University or work? Weigh your options for a career in law

Pros and cons: uni v. work
Before you choose which route into law is the right one for you, you need to think carefully about these pros and cons.

Quick links for this article

Work v. Uni How much do lawyers earn? The hours lawyers work The social side How competitive is law?

You need to think about what you want from your career and how long you want to study when making a decision about your future. We’ve outlined the key checks and balances to take into account when considering a law career.

Work v. uni: which route will suit you?

It’s now possible for school leavers to qualify as a solicitor, paralegal or chartered legal executive through an apprenticeship, rather than going to university. However, if you want to become a barrister, you currently still need to have attended university.

There are a number of factors that you should consider before you decide whether to qualify through an apprenticeship or through university study and which role you’d like to pursue. While the end result of the work and university routes may be similar, the journey can differ substantially.

How much do lawyers earn? Apprentices v. graduates

The amount of time it takes to qualify and the amount of money you spend doing so can vary considerably. It’s important to weigh up your options before you choose a route.

Solicitor apprentices will earn minimal wages for the first few years before achieving a qualification and a full-time position. Earnings in the first year are likely to be around £16,000, rising to be in line with the average salary for newly-qualified solicitors over the course of the (usually six-year long apprenticeship): around £30,000. However, the salary that solicitors and solicitor apprentices earn will depend on factors such as the location and size of the law firm.

There are a number of costs associated with going to university that apprentices will not have to pay. Currently university students pay a maximum of £27,750 (though your course fees can be less than this) to study a three-year degree course. If you don’t study law as your undergraduate degree subject, you will also need a conversion course (which usually costs between £5,000–£12,000) before you can go on to complete the year-long professional qualification (around £9,000–£19,000) needed to train to become a solicitor or barrister. These costs add up to a large amount of debt at the end of study and these fees do not include your living expenses.

In the first year of training as a solicitor or ‘pupil’ barrister, earnings can range from £12,000–£50,000. Once qualified, earnings can increase greatly, but not every area of law will pay well.

Working hours and stress in the legal profession

If you decide to take a job in law, you should be aware that across the board there is a culture of working long hours. The nature of the work will vary, but 12-hour days are a regular occurrence and late nights are common. This can depend on the department you work in, and lawyers have told us that they’re more able to manage their workload and timetable as they become more senior and experienced. Paralegals and legal executives may be more likely to stick to a ‘traditional’ 9-to-5 working timetable.

How competitive is a career in law?

The legal profession is notoriously competitive, especially for graduate-level opportunities. For example, in recent years, while there have been around 1,500 students completing the qualifications required to become a barrister, there have only been around 450 positions for graduates. Similarly, according to the Law Society (a representative body for solicitors in England and Wales), in 2017, around 16,000 students graduate from law courses, while there were only around 6,000 new trainees that same year. Of course, not all law graduates will gravitate towards becoming a solicitor, but remember that many non-law graduates will be competing for places as well.

Competition will also vary according to the size of the solicitors’ firm. A small high street law firm may get a number of candidates applying from the local area, while major city firm Hogan Lovells states on its website that it gets over 3,000 candidates applying for work placements and training contracts each year. The firm offers 50 places to trainees annually, although candidates do apply for a position or placement at more than one firm at a time.

Becoming a legal apprentice is no walk in the park either. Remember that most firms will require apprentice applicants to have As and Bs at A level and a demonstratable passion and interest in legal careers.

What about the social side?

Whether you choose to start work straight away through an apprenticeship or go to university, you will still be able to have a social life. However, the shape that this takes may differ slightly.

Legal apprentices that TARGETcareers has spoken to have told us they started work alongside other apprentices and trainees, so had a ready-made peer group to socialise with. They have also been able to get involved with social events organised by the firm, such as sports tournaments, after-work drinks and even a charity skydive. You’ll also likely bond with the people that you work with.

However, at university, you are likely to have a wider pool of people to socialise with and from a large range of degree disciplines. University societies offer opportunities to get involved with a huge array of extracurricular activities, from sports teams and language clubs to beekeeping and film societies. An active social life is very much seen as part of the university experience.

In association with

Law Society logo

Search for...

Degree Explorer

The Degree Explorer helps you plan for your future! Match your interests to university subjects and explore each recommendation to find out what suits you.

Get started

Teacher or parent?

Join our mailing list to receive monthly newsletters from our TARGETcareers and Inspiring Futures teams to help you support your school leavers in their career and university decision making.

Join