Industry insights - Law
The legal services industry incorporates a range of services for clients requiring legal assistance. Opportunities are available in private practice, the public sector and in-house in industry and commerce.
Global recession and economic factors have resulted in law firms restructuring, downsizing and in some cases merging or closing. Further changes within the industry are emerging following the Legal Services Act 2007, enabling law and non-law firms to merge to form alternative business structures. Cuts within the Legal Services Budget have resulted in a reduction in firms offering publicly funded work being awarded contracts, putting greater pressure on the pro bono and voluntary legal advice sector.
Legal sector graduate vacancies in 2011 were predicted to rise by 4% compared to 2010 rates (High Fliers Graduate Market Survey, 2011). Law is the highest paid graduate job with salaries at an average of £36,000 (AGR Summer Survey, 2010). This makes law an attractive profession, and competition for training contract places is high; almost three times as many applicants for each available vacancy (Law Society Annual Statistical report, 2010).
Key areas of practice affected by the recession include banking, finance and property law. Legal practice growth areas include energy and environmental law, intellectual property law, international law, alternative dispute resolution, insolvency, shipping, insurance and employment law. There has been a rise in niche law firms and emergence of virtual law firms operating on a consultancy basis.
What kind of work can I do?
- Solicitors - provide a wide range of legal support and advice to clients. They take instructions and advise on necessary courses of legal action.
- Solicitor advocate - solicitors with higher rights of audience who can represent clients in higher courts.
- Barristers and advocates (Scotland) - act as advocates in court and provide written legal opinions.
- Chartered legal executives - fee-earning, qualified lawyers with a role similar to solicitors. They frequently specialise in conveyancing, civil and criminal litigation, family law and probate.
- Paralegals - support solicitors with legal transactions, mainly in an administrative capacity, with varying levels of responsibility.
What’s it like working in this industry?
Many solicitors and barristers, particularly early in their career, frequently have to work long, unsocial hours involving evenings and weekends. Solicitors are usually employed and barristers are self-employed. Chartered legal executives are now able to become partners in law firms and solicitor advocates can represent clients in higher courts without instructing counsel in non-specialist cases.
- The Law Society of England and Wales
recommends that trainee solicitors earn a minimum salary of £18,590 in central London and £16,650 outside London. The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) states that median starting salaries in 2009 were £37,000 in London. Starting salary and progression depends on the size of firm and type of work.
- The The Law Society of Scotland
recommends that rates for trainee salaries are £15,965 for a first year trainee and £19,107 for a second year trainee.
- In Northern Ireland, apprentices earn between £10,600 and £18,000, depending on the stage of their training (The Law Society of Northern Ireland
- In England and Wales, pupil barristers earn a minimum of £10,000 per annum, although some sets pay up to £40,000 (The Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook, 2011). Starting salaries range from £20,000 - £90,000.
- In Scotland, intending advocates (known as ‘devils’) are unpaid during their ten-month training period.
- Employed bar starting salaries range from £25,000 - £75,000 depending on location, area of practice and employer. Salaries can double in ten years' time (Bar Council, 2011).
Salaries for student legal executives just entering the profession range from £14,000 - £22,000 (CILEx, 2011), rising to an average of £35,000 for chartered legal executives, also known as Fellows of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx)
. Salary progression will vary depending on location, size and specialist area of the firm.
Paralegal jobs with higher salaries are usually offered to Legal Practice Course (LPC) graduates with at least six months' relevant experience. The average paralegal salary at the start of 2011 was £21,000, with a typical salary range of £15,000 - £50,000. Around 75% of paralegals tend to earn more than £20,000 and 10% of paralegals tend to earn more than £35,000 (SalaryTrack, 2011).
- There continue to be concerns about diversity across the legal sector, but the situation is changing slowly. Approximately 20% of new trainees with known ethnicity were from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups (Law Society Annual Statistical Report, 2010).
- There is a slightly higher proportion of men than women in the sector, particularly among barristers. Since 2000, female solicitors holding practising certificates has risen by 80%.
- Diversity bursary schemes are available to fund postgraduate law courses and more law firms are offering diversity mentoring schemes.
- In April 2011,the government introduced the social mobility initiative Opening Doors, Breaking Down Barriers, which offers internships to young people from deprived backgrounds.
How big is this industry?
According to figures released by the relevant legal professional bodies, there are a total of just over 200,000 people employed in a professional or ancillary role in the UK legal industry. This is about 0.7% of the total UK working population (Office for National Statistics, 2009). Of these, 150,000 are solicitors with practising certificates and 12,700 practising barristers (Bar Council 2010).
Where can I work?
England and Wales
- Over a quarter of private practice firms are located in London employing around 45% of all private practice solicitors. There are large regional legal centres outside of London for example Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, where national, regional and local firms are based covering all practice areas.
- In-house work is mainly found in London.
- The majority of practising barristers are based in London with over one third based elsewhere (Bar Council, 2010).
- Government Legal Service (GLS)
employ trainee barristers/solicitors in London. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
recruit trainees and pupils throughout the UK.
- Work is available throughout Scotland, though most opportunities, particularly in commercial and corporate work, are located in the larger cities, especially Edinburgh and Glasgow.
- Work is available throughout Northern Ireland, though most opportunities, especially in commercial and corporate work, are located in the larger cities, particularly Belfast.
UK-qualified solicitors who wish to practise elsewhere in the UK or in the EU can re-qualify in other jurisdictions by taking appropriate tests. Contact the relevant law society for assistance. To practise outside of the EU, check with the relevant law society for advice.
For information on working overseas, see opportunities abroad.
The following profiles are examples of key jobs that exist in the legal sector. To find the job roles that best match your skills and interests, login to what jobs would suit me?
For even more career ideas, take a look at types of jobs.
Entry and progression
How do I find a job?
- Vacancies are mostly advertised via professional body websites, firm websites, university and postgraduate provider careers services, law school noticeboards, online and printed legal recruitment publications.
- A formal training contract is usual, although some firms dealing with high volume work tend to recruit at paralegal level first. Competition for apprenticeships in Northern Ireland is high where a speculative approach to finding work is required.
- Law graduates are often recruited for training contracts before starting the final year of their undergraduate degree by large corporate and commercial firms. Non-law graduates are recruited in their final year. Applications are also received from students on their conversion year or during their Legal Practice Course (LPC). Training contracts within commercial firms and in-house opportunities are usually advertised two years in advance of commencement.
- Many smaller firms only recruit in response to business need and often in the year they want the training contract to begin. They advertise in the legal press, local press, careers services or on their websites. Many do not advertise at all, so speculative applications are a must.
- The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
recruits both trainee solicitors and pupil barristers one year in advance of the October start date.
- In Scotland, smaller law firms, local authorities, the Scottish Government
and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS)
generally recruit during the diploma year.
- The Government Legal Service (GLS)
recruits trainee solicitors and pupil barristers two years in advance.
- The majority of vacancies are in large national and international commercial firms. Annual recruitment deadlines tend to be 31 January and 31 July.
- The Pupillage Gateway
, operated by the The Bar Council
, invites first applications one to two years before the pupillage start date.
- A twelve-month pupillage is usual, which is split into two sixes. On successful completion, the pupil hopes to secure tenancy with the chambers.
- All available pupillages are advertised on the Pupillage Gateway, which operates one season which starts in March each year. The closing date for applications is the end of April.
- For chambers who don’t process their vacancies through the Pupillage Gateway, students need to undertake a pupillage search.
- A list of organisations offering pupillages at the employed bar is available from the Bar Standards Board (BSB)
- Chartered legal executive/paralegal jobs are advertised through university careers services, firm websites, local newspapers and recruitment agencies. See also Legal Executive Recruitment
What skills do I need?
Employers are looking for the following:
- interest, and preferably experience, in their kind of law;
- commercial awareness;
- evidence of teamwork abilities;
- good people skills;
- common sense;
- willingness to learn;
- attention to detail and analytical skills;
- work experience, such as pro bono or community work and mini-pupillages or marshalling;
- research and writing skills;
- debating/mooting/public speaking experience is useful if you want to be a barrister.
High academic performance is important, i.e. 2:1 or above (although medium-sized or high-street firms may accept a 2:2). For mature students, employers are interested in your previous career experience and what you could bring to the role.
Experience in a relevant industry may help, as may general business experience and evidence of client care skills.
Employers often have a corporate social responsibility profile so will be seeking candidates who have had experience in community or pro bono projects.
Commercial awareness gained through extra-curricular activities is valued by commercial law firms.
For paralegals, agencies often require six months’ relevant work experience in addition to experience in administration, document management and research.
Where can I find work experience?
Relevant work experience is increasingly important to succeed in entering the industry. Employers are aware of the competition to gain work experience so they accept commercial experience or customer service roles that have relevant transferrable skills.
Formal work experience can be difficult to obtain. A creative approach may be required. Shadowing legal professionals (to gain insight into day to day work) or marshalling a judge may be helpful. Use your networks to find contacts. Try a speculative approach with a good CV, or telephone or email.
Is postgraduate study useful?
Postgraduate study is usually necessary to enter the professions of barrister/advocate (Scotland) and solicitor. Routes differ due to the different legal systems in the UK. England and Wales have separate training requirements to Northern Ireland and Scotland.
For paralegal positions, many large commercial firms value the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the vocational certificate (Northern Ireland). The Institute of Paralegals
has introduced a new route to qualification (RTQ). The aim is to provide a structured recognised route to qualification as a paralegal benefiting employers and employees.
England and Wales
Law graduates take a Legal Practice Course (LPC) or a Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). Non-law graduates can take a one-year (two years part time) Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)/Common Professional Examination (CPE) and then the LPC. Some providers have recently introduced fast track courses completed in seven months. For more information, see the Law Central Admissions Board (LCAB)
For details of training for chartered legal executives and paralegals in England and Wales, see the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx)
and the National Association of Licensed Paralegals
Law graduates take a Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (also known as Professional education and training stage 1 (PEAT 1)). This is a seven-month course which is offered on both part and full-time routes in seven universities in Scotland. Once this is completed a two-year traineeship is undertaken (also known as PEAT 2).
Non-law graduates are able to take an accelerated LLB which lasts two years and can then apply for the Diploma. Further details are available from the The Law Society of Scotland
For details of training for paralegals in Scotland, see the Scottish Paralegal Association
Law graduates wishing to practise in Northern Ireland should apply for the one-year vocational certificate course at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies
. Trainee barristers study the Certificate in Professional Legal Studies.
Non-law graduates study for the two-year law degree at Queen's University Belfast School of Law
and then follow the routes above.
How can my career develop?
- Over time, you take on increasing responsibilities, becoming a senior solicitor and then associate.
- Attaining partnership in large firms is becoming more difficult as they seek to preserve their profits. The smaller the firm, the fewer steps to partnership there may be.
- The Law Society of England and Wales
regulations require solicitors to maintain their continuing professional development (CPD). Training is provided either in-house or via external courses.
- Solicitors may qualify as solicitor-advocates by taking additional qualifications to appear in the higher courts. See the Society of Solicitor Advocates
- Career development for in-house and local and central government solicitors generally is structured to lead to a management position. Many Scottish solicitors move to in-house work.
- The Legal Services Act may enable other routes of progression in the future if solicitors practise within an alternative business structure.
- Career progression as a barrister/advocate is constrained by finance, time and self management. With time, you will take on more complex cases.
- For some, the aim is to 'take silk' and become a Queen's Counsel (QC) and then a judge.
- Barristers practising at the employed bar usually work for a company or public sector organisation as part of a legal team. Career progression may involve heading such a team or moving into the higher levels of general management.
Chartered legal executive
- Recent legislation has allowed chartered legal executives to progress to partners within law firms and can become advocates appearing in county and magistrates courts.
- The role of paralegal is becoming increasingly recognised as a professional fee earner within a law firm. Formal paralegal qualifications are now required through the RTQ. For more information, see the Institute of Paralegals
The law sector is large and as a result there are various places in which you could be employed. These vary from the public to private sector and from large companies to small firms. Find out more about where you could work…
There are some key firms in the law sector that are well known in the UK. The public sector also plays a big part, however, and recruits some large numbers.
Private practice: corporate and commercial firms
The private sector is made up of the magic circle firms, national and international firms, city firms and regional firms.
The five magic circle law firms are:
- Allen & Overy LLP - recruits 105 trainees;
- Clifford Chance - recruits 100 trainees;
- Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP - recruits 90 trainees;
- Linklaters LLP - recruits 110 trainees;
- Slaughter and May - recruits 95 trainees.
The magic circle, as well as Herbert Smith Freehills LLP (recruits around 85 trainees), make up the top six UK law firms. The average starting salaries at these firms is £38,000. Other large commercial firms include DLA (85 trainee places), Pinsent Mason (60 trainee places), Eversheds, Addleshaw Goddard (40-45 trainee places). The average starting salary at these firms is £36,000.
In-house legal departments
Training contracts and other legal service opportunities are available within in-house legal departments. This is a different role in that you will be advising your employer on relevant legal issues faced by them and your employer will be your sole client.
London and regional bar circuits made up of individual sets of chambers recruit general and specialist pupils depending on their area of practice. Most only recruit a pupil if it is likely to lead to tenancy. Over 460 pupillages were registered between 2009-10 (The BSB Pilot Statistical Report, 2011). There are 15,500 practising barristers and 80% of the bar is self-employed.
Small to medium-sized enterprises
SMEs are organisations with less than 250 employees and an annual turnover of not more than 50 million euros. Working for a smaller company can be rewarding because you are more likely to forge a path for yourself within the company, although opportunities to try other departments may be limited.
SMEs are unlikely to use the testing and assessment techniques of larger companies, or follow lengthy recruitment procedures. SMEs are more likely to advertise their vacancies through the local press, university careers service bulletins, local graduate vacancy listings, jobcentres and word of mouth, rather than rely on their reputation and a presence at graduate recruitment fairs.
Careers services should have listings of jobs with small firms. See also the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
Most barristers and advocates (Scotland) are self-employed. Solicitors can be promoted to self-employed, profit-sharing partner within a firm. Solicitors can set up as a sole practitioner after being in practice for a number of years.
Find out more about self-employment.
What are my chances of getting a job overseas?
Despite differences between the legal systems of different countries, legal personnel are surprisingly mobile. To find out about European and global opportunities, see the:
Will my qualifications be recognised?
- Recognition of qualifications will depend on the country and/or state you are seeking to work in.
- European directives make it possible for individuals to qualify in one member state and practise in another. This should enable lawyers to advise on the law of their home state, European and international law, and the law of their host state. EU states may involve taking additional aptitude tests or serving a period of probation in the new state. For further information, contact the relevant bar association or law society. Details of all relevant law societies and professional bodies for each member state is available from The Council of Bar and Law Societies of Europe
Where are the opportunities?
- The Court of Justice of the European Union
employs a number of experienced ‘lawyer linguists’, responsible for translating court documents between EU languages.
- The European Commission
employs lawyers at its offices in Brussels in all of the Commission’s directorates, ranging from agriculture to home affairs.
- Large international and European law firms and companies may offer opportunities to serve periods of time in their international and European branches, some offering a placement abroad during traineeship.
- The United Nations (UN)
offers opportunities for experienced lawyers. Internships are offered at its headquarters in New York to students studying at Masters or PhD level, with recruitment taking place by competitive examination.
- The International Court of Justice
operates in a similar way to the Court of Justice of the European Communities and offers internships for those interested in international law.
- The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE)
can facilitate internships in the USA.
- ‘Stages’ are periods of training for new graduates within one of the EU institutions. Lasting up to six months, they provide a starting point for graduates considering a career in European law. For further details, see The European Commission (Representation in the UK)
- Courses leading to the New York Bar examinations are taught in the UK. Students sit the final examinations in New York. However, completing this qualification is no guarantee of obtaining employment. Further information on qualifying in the USA can be found at the Fulbright Commission
. Also see the International Bar Association
- There are many internships available to students in non-governmental organisations as well as political and campaigning organisations. Idealist
also places students in internships.
- The armed forces also employs lawyers, with the chance of international postings.
- If you are seeking employment in other jurisdictions, contact the relevant bar association or law society for details of additional qualifications and employment opportunities.
- The Legal Services Act 2007 is a major piece of legislation affecting the traditional set up of the legal industry. The act enables the setting up of alternative business structures (ABSs) from October 2011 and allows non-legal enterprises to offer legal services to businesses and individual clients. By opening up the industry, law firms can seek external funding through floatation on the stock exchange and can merge with other professional service organisations.
- With the introduction of ABSs, high street companies, like the Co-operative, are able to offer legal advice, undercutting the traditional legal firm’s fees and providing a more cost-effective service.
Developments in the legal profession
- Legal Practice Course (LPC) providers can offer more tailored LPC programmes, fast track options and programmes designed in partnership with employers such as commercial and high street focused LPCs. The course is divided into two stages, compulsory and elective, and you can study with different providers at each stage. For the second stage, it is possible to study each of the three electives at different institutions.
- The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) replaced the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) in September 2010. The Bar Standards Board (BSB)
introduced measures to make the application process and study of the BPTC more rigorous. This included a voluntary aptitude test and increased pass mark. From 2012, the BSB will set three examinations as part of the qualification in civil litigation, criminal litigation and ethics.
- The Institute of Paralegals
introduced a new structured and recognised route to qualification (RTQ) from 1 October 2009. On completion, a paralegal will hold the title of qualified paralegal. There are four stages: affiliate; associate; certified; and qualified.
- Firms need to improve electronic communication, as clients value ease of contact, reduced costs and speed of response over face-to-face contact and local offices. Increasingly, services such as legal advice in personal injury cases and conveyancing are being delivered electronically.
- The Law Society Management Section Annual survey shows legal practices recovering from the global financial downturn with a slight increase (0.2%) in practice fee income in 2010 compared with a 6.5% reduction in 2009. Law firms are starting to recruit again based on the 200 firms involved in the survey.
- Many in-house legal teams in non-contentious areas of law, especially in construction, banking, and the financial and insurance industries, are planning to expand in the near future. This could lead to a reduction in outsourcing to external firms.
- Law firm investment in China is likely to increase as economic growth there generates work. Many international law firms have already opened offices in China. For example, Eversheds, Ashursts, SJ Berwin and US firm Goodwin Procter.
- Firms are hoping for the liberalisation of the legal services market in India and South Korea, which would allow for expansion into the market in those countries. In the shorter term, Vietnam with its underdeveloped legal market may be a potential prospect.
- The public bar is being encouraged to move into more general advisory work as legal aid cuts are indicating less work for barristers in these areas. The bar has created new business units to enable barristers to provide direct advice and for chambers to employ Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) graduates without pupillage to undertake basic legal tasks within chambers.
- There has been a growth in the number of paralegal roles filled by LPC/BPTC graduates without training contracts. This could result in certain practice areas operating more call centre type operations with an increase in less qualified legal advisers and fewer qualified specialists.
- BPTC - Bar Professional Training Course, which replaced the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) in September 2010.
- BSB - Bar Standards Board - the regulatory professional body of the bar.
- Call to the bar - formal ceremony following successful completion of the BPTC during which title of barrister is given.
- Certificate in Professional Legal Studies - professional training course followed by intending barristers and solicitors in Northern Ireland after completion of a qualifying degree.
- CPE/GDL - Common Professional Examination/Graduate Diploma in Law. One-year conversion course in England and Wales, covering core law subjects for non-law graduates.
- Devilling - period spent as a trainee advocate in Scotland.
- Diploma in Legal Practice - professional training course followed by both intending advocates and intending solicitors in Scotland after completion of an LLB.
- Inns of Court - the four recognised legal societies for the bar. Students must become a member of an Inn before commencing their postgraduate legal studies.
- JLD - Junior Lawyers Division. Law Society Group for trainee solicitors, young lawyers and legal students.
- LPC - Legal Practice Course. Vocational course for intending solicitors in England and Wales.
- LPQ - Legal Professional Qualification. Foundation certificate in paralegal practice to teach law graduates practical skills to become paralegals.
- Mini-pupillage - short period spent observing a barrister’s chambers at work prior to completing your degree (often assessed).
- Pupillage - one year of supervised work undertaken by trainee barristers in England and Wales.
- Pupillage Gateway - the Bar's online pupillage application system. Allows you to apply to up to 12 Pupillage Gateway online system chambers as well as make one 'clearing' application. You can personalise your application to each of your target pupillage providers.
- RTQ - the route to qualification introduced by the Institute of Paralegals to become a qualified paralegal. The four stages include affiliate, associate, certified and qualified.
- PSC - Professional Skills Course, completed by trainee solicitors during their training contract.
- Seats - three to four-month periods spent as part of the training contract in different areas of legal practice.
- Set of chambers - where self-employed barristers work.
- Silk - a senior barrister who has attained the rank of Queen's Counsel.
- Sixes - the term used for the two periods of six months spent as a pupil barrister. During the first six, a pupil cannot earn fees. During the second six, a pupil can start to earn fees and appear on behalf of clients.
- Solicitor advocate - a qualified solicitor who has gained further accreditation to represent clients as an advocate in the higher courts of England, Wales or Scotland.
- SRA - the Solicitors Regulatory Authority of England and Wales.
- Stable - administrative grouping of advocates in Scotland.
- Tenant - acceptance into chambers following pupillage.
- Training contract/traineeship - two-year period of supervised work with a firm of solicitors or other authorised organisation, which is required for qualification as a solicitor.
- WBL - Work Based Learning programme. A two year pilot scheme introduced by the SRA as an alternative assessment-based programme to the vocational training contract.
Written by Kate Bassett, BPP Law School