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Career insights: Become a Solicitor

 

Guide updated in 2021

Have you ever thought about becoming a solicitor? A career as a solicitor can be rewarding, fulfilling, and well-paid, making it one of the most desirable careers in the UK. Solicitors help people solve their problems, come to mutually satisfying conclusions, and often work on pro bono cases (without charging a fee) to help those in need of legal services.

While solicitors often start out with a modest salary, the earning power increases over time, making them one of the highest-paid professionals in society. If you work your way up to working for prestigious firms in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, or Birmingham, you can earn an enviable salary. If you like the idea of jet-setting around the world, you'll also benefit from international job offers and opportunities.

There are other personal reasons why you might seek a career as a solicitor – there's no denying that this role comes with a certain level of prestige. Working in the law is an elite profession that requires intellect and experience, so it's no wonder that it commands respect.

What is a solicitor?

 

A solicitor is a legal professional who acts on behalf of their clients to represent their best interests. Through a thorough understanding of the law, they offer legal advice and try to win their client their preferred outcome.

Most solicitors specialise in one area of the law, including family law, litigation, property law, or tax law. If you work for a large firm, you might work in a behind the scenes capacity, preparing documents and helping clients get ready for the courtroom. You could also represent corporate clients in the ventures both domestically and abroad.

Some solicitors work on litigation in contentious legal cases, representing one client against another party. They may also lead arbitration or mediation to help both parties reach a satisfactory conclusion, work on estates, buy and sell different entities, and oversee administration cases.

Types of Solicitor

There are many different types of solicitors, allowing you to specialise in an area of law that interests you.

  • General Practice – As a general practitioner, you'll deal with a wide range of legal issues that don't necessitate a specialist. This is the legal equivalent of a GP.
  • Estate Planning – You'll specialise in wills and trusts to help your clients prepare for their passing and ensure their wealth and holdings end up with their desired parties.
  • Employment Law – Helping companies that have a problem employee or helping individuals who have a problem with their employer.
  • Personal Injury – You'll represent clients who have been involved in an accident and believe they are owed compensation for mental or physical injuries.
  • Corporate Law – Assisting companies with the formation, governance, and compliance of developing and running a corporation.
  • Bankruptcy – Helping clients deal with the legal issues that arise as a result of their financial difficulties.
  • Conveyancing – You'll deal with the buying and selling of property, helping clients ensure the transaction is smooth.
  • Intellectual property – You'll focus on patents, trade secrets, copyrights, trademarks, and industrial design.
  • Immigration – Helping clients and their families with citizenship issues, as well as visas, refugee status and asylum status.
  • Family – Dealing with child custody issues, as well as divorce cases, spousal support, prenuptial agreements, and child support payments.
  • Contract Law – Solicitors draw up contracts and help establish a legal commitment between two parties. They also work on resolving disputes, although conflicts between parties might require a breach of contract specialist.
  • Tax – You'll become a specialist in local and national taxation laws, helping your clients stay within the law. You might also defend clients who have illegally avoided paying tax.
  • Criminal – Criminal solicitors defend clients who are facing criminal charges and a criminal trial.
  • Medical Malpractice – You'll need a detailed and confident understanding of the diagnosis and treatment of medical issues, along with expert knowledge of medical law.
  • Civil Litigation – If you specialise in civil litigation, you'll help your clients pursue legal action against organisations or individuals. These cases occur outside the corporate world and criminal court.

The Difference Between a Solicitor, Lawyer, and Barrister

There's a lot of confusion about the differences between a solicitor, lawyer, and barrister. So, what is the difference?

Lawyers

‘Lawyer’ is a term used to refer to anyone who works in the legal profession and has the qualifications to give legal advice. You'll see both lawyers and solicitors referred to as lawyers.

Barristers

Barristers provide specialist advice to their clients, representing both groups and individual in court cases and tribunals. They are the legal representative who stands up for a client in court, similar to what you see on television, but they do much more than this. They also offer written advice and advocate for clients in complex legal situations. They structure an argument on behalf of their clients, and persuasively present the argument to win a positive outcome.

Solicitors

Solicitors play a similar role, but with some key differences. They act as negotiators or mediators for their clients, trying to reach a satisfactory outcome for all parties involved outside of a courtroom setting. They request compensation, seek agreement implementation, calculate damages, and administer estates and divorces. They take instruction from their clients, offer specific legal advice, and take on litigation work. This includes paperwork, including contracts and documents, and communicating with all parties involved via letters and verbal contact. Solicitors also prepare papers for court.

Skills Needed to Become a Solicitor

If you're thinking of becoming a solicitor, you need specific skills to excel in this profession. The most important skill is academic prowess, which includes absorbing information from dense texts, conducting exceptional research, demonstrating analytical thinking skills, meeting rigid deadlines, and performing well when tested under pressure.

To become a solicitor in the UK, you must have a strong command of the English language and speak and write clearly and to great effect. Your numeracy skills are also necessary, as legal work often relies on fine details and calculations.

Of course, solicitors also need many soft skills to be successful, including attention to detail and a strong memory. In addition, you must be confident in your manner and speech, have excellent time management, and good people skills to relate to your clients and keep them happy. Resilience is another integral character trait for a solicitor. In some cases, you'll have to return to court again and again to argue your points and win a different outcome, and so you must be resilient and willing to work hard.

Read our blog on the difference between hard skill and soft skills here.

Average Solicitor's Salary

The 2021 median income for solicitors in the UK is £62,000 (£88,000 in London), which increases to £130,000 for equity partners. But, of course, for a driven solicitor with talent and dedication, the sky is truly the limit. Many British solicitors make upwards of £1,000,000 per annum. If you are training, the minimum salary should be around £22,541 in London and £19,992 outside of London[i].

The average solicitor's salary depends on many factors, including years of experience, talent, and geographical location. A solicitor working for a big firm in the city will always earn more than someone working for a humble family firm in a small village.

Changes to Necessary Qualifications – The SQE

Legal education in the UK is undergoing some changes in 2021 with the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). The SQE is new system of exams that all solicitors must pass to qualify in the profession, and it is set to replace the LPC in September 2021. However, anyone already doing the LPC or currently enrolled in a law degree will not be affected, with the official transition period ending in 2032[ii].

The SQE is meant to better reflect the fact that the typical route of 'law degree followed by the LPC and a two-year training contract' is not the only way to qualify for this career. More people than ever are following the 6-year solicitor apprenticeship pathway, which allows school leavers to combine their studies with on-the-job training. LPC students and paralegals can qualify via an equivalent means route.

No matter which pathway a person follows, the SQE will now be the centralised final assessment for all potential solicitors. The SRA hopes that by widening access, they will encourage more people to become solicitors.

The SQE is divided into two stages. SQE Stage 1 (SQE1) covers legal knowledge, while SQE Stage 2 (SQE2) tests your practical skills. SQE1 consists of two exams, each containing 180 multiple-choice questions that test legal knowledge, research skills, and writing. SQE2 measures core legal skills, with both written and oral assessments that cover 'everyday' skills, such as interviewing clients and drafting contracts.

How to become a Solicitor

 

If you're thinking about becoming a solicitor, follow this step-by-step path to achieving your goal.

  1. Complete your post-16 qualifications

     

    Choose A-levels (or equivalent) that show off your ability to conduct high-level research and analyse complex data. While you're doing your A-levels, consider taking online law courses to boost your knowledge, get ahead of the curve, and find out if the law is your ideal career.

  2. Successfully attain a 3-year degree

     

    Complete a three-year degree, which should be in law. However, if you are thinking about specialising in business or medical law, you could also do your degree in these subjects, and then complete the GDL afterwards. If you completed a law degree, you can move straight onto your SQEs, but if you did your degree in a different topic, you'll need to do the GDL first.

  3. Enrol in an apprenticeship programme

     

    Alternatively, you can skip the traditional degree route and enrol in a legal apprenticeship instead. These programmes typically last five to six years and involve spending 20% of your time studying and the rest of the working week working at a law firm. This is a brilliant choice if you're seeking to change careers, or you just prefer a different route to a traditional university education. Any previous legal training could reduce your time in the programme.

  4. Complete a two-year training contract

     

    If you choose to go the degree route, you need to complete a two-year training contract (also called a pupillage) with an accredited law firm at the end of your studies. During this period, you also need to complete the Professional Skills Course to officially qualify as a solicitor.

 

Can You Become a Solicitor Without a Law Degree?

Absolutely. Though you need a three-year degree to become a solicitor, your degree does not need to be in law, as explained above. However, if you did your degree in a different topic and you want to become a solicitor, you need to complete a one-year Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) course. The GDL course converts your 2:2 (Hons) degree, allowing you to take the SQE and undertake your two-year training contract.

How to Get Legal Work Experience

In order to become a solicitor, you must gain work experience in the law field. You can study laws, cases, and precedents for years, but you need practical experience to officially become a solicitor.

Ideally, you'll start acquiring legal work experience while you're still completing your undergraduate degree. Solicitor firms offer special schemes during university holidays, allowing you to visit the firm and learn about the corporate culture and what's expected of trainee solicitors. You'll get to meet the partners and shadow associates as they do important work with clients. Keep an eye out for insight days for second and final year students. Ideally, firms want to spot the most talented students, and offer them trainee positions.

You could also consider a mini pupillage during your undergraduate studies. Firms offer two-week pupillages to undergraduates, giving you the chance to work with solicitors and barristers. However, these opportunities are intensely competitive – you should apply as soon as possible and keep your grades high. While first-year students are occasionally accepted into mini pupillages, second and final year students are often given priority. However, if you start applying in your first year, you'll increase your odds of getting accepted.

Finally, you can also send speculative letters to solicitors you admire, requesting work shadowing or an unpaid apprenticeship. In many cases, these opportunities aren't advertised and may only be offered to those who approach the firm. If you can snag these opportunities, it shows initiative and courage, and will look great on your CV.

Career Progression Opportunities

Even the most junior solicitors often have their eyes on a lofty goal – becoming a senior partner in a top firm. Here is the average career progression for a solicitor in the UK. While not everyone progresses through all of these stages to become a senior partner, it's unusual to skip these steps.

Trainee Solicitor

You'll start out as a trainee solicitor, a prospective lawyer working towards the goal of becoming a full-fledged solicitor. A law firm will hire you on a training contract for two years to help you complete your educational requirements, and before you can take the SQE. To be eligible to be hired as a trainee solicitor, you must first have an undergraduate law degree, or have completed the GDL conversion.

Once you have successfully completed your two-year training contract, you'll earn your training certificate and be entered onto the roll of solicitors. This makes you eligible to apply for a practising certificate, and you can join the Law Society as a full member.

Associate Solicitor

After you finish your trainee contract, you'll move on to being an associate solicitor, also known as an assistant. You'll work directly under the supervision of a partner or senior associate, learning even more on the job and soaking up knowledge and inspiration. At this level, you're responsible for building your client skills, legal prowess, and business knowledge.

Associate solicitors are qualified to provide legal advice to secretaries and their staff, including bureaus, agencies, assistance secretaries, and the deputy secretary. You'll interact as both counsel and as a solicitor in lower and superior courts. After a few years, you'll be given increased responsibilities and start preparing for your promotion to a more senior role.

Senior Associate Solicitor

Most firms divide their associates into junior and senior categories, depending on their skill level and experience. As a senior associate solicitor, you will be on track for a partnership, which usually takes six to nine years of excellent performance. You're one level below a partner, and you can expect to earn an average salary of around £60,000[iii], which can increase depending on your skill level, area of practice, and location.

Partner

Partners are divided into two categories: non-equity (second tier) partners and equity partners. Non-equity partners earn a higher salary than they did as associates, but they will not earn as much as equity partners. If and when you become an equity partner, you'll transition from being a regular partner to a part-owner of the firm, with your own shares in the success of the business. However, you'll also be responsible for its liabilities.

Senior partne

Once you've reached the level of senior partner, you're at the highest level of the firm, leading the rest of the solicitors, partners, and associates. You'll be considered the firm's 'face,' and deal with their most important clients and represent the firm in the media.

In most UK firms, the rest of the partners elect a senior partner based on a three-year term. However, they are usually re-elected to this role until they are ready to step down or someone else wants to take on the position. There's nowhere left to progress after you reach senior partnership, unless you decide to start your own firm as a founder.

 

Is a Career as a Solicitor Right for You?

The process of becoming a solicitor is a long and complex journey, and takes a lot of resilience, hard work, and determination. Are you ready to put in the hard work? Whether you choose to go the law degree route, convert your unrelated degree with the GDL, or undertake an apprenticeship to gain the qualifications you need, you'll be rewarded with a highly paid and prestigious career.

You can specialise in an area of law that fascinates you, work with inspiring individuals, be a part of a dynamic team, and help your clients achieve their goals. For your efforts, you'll earn a great salary, travel internationally, and make a big difference in people's lives. If you have the passion, intellect, and drive, it's a brilliant and fulfilling career. Good luck on your journey!

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