The law in your own hands

The routes to becoming a solicitor require effort, but the rewards are great

Steve McCormack
Thursday 18 November 2004 01:00

There are three main routes to becoming a solicitor: the first starts with a law degree, the second with a degree in another subject, and the third route is for non- degree holders, usually working somewhere in the legal profession.

There are three main routes to becoming a solicitor: the first starts with a law degree, the second with a degree in another subject, and the third route is for non- degree holders, usually working somewhere in the legal profession.

The only difference between the first two options is that the non-law graduate, because they've spent three years at university doing French, maths or geography, will have to spend another year cramming their head with legal knowledge to bring them level with the peers who decided to read law in the first place.

This postgraduate year can be done at law colleges and universities, and ends, hopefully, with the passing of the Common Professional Examination (CPE), also called Graduate Diploma in Law. It's hard work as it covers, in little more than eight months, material otherwise spread over a three-year first degree. From this point on, the two paths converge.

The next stage is the Legal Practice Course (LPC), something done at largely the same institutions that offer the CPE. The content of this course, though, is not so much legal theory as the practical skills you need to work in a solicitor's office.

It's not just acquiring knowledge, according to Julie Swan, the Law Society's Head of Education and Training, but having the skills to implement what you know in real settings.

"For example, you'll already know the theory of conveyancing, but can you actually convey a real house sale? In the area of criminal law, can you represent someone at the police station?" says Swan.

To apply for a full-time place on either this course or the CPE, contact the Central Applications Board ( For part-time places, contact the institutions direct.

After the LPC, you need to do two full years' practice-based training. This is a real job in a real legal environment with an employer who undertakes to train you as well as pay you. You might be handling your own cases, but always supervised by a qualified solicitor. Most training is done in private solicitors' practices, which could be anything from a small provincial high street firm to a multinational with hundreds of partners. However, practice-based training can also be done within central or local government, industry, the Crown Prosecution Service or magistrates courts.

This all sounds fine and dandy, until the reality strikes, as it does many students, that it can be very hard to land one of these training contracts.

"Just because you pass the Legal Practice Course doesn't mean you'll walk into a training contract," warns Swan. Many people just can't get one, and this is one of the pinch points where graduates give up the quest to become a solicitor and adopt a different career. But persistence often pays off - and it'll help if you're flexible, mobile and good at persuading an employer that you can make a contribution to the practice.

The other reason why around half of all law graduates do not become qualified solicitors is finance. The LPC, for example, costs £5,000-£9,000, fees that are often paid by law firms, who have already effectively hired a student. But many have to finance themselves through this stage, for example Elisabeth Julien, who did her CPE at the University of East Anglia after getting a degree in politics and philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University. "My LPC, at the Inns of Court School of Law in London cost £8,500. It is a huge amount of money and I'm going to be paying it off for ages. Finance is the single biggest consideration of training to be a solicitor."

Julien worked about 30 hours a week in a shop in Oxford Street during her LPC, something, she said, she wouldn't have been able to do if she'd been in any way ambivalent in her desire to become a solicitor.

During the two years' practice-based training, would-be solicitors have to acquire one more formal qualification. This is the Professional Skills Course, often broken up into bite-sized chunks, taken in day- or week-long release periods away from the office.

In many ways, this provides an extension and refinement of much of what was learnt during the Legal Practice Course. Core elements include advocacy, client care, and the business and financial aspects of being a solicitor. Although the theory behind these areas will certainly have been encountered previously, the Law Society believes that such knowledge, and the associated professional skills, can only be honed and polished after the trainee solicitor has had some experience working in a real office on real cases.

This is the last piece of the jigsaw. After two years' practice-based training, with the endorsement of a senior partner of the employing firm, individuals can apply to be admitted to the roll of solicitors in England and Wales. If you've got this far, this is the moment you can finally call yourself a solicitor.

A minority of new solicitors reach this stage though by a different route: the one based on exams set and authorised by ILEX, the Institute of Legal Executives. This is designed largely for people without a degree but who are already working, and acquiring relevant experience, in the legal profession. Study is usually undertaken while staying in employment, and exams have to be taken to gain Levels 3 and 4 of the ILEX Professional Diploma in Law. This takes a minimum of five years, after which students move on to take the Legal Practice Course, in the same way as graduates. Further details on this route can be obtained from ILEX (

Every year 6,000 new solicitors qualify in England and Wales. There are currently around 92,000 registered solicitors, more than a third of whom work in Greater London, and half of that total, about 16,500, work in the City of London.

But a substantial proportion of qualified solicitors end up working for small and medium-sized firms in towns and cities away from London. Julien, who qualified last month, had no idea what branch of law she wanted to work in. So her training contract, with the Ipswich firm Ashton Graham, who have three offices and 22 partners, was ideal for her to get a broad view of the type of work handled in general practice.

After stints doing private client work, commercial law and employment, she's decided to work in the family division: "I like the things in family law that other people don't like, such as the emotional involvement, and I really like advocacy."

So, if you're on the brink of opting for the long journey aimed at qualifying as a solicitor, how do you know if you're made of the right stuff?

Julie Swan at the Law Society lists an inquiring and analytical mind, creative thinking and the interpersonal skills necessary to deal with clients as key attributes. And also ability with language, in the written and spoken form.

"If you're not excited by words," she says, "then perhaps you should ask yourself if being a solicitor is something you'll be happy doing."

'With a contract, you're more motivated'

Adam Walford, 25, was 'admitted to the roll' in September this year, almost six years to the day after he started his law degree at Birmingham University

Adam is working in the property division of the central London lawyers Finers Stephens Innocent (FSI), the firm that took him on a training contract two years ago. Adam now identifies securing that training contract, at the end of his second year at university, as a key moment in his journey from schoolboy to qualified solicitor.

"That's the biggest hurdle," he says. "Once you've got a contract, you're more motivated for your finals, your LPC fees are paid and it all falls into place."

Memorable phases of the training period include his initial first-hand experience of involvement with a big court case - a 10-day civil trial at the High Court - and the enjoyment derived from detailed research into the legal background to a piece of land.

After Birmingham, where he got a 2.2, Adam did his LPC at London's College of Law and, during training with FSI, spent six months, known as "seats", in each of four divisions: litigation, private client, commercial property and company commercial.

Adam is now delighted with where he is and is enthusiastic about the future. "In five years, I want to be more experienced and developing a client base of my own so that I can introduce more work to the firm."

Types of solicitor

As society has become more complex, so the law has created more specialist areas that reflect the lives we lead. The Law Society currently lists more than 60 such areas (www.lawsociety., from which any individual solicitor can identify a maximum of six in which they specialise. They include:

CRIME: Solicitors either act for the prosecution or for the defendant. In Magistrates' Courts, solicitors usually do the advocacy themselves, whereas in Crown and Higher Courts, they usually prepare the case for a barrister to do the talking.

COMMERCIAL AND COMPANY: Businesses operate within a legal framework. Solicitors are needed to draft contracts and handle disputes within and between businesses.

EMPLOYMENT: This area covers everything from an individual's dispute with an employer to universal workers' rights.

FAMILY: Marriage breakdown often ends up in the courts, with arguments over money and the custody and care of children.

INTERNATIONAL: Our membership of the EU, and other international organisations, has enormous legal ramifications.

MEDIA: The law of libel has provided work for solicitors for many years. Now, broadcasting and the ever-expanding communications world is providing much more.

PERSONAL INJURY: The area of law responsible for the pejorative phrases "litigation culture" and "ambulance chasers" entering out vocabulary. Like it or not, it's a growing sector.

PROPERTY: From buying a house to selling the Millennium Dome, you need solicitors.

TAX: Every time the Chancellor of the Exchequer tweaks the tax rules, more work for tax lawyers is guaranteed.

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