on advocacy, opinion-writing and research, and the LPC's core subjects including conveyancing, probate and solicitors' accounts. Students also have to choose where to study: both courses are offered not only by dedicated professional colleges, but also by private providers (such as BPP Professional Education) and "new" universities. Many of these former polytechnics have been aggressive in building their student numbers. In 1992, Nottingham Trent University trained 150 students a year to be solicitors; today, that number is 650. Professor Peter Kunzlik, dean of the NTU law school, puts its success down to the quality of its teaching. "We tend to recruit lecturers who are excellent academically but also have a professional background - I myself was a partner in a major law firm," he says. "As a university law school, we also conduct research - particularly practice-relevant research, which we can feed into our vocational courses."

Financing this vocational stage is, again, not always easy. Sponsorship by a law firm is the easiest way for potential solicitors; at NTU, for example, 78 firms are sponsoring students. For the bar qualification, though, finding support is harder - scholarships are available to fewer than 300 of more than 1,400 BVC students. In 2002, a Bar Council report proposed that a training levy should be imposed on practising barristers to increase that number to 400, but it met with fierce opposition and was not adopted. The best that the Bar Council can say is that a voluntary scheme to increase the number of scholarships may be in place later this year. For those finishing the BVC and entering pupillage, there's better news: chambers are now required to pay pupils at least £10,000 for what used to be an unpaid year's training, and rates at the best commercial sets are significantly higher than that.

In the City, the financial picture for trainee solicitors is rosier still. Starting salaries are about £28,000 and, when those trainees qualify two years later, compensation rises to about £50,000. Equity partners in city firms (aged 30 and more) take home anything from £300,000 to £1m or more. But the money isn't the only reward that keeps City lawyers chained to their desks for those fabled long hours. "We are quite spoilt working here. You're working with a lot of other bright people who all want to get the job done and don't shirk," says Clodagh Hayes, the partner in charge of graduate recruitment at Linklaters, one of the "magic circle" of top City law firms. "You also get interesting clients who are always wanting to do something a bit different. But it is working in the City, so even though the high starting salaries are seductive, it might not be right for an idealistic student."

Over in Wandsworth, Steven Bird is closer to an idealist's view of legal practice. He runs Birds Solicitors, a niche criminal practice that's tiny compared to Linklaters but is still one of The Legal500 directory's recommended firms for criminal work in London. At that end of the profession, the starting salary for a trainee solicitor is about £17,000, with new qualifiers making only about £23,000. But there are other rewards. "The work is fascinating," Bird says. "I'm dealing with about 50 cases at the moment, the least serious of which is an indecent assault on a nine-year-old child. Murders, rapes, big drugs cases... and there's the sense that you're doing something worthwhile. It's important for a civilised country to have a proper and decently funded criminal justice system. But given the uncompetitive salaries at firms that do mainly legal-aid cases, what we're really crying out for is more good people to come and help do that work."

'I'M ONE OF LIFE'S ORGANISERS': THE STORY OF A TRAINEE SOLICITOR

Helen MacQuire, 25, is a trainee solicitor at Pannone & Partners, a commercial firm in Manchester

"When I left school in Warrington, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. I went to Magdalen College, Oxford, where I read English. But it was helping with the college players that made me realise that I had a talent for organisation. After I graduated with a 2:1, I got a job selling advertising space with a company in Manchester that published building industry journals. I ended up in their credit-control department, which turned out to need creative dispute resolution skills - for example, I might have to placate a client who had been unhappy with their ad. And working with our solicitors made me think I'd like to do their job full-time.

I applied to Chester College of Law, where I did the graduate diploma in law and then the Legal Practice Course. Pannone & Partners offered me a training contract, which meant they paid half of my fees for the LPC. But even with that help, I ended up £12,000 deeper in debt over the two years.

I don't have any complaints about my work at Pannone. Sometimes I assist partners on large cases - in the personal injury department, we had some new instructions from a man who'd been diagnosed with mesothelioma, an aggressive type of tumour caused by exposure to asbestos. I had to take witness statements and get the facts straight; I was also his first port of call at the firm. My best experience was working on the trial of a commercial dispute between shareholders in a company - several hundred thousand pounds were at stake. I not only had to take notes, but also had to follow through with legal research after court to be ready for the following day's hearing. Those organisational skills have certainly come in handy. In fact, I'm hoping to qualify into the commercial litigation department in September. Currently, I make £21,000 a year; on qualification, I can expect to make £32,000." NM

education@independent.co.uk

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