How to become a lawyer (including potential career paths)

Updated 30 September 2022

Being a lawyer is a highly respected, high paying career. If you're currently exploring your options for working as a lawyer, there are many areas to consider and many different ways to become one. It's no longer necessary to complete a law degree, as there are courses and apprenticeships available for a range of skill sets. In this article, we explain how to become a lawyer, what a lawyer does and how much you could earn.

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What is a lawyer?

'Lawyer' is an umbrella term that describes people who provide legal services. The term covers anyone working as a legal practitioner, including solicitors, barristers, conveyancers, arbitrators and chartered legal executives. There are various strands of law that a solicitor or barrister maybe choose to work in, including family law, divorce law, criminal law and personal injury law.

Related: Law degree requirements: everything you need to know

How to become a lawyer

The guidance on how to become a lawyer varies depending on the route you're wanting to go down. Here are breakdowns for the three main types of lawyers:

How to become a solicitor

Follow these steps to become a solicitor:

1. Pass the SQE exams

The SQE process to qualification requires applicants to complete two years of qualifying work experience, pass two SQE exams, meet the SRA's character and suitability requirements and hold a degree-level qualification. You don't need a law degree to pass the SQE as any degree or equivalent qualification is enough to gain entry. The SQE exam is quite complicated and many students take SQE preparation courses coupled with their independent study to improve their chances of passing the exam the first time.

2. Get a relevant degree

Although it isn't necessary, gaining an LLB law degree, also known as a Bachelor of Law, can make it easier to pass the SQE examinations as you already have the foundational knowledge. SEQ1 tests your functioning legal knowledge while SEQ2 tests your practical legal skills. If you don't want to take an LLB law degree, holding a degree in the field you want to give legal advice in, such as computer science if you're wanting to specialise in technology law, can be beneficial.

3. Gain work experience

The final part of getting SQE certification is to complete two years of work experience. Before 2021, this was known as a 'training contract', so many law firms may still use this term to this date. What they mean is work experience. Since the changes made to the SQE in 2021, you can now use more types of work experience to qualify. Ensure you read through the SQE guidelines and check that your work experience meets their requirements.

How to become a barrister

To become a barrister, follow these steps:

1. Complete your education

Becoming a barrister generally includes three stages. Stage one is academic, stage two is vocational and stage three is professional:

  • Academic: The first stage requires you to complete an undergraduate law degree or obtain a one-year postgraduate conversion course if you already have a bachelor's degree in a different subject. Postgraduate conversion courses, usually the graduate diploma in law conversion course (GDL), are for those with graduate degrees in relevant subjects, but not legal degrees.

  • Vocation: Often called a Bar training course, this stage of the process ensures you have the specialist knowledge, skills, attitude and competence for becoming a barrister.

  • Professional: Essentially an apprenticeship with a barrister's chambers, this is a form of on-the-job training that lasts for around one year. They're available from several organisations including the Government Legal Profession.

2. Take an integrated course

The Bar Standards Board, the institution that oversees barristers, has introduced another route to becoming a barrister. It's now possible to combine your academic and vocational requirements into a single integrated course. Courses like the Bar-focused LLM or other undergraduate degrees offer these integrated courses. You complete them before you move onto the professional stage by taking what's often called pupillage with a barrister's chambers.

3. Find employment at a chambers

Having completed your pupillage with a barrister's chambers, the next stage is to find full-time employment. People usually refer to this as a 'tenancy'. Your other option is traditional employment with an organisation where you work in-house, but most barristers are usually self-employed in a set of chambers.

How to become a legal executive

Sometimes referred to as the third route to becoming a lawyer, a legal executive can be a very rewarding career. It's an increasingly popular route to take thanks to the Chartered Institution of Legal Executives (CILEx), which allows students to earn while they learn, reducing the cost of studying. To become a legal executive, follow these steps:

1. Get qualified with CILEx

To become a chartered legal executive, completing the CILEx Professional Qualification (CPQ) is essential. Many of those who choose the CILEx qualification route are already in employment in the legal sector. This qualification is a progressive framework divided into three separate stages. Upon completion of these stages, you qualify as a legal executive. The stages include:

  • CPQ Foundation: Upon completing this stage, you become a CILEx Paralegal.

  • CPQ Advanced: Upon completing this stage, you become a CILEx Advanced Paralegal.

  • CPQ Professional: Upon completing this final stage, you become a CILEx Lawyer.

2. Gain work experience

Completing this course also requires you to undertake work experience. It's a requirement to complete qualifying employment that meets the CILEx's requirements. Usually, this means working at a high street practice, a medium-sized firm or a large commercial firm catering to business clients. If you already hold a law degree or an equivalent degree, you can start at stage two, the CPQ Advanced stage.

The most common types of lawyers

There are three main types of lawyers, including:

1. Solicitors

National average salary: £44,783 per year

Primary duties: Solicitors usually advise both businesses and individuals on matters regarding financial transactions, although their duties can vary. Financial transactions are one of the most common areas of work for a solicitor, as our economy is by-in-large an economic hub of financial and banking activity. A solicitor has a broad knowledge of technical aspects of the law, keeping up to date with any changes so that they can offer accurate advice.

Solicitors are integral to helping a business succeed, drafting contracts, setting up new companies or legal entities and offering various legal advice on health and safety legislation, employee terminations, workplace injuries and more. Many solicitors are also advisors to individual clients, advising on situations from buying and selling property to writing wills. A solicitor offers private, individual and business legal advice, often working directly for a firm or as a contractor employed directly by a client.

Related: How to become a solicitor

2. Barristers

National average salary: £35,544 per year

Primary duties: Barristers usually specialise in litigation and courtroom advocacy, advising clients on how the law applies to their specific situations. They're usually what people envision when they think of a lawyer. Solicitors often contact barristers when they're seeking specialised legal advice on their client's behalf. Often, it can relate to criminal, family or commercial legal matters.

Their client lists are constantly changing as they tend to work on specific cases, supporting clients with their legal problems and then moving on to new cases. Their level of contact with their clients can vary depending on the complexity of the case and sometimes, barristers simply provide written advice and deal with legal matters without meeting or speaking with their clients at all. But they're more likely to spend time with their clients to get to know them and prepare them for their court dates.

Related: How to become a barrister

3. Legal executives

National average salary: £50,527 per year

Primary duties: A legal executive, or a chartered legal executive, is a qualified lawyer who specialises in a single area of law. Despite the different routes to qualification and certification, a lot of what a legal executive does is similar to that of a solicitor. The difference is that a legal executive specialises in one area of the law, while a solicitor knows several areas. As a legal executive, you provide advice to individuals or businesses, preparing legal documents and handling important information. A legal executive often works alongside other legal executives as part of a team or a solicitor.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organisation‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌ ‌and‌ ‌location.‌

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