Breaking Into Law


Dear CareerDoctor,Having begun a career in science (laboratory based) I've decided it isn't for me and have looked into alternatives. One that appeals is to retrain as a lawyer. What are the pros and cons of a major career change such as from a science-based career to a legal one? KateI'm in the penultimate year of my degree and have decided on a career in law. How worried should I be about attending interviews in law firms when I have a very vague knowledge of the legal profession (being a science student)?Steve

Dear Kate and Steve

I'm going to tackle your concerns together, as you are both in the early stages of your respective transitions into law. I'm also going to assume that you both intend to train as lawyers; you will find a great deal of information on other legally related scientific careers on Next Wave and elsewhere.

There are two paths a lawyer can take--either to become a solicitor or a barrister. Solicitors provide a wide range of legal support and advice to individuals and small businesses and advise on any necessary course of legal action. Barristers are specialists in advocacy, presenting cases in court under instruction from a solicitor. They can specialise in criminal practice and undertake criminal prosecution or defence or civil practice and deal with matters related to family or common law.

Other legal professions

Make sure you read about the UK system as it may differ from country to country.

However the process of becoming a lawyer as a graduate in another discipline is demanding and costly, so I want to stress that you need to look into the training and how you will fund this as well as researching the career that will follow.

Coming from a non-law background you won't be expected to understand law to the same extent as a law graduate at first, but you'll need to demonstrate that you know what the job involves and that you have the tenacity and intellect to cope with its demands. Your self-confessed "vague knowledge" of the legal profession is the first thing you'll have to address, Steve. You are unlikely to secure a training contract (which is what I guess you are applying for--I'll explain this later!) without a more convincing grasp of your chosen vocation. You need to improve your insight and understanding or I'm afraid you won't get beyond the first application stages.

Getting into law as a graduate is incredibly competitive so be prepared. I'm going to suggest a number of Web sites which should help you learn more about becoming a lawyer, but there is no substitute for getting some hands-on experience. I'm not suggesting that you start loitering outside magistrates' courts offering to represent defendants, but you need to spend some time in a legal environment.

Kate, without knowing more about your motivations for leaving your scientific job, it is hard to identify the pros and cons which are most relevant to you, but in general terms, the main advantages of a legal career are the salary (the average income for a solicitor qualified for 5 years is £50k, and for a barrister £80k), the prestige, and the diversity of opportunity. There is a great variety in legal specialisms and lawyers seem to be playing a more and more obvious role in society (with the introduction of the Human Rights Act and the growth of litigation, for example).

The cons are the length of training (about 5 years) and its cost (figures vary, but I estimate at least £30,000 to complete your training), along with the challenge of qualifying. Each step of the ladder is extremely competitive and there are fewer opportunities the higher you get, so you will always need to stand out from your peers.

To develop a successful legal career you'll need to be determined so I'm sure these words of doom won't have put you off! Your action plan for launching your career has a few key stages which I'll outline here.

Finding out more

I think your careers services are the best places to help you learn more about becoming a lawyer, but in any case you can find a great deal of general information on the Prospects and Target Jobs sites. The Law Networks site hasn't been updated for some time, but offers excellent and accessible advice too.

Talk to experts

Which I'm not! As a university careers adviser, I must confess I directed any queries about legal careers to another adviser who was our resident expert. He attended all the legal training events for careers advisers, visited large and small practices to understand their needs better, and helped to organise events which brought firms into our institution. This is pretty typical--the training and career structure for law is complicated, so there is sure to be an expert in your university (and Kate, remember, you will have access to your old institution or a local service for up to 5 years after graduating). They may also be able to put you in touch with local experts or professionals. If not, despair not--I've found an online alternative on the Doctor Job site in the form of their "Ask the Expert" section in which 10 legal professionals answer a variety of questions from budding Perry Masons.

Investigate funding sources for your training

Having never met an independently wealthy scientist, I'll assume that you will both need to address the issue of funding your studies. The first step in your training is the Common Professional Examination (CPE) or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), for which course fees will range from £1085 to £5900. These are 1-year full-time or 2-year part-time courses. On top of this, you'll need to allow for living expenses and if you decide to follow the 1-year course, be warned that full-time really means full-time--the timetable is typically 45 hours a week and the academic year lasts for 36 weeks--so there will be little opportunity to earn money (or sleep, eat, or breathe). Local Authority grants are rarely available, but investigate this possibility just in case.

Following this stage is another 1-year full-time course--the Legal Practice Course (LPC) taken by all trainee solicitors or the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) for barristers once they've joined the Inns of Court. In other words, you will be competing with law graduates for places. Average course fees are £6337 for the LPC depending on location and around £8000 for the BVC. I got these figures from The Law Careers Advice Network, which offers a section on funding on top of clear advice and information on careers in law.

If you've chosen the LPC route, a training contract is the next stage in qualifying. This lasts for 2 years and takes place in an authorised practice (you can search for these on Solicitors Online). An alternative to taking out a massive loan to fund your training is to secure a training contract with a large legal firm before starting your training. They will then pay your CPE and LPC course fees, but as you can imagine, primarily larger firms offer them and they will be looking for evidence that you will succeed at both CPE and LPC and have the right qualities to join them in the future. If you aren't successful now, you could fund yourself for a CPE and then apply for a training contract whilst on that course to cover your LPC costs. You need to discuss this with a careers adviser and also find out what support is offered by the institutions which run the CPE courses--some may have better reputations or links with legal firms than others.

Following the BVC is pupillage--a 1-year period of in-service training, split between the first 'nonpractising' 6 months, when you will shadow an experienced barrister, and the second 'practising' 6 months, when you will be entitled to supply legal services and exercise rights of audience under supervision.

If all this doesn't make you want to lie down in a dark room, then make sure you apply early for courses and contracts as places are limited and competition is fierce.

Get all the work experience you can grab.

You'll find that the value of work experience has been long recognised by the legal profession--they are years ahead of most other sectors, so you will find a great range of opportunities available. These are often advertised nationally (the Prospects Web site hosts the national database of vacation placements and Doctor Job lists some employers offering work experience). Many closing dates for vacation schemes are imminent (and some have already passed) so here again move quickly--get advice from your careers service on applications and what to expect at interview.

They may also know about local alternatives to the big schemes--perhaps a local firm may be willing to offer some work shadowing or a visit. Kate, these may be more appropriate for you if you are working and unavailable for schemes which can last for several weeks. The important thing is to spend time in the legal environment and immerse yourself in its culture. As I've said, work experience is an integral part of becoming a lawyer, so it will be expected from potential employers and even course providers.

Finally, you will also need to hone your application skills and get feedback on your CV or application form. Most of the Web sites I've mentioned above will be able to give you some help with that. All applications for the CPE go through a central system (similar to the Universities' and Colleges' Admissions Service [UCAS]) called the Central Applications Board but you should approach institutions directly to find out more about their courses, which will also give you an opportunity to discuss issues such as funding and work experience.

As with any career, invest time in researching what the job will involve, identifying why you think it will suit you and talking to people who can help you understand the nitty-gritty. The road to becoming a qualified lawyer is long and difficult, but the rewards are great and the legal profession welcomes graduates from other academic disciplines (up to 30% of trainees), so don't be deterred if you think it is in this sector that your true vocation lies.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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