Separating fact from fiction in a law career
The reality of life in the legal profession is very different from Suits, Better Call Saul, Legally Blonde and other American courtroom dramas you might have seen. We take a look at some of the most common myths and compare them to the reality of a law career in the UK.
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Not all lawyers are ‘advocates’ – someone who will plead cases in a courtroom – with it being a much larger part of a barristers’ workload than a solicitors’. Even then, barristers will not spend every single day in court; the amount of time barristers spend in court will depend on a number of factors, such as their area of practice. A barrister specialising in criminal or family law may be in court most days.
Solicitors and practitioners in other areas may only appear in court occasionally, while some may never need to.
While this is true for criminal law, with its focus on prosecution and defence, this is just one area of practice among many. In other areas (such as real estate, shipping or intellectual property law), lawyers may well be called on solely to offer advice on a point of law or settle a company dispute. For example, commercial lawyers might spend most of their time looking over the fine print of documents to advise a company on a merger or takeover.
You can qualify as a lawyer with any degree, and whether you studied law at university or not is not a barrier to success in the profession. However, if you did not study a first degree in law, you will likely have to complete a year-long postgraduate conversion course before completing the LPC or SQE.
It’s also possible to become a lawyer without going directly to university at all. Solicitor apprenticeships (which typically take around six year) will allow you to gain a degree and qualify as a solicitor while working with a law firm. The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives also offers a route to becoming a Chartered Legal Executive without needing a degree, which allows you to practise law in a different capacity to a solicitor or barrister. These routes can take longer than going to university and aren’t for everyone, but will allow you to start working straightaway and avoid the cost of university tuition fees.
Horsehair wigs look itchy, but be reassured – not all lawyers wear wigs and robes. This may be the popular depiction in British legal dramas, but it is not representative of all the legal professions.
As barristers appear in court more frequently than solicitors, they will wear wigs and robes more often, but, still, not all barristers will be wearing these garments for every court case. In commercial areas of law, for instance, barristers will have no need to wear wigs and robes unless the court has a special requirement to do so. Many civil and family law cases also now no longer require barristers to be wearing gowns.
The hammers or gavels that are so popular with TV courtroom judges (such as Judge Rinder or Judge Judy) are NOT used in England and Wales. There is, however, a professional etiquette observed by legal professionals that keeps any shouting and arguing to a minimum.
It’s true that regular meetings with members of the public and clients are a key part of the work of solicitors and lawyers. However, these meetings and conferences are likely to be much less glamorous than the popular image you’ll see in films and on telly. You might think of lawyers having swanky meetings with high-flying clients in a skyscraper with plenty of caviar and champagne to go round. However, most solicitors are more likely to meet clients and the public through daytime training sessions or after-work meeting than in members’ clubs.
Commercial lawyers at big law firms and commercial barristers can earn a fairly substantial sum of money – as much as £50,000 a year during the training period and £100,000 in the first year after qualification. However, you shouldn’t expect this at every single law firm. Smaller high street firms, for example, have no obligation to pay trainees above minimum wage, although many do. The Law Society recommends a minimum salary for trainees of £22,121 in London and £19,619 outside of London.
Similarly, barristers practicing in chambers that specialise in commercial work can expect the highest salaries, but criminal and family law barristers will typically earn significantly less than this. This is partly due to government cuts affecting legal aid budgets. For aspiring barristers who are completing their one-year of training, their ‘pupillage’, the Bar Standards Board recommends a minimum pupillage award of £15,728 for pupillages outside of London and £18,436 for pupillages in London.