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

Pros and cons: uni vs work
Think carefully about the pros and cons of each route into the legal profession.

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The professions Earnings and qualification time Positions and work The hours The competition The challenges

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.

Solicitor, paralegal, barrister or chartered legal executive?

Currently, school leavers seeking work immediately will undertake an apprenticeship (period of training and work) to become a paralegal. Later down this line, you have the option to study further and practise law as a chartered legal executive or, after a lot more work and training, a solicitor.

University graduates can still become a paralegal or chartered legal executive, but also have the option of becoming a solicitor at a law firm or can work in and out of court as a barrister.

To find out more about the role of a paralegal, chartered legal executive, solicitor and barrister check out the TARGETcareers links below:

Earnings and periods of qualification for school leavers and university graduates in law

The amount of time it takes to qualify and the amount of money you spend doing so can vary considerably. Apprentices will earn minimal wages for the first two years before achieving a qualification and a full-time position. Earnings in the first year are likely to be around £12,000, rising to an average of £18,000 once qualified.

With the current set of university fees, university students pay around £27,000 to study a three-year degree course. If you don’t take law as your undergraduate degree subject, you will also need a conversion course (£4,950–£10,600) before you can go on to complete the year-long professional qualification (£7,826–£19,070) 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.

To find out more about earnings see our article on 'How much you can earn in law'.

Different positions and work available to graduates and school leavers in law

Deciding what you really want to do each day during your career will give you more of an idea which route into law is best for you. School leaver apprenticeships will lead to a paralegal position with the possibility to become a chartered legal executive later down the line, while university graduates have a wider range of options.

Paralegals assist at law firms and may interact with different areas of law, but they are not able to practise (give legal advice in a professional capacity) in these areas. Many apprenticeships at the moment are at commercial law firms that advise on business deals and financial transactions.

Chartered legal executives can practise law in different areas, but many cover essential everyday matters such as wills and conveyancing.

Graduating from university and becoming a solicitor will give you the option to join a high street firm to take on criminal, family and commercial work with small- or medium-sized businesses. You could also join a larger law firm and practise in a range of areas including corporate law, insurance and government work.

Like solicitors, barristers normally select a small range of areas of law to practise in and specialise as their careers progress. Criminal and family work both offer opportunities to speak in court almost daily, but barristers can also specialise in commercial or government-related work that requires more preparation and analysis outside of court.

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.

Competition is high for jobs in law

Undertaking an apprenticeship in a law firm is by no means a walk in the park. You’ll still require As and Bs at A level and a passion for the subject. However, competition is known to be fierce in the graduate law professions. Of the 1,200 students who complete the barrister qualifications, just 450 are likely to obtain a position. According to the Law Society (a representative body for solicitors in England and Wales), some 15,000 students graduated from law courses in the UK in 2013; however, there were around 5,000 training contracts available. 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 3,500 candidates applying for work placements and training contracts each year. The firm offers 60 places to trainees annually, although candidates do apply for a position or placement at more than one firm at a time.

In order to make it in this competitive environment, legal employers will expect you to have As and Bs at A level and at least a 2.1 university degree as well as having completed work placements with solicitors or barristers before you apply (this won’t be necessary for paralegals). Employers will also want to see evidence that you have been active in different projects outside of education.

Challenges for young people in law

The standards to enter the legal profession are exceptionally high, but the rewards will vary according to what area of law you choose to practise in and the type of firm (solicitors’ offices) or chambers (barristers’ offices) that you join. The government has recently made some major spending cuts in the areas of criminal and family law and lawyers in these fields can struggle to earn a basic living in the early years of their career. Likewise, while a major City law firm may pay an annual salary of upwards of £30,000, small high street firms are not obligated to pay more than the minimum wage.

If you are considering going into an area of law that is publicly funded (eg criminal or child protection work) rather than commercially orientated, you may want to consider how you will survive financially in the early years of your career. Some fledgling lawyers will rely on friends, family and bank loans, while others may supplement their income with work on the side or attempt to mix the areas they practise in. You may find more information about how and what to do as you progress with your studies or you can check out our legal careers website for graduates: TARGETjobs Law.

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