A traditional law degree is far from your only option - there are a number of routes to becoming a lawyer. Find out more about qualifying to work in the legal profession

What qualifications do I need to become a lawyer?

To become a lawyer through the traditional route, you'll first need to complete a qualifying law degree (LLB) at university, or study another subject at undergraduate level then take the one-year Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) conversion course. At this point the pathways for aspiring solicitors and barristers diverge.

If you want to be a solicitor you must complete the vocational Legal Practice Course (LPC) before undertaking a training contract with a law firm - as part of which you'll have to pass a Professional Skills Course. You can then apply for admission to the roll of solicitors.

It is also possible to complete a Solicitor Apprenticeship, which is a six-year, Level 7 programme aimed at post A-level students, paralegals and chartered legal executives. The period of study is reduced for those who progress from other legal apprenticeships. The scheme covers all the content in a law degree and LPC and enables apprentices to gain a law degree and LLM (Masters). Find out more about law apprenticeships.

Please be aware that in September 2021 the way that solicitors qualify in England and Wales is set to change for new entrants with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). In effect, this new exam will replace the GDL ad LPC, although there’ll be a long period of transition for those already studying via these routes.

To become a barrister in England and Wales you need to complete three stage or components of training. These include the academic component (law degree), vocational component (traditionally the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)) and pupillage also known as the work-based learning component. However, from September 2020 aspiring barristers will be able to complete the vocational component in varied ways following the introduction of new Bar courses, which effectively replace the BPTC. There will be transitional arrangements in place for students who have yet to complete a BPTC having started their training prior to 2020. The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has brought about these qualification changes to make training to become a barrister more flexible, accessible and affordable. After completing all training components you'll be ready to apply for tenancy as a self-employed barrister in chambers or go into practice as an employed barrister.

You can also become a chartered legal executive by taking CILEx qualifications at Level 3 (equivalent to A-level) and Level 6 (equivalent to an undergraduate degree). Those who have a law degree or GDL can become a chartered legal executive by completing the CILEx Fast-track Diploma.

What's the difference between a solicitor and a barrister?

Lawyer is a general term referring to anyone who is qualified to give legal advice as a licensed legal practitioner. This includes solicitors and barristers.

Solicitors provide legal support, advice and services to clients, who can be individuals, private companies, public sector organisations or other groups. Working in private practice, in-house for commercial organisations, in local or central government or in the court service, they may specialise in certain areas of law such as property, family or finance.

In England and Wales, barristers represent individuals or organisations in court, carry out research into points of law and advise clients on their case. Many are self-employed in chambers, while others work in government departments or agencies including the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Government Legal Service (GLS). Advocates play a similar role in Scotland.

Besides solicitors and barristers, other jobs include:

  • Chartered legal executives are qualified lawyers who specialise in particular fields of law such as civil and criminal litigation, corporate law or public law. Only those who complete the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives' (CILEx) training programme can use this title.
  • Paralegals carry out legal work without being qualified as a solicitor or barrister. They support lawyers by, for instance, preparing briefing notes and interviewing clients and witnesses.

Try to arrange work shadowing and work experience placements, and attend insight days, to help you decide which path suits you. Find out more about law careers and the different areas of law.

How long does it take to become a lawyer?

If you study full time, it generally takes at least six years to qualify as a solicitor. This includes a three-year law degree, a one-year LPC and finally a two-year training contract with a law firm. Studying a non-law subject for your degree means you'll need to take the GDL conversion course before your LPC, which adds one year to the total.

Becoming a fully-fledged barrister takes five years - including three years for your law degree, one year for a Bar course and a one-year pupillage in chambers. Again, add an extra year for the GDL if your degree wasn't in law.

Meanwhile, CILEx qualifications are more flexible. As a guide, it typically takes four years of part-time study to complete Level 3 and Level 6. You'll also need to spend three years in qualifying employment, at least one of which must begin after you have passed Level 6.

Which A-level subjects should I choose?

There are no essential subjects that you must take at A-level (or equivalent) to become a lawyer.

However, to demonstrate that you have the skills, choose subjects that involve research, analysis and communication - such as history, geography, modern languages, sciences or maths - as these can give you an edge. Be aware that many universities do not accept general studies or critical thinking A-levels.

Legal work is intellectually challenging and competitive, so universities expect excellent A-level grades as evidence that you'll be able to cope with the demands of studying law. Entry requirements for an undergraduate law degree at top universities typically range from A*AA to AAB. Other institutions have less stringent criteria, so check when searching for courses.

Some universities specify required GCSE grades in English, maths and possibly a foreign language.

In addition, to study law at university you’ll often have to take the National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT) as part of your application. This does not test your knowledge of law - instead, it assesses your aptitude for the required skills.

Do I need a law degree?

You can become a lawyer without a law degree. When you have completed your undergraduate study in a different subject, you'll need to take a one-year law conversion course known as the GDL.

The GDL will put you on an equal platform with those who took a law degree. Non-law students are not at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for training contracts and pupillages. In fact, the additional skills and wider experience of having studied another subject at degree level can be beneficial.

However, if you study law at undergraduate level you should ensure that your course is a qualifying degree. This means it's approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) or the BSB - a requirement if you're to become a practising lawyer.

As previously mentioned, it's possible to join the legal profession without going to university at all by taking CILEx qualifications to become a chartered legal executive. Legal apprenticeships are also available.

Can I become a lawyer with a 2:2 or a third?

Law is such a competitive sector that even candidates with top grades can sometimes struggle to get a training contract or pupillage after their studies. You'll find that a 2:1 degree is often the minimum requirement for entry.

Nevertheless, you can become a lawyer with a 2:2 or a third. You'll need to ensure that your applications stand out in other ways, for example by gaining extensive and varied work experience, such as pro bono work or court marshalling. It's a good idea to make speculative applications to smaller high street solicitors, rather than applying to major city firms.

If there are genuine mitigating circumstances that led you to a 2:2 or third instead of a higher grade, explain this on application forms or contact recruiters directly. Find out more about writing a legal CV and cover letter.

What skills will I need?

In addition to strong academic grades, there are certain skills you'll need to demonstrate to become a lawyer.

A good indicator of what's required is the LNAT, which is used by many universities as an entrance exam for law degrees. It assesses your:

  • verbal and written reasoning skills
  • ability to understand and interpret information
  • inductive and deductive reasoning abilities
  • ability to analyse information and draw conclusions.

To find out more about specific skills, see 7 skills for a successful law career.

Getting plenty of law work experience is vital if you want to become a lawyer - it’ll help you to develop required skills and learn whether it's the right career for you.

Organise informal work experience with high street legal firms before going to university. For example, this could be a couple of weeks spent work shadowing a solicitor and carrying out general office duties. Placements like this, arranged independently, look good on applications for law degrees or GDL conversion courses.

During your studies apply for formal work placements. These include vacation schemes at law firms, which take place during academic holidays, and mini-pupillages in barristers' chambers.

Other ways of gaining useful experience include undertaking pro bono work (advising and representing people on a voluntary basis), court marshalling (sitting with a judge for a few days) and getting involved in your university’s law or debating society.

Find out more

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