If you want to become a lawyer there are a number of ways for you to achieve your goal, from studying a traditional law degree to embarking on an apprenticeship. Find out more about qualifying to work in the legal profession

What qualifications do I need to become a lawyer?

Becoming a lawyer via the university route requires you to complete a qualifying law degree (LLB) before taking the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), which is set to replace the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) for all new entrants in September 2021, although there are transitional arrangements in place for those already studying these courses.

Those who studied an unrelated subject at undergraduate level will need to embark on a SQE preparation course before sitting the exams. The next step is to complete two years of qualifying legal work experience, which can include a training contract, before passing the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) character and suitability requirements. You can then apply for admission to the roll of solicitors.

It’s also possible to complete a Solicitor Apprenticeship, which is a six-year, Level 7 programme aimed at A-level graduates, paralegals and chartered legal executives. Find out more about law apprenticeships.

To become a barrister in England and Wales you need to complete at least three stages or components of training. These include the academic component (law degree), vocational component (a Bar course, traditionally the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)) and pupillage also known as the work-based learning component. 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 CILEx Lawyer through the new CILEx Professional Qualification (CPQ) route. Combining work with study you'll progress across three stages:

  • Foundation - aligned to the role of a paralegal
  • Advanced - for those handling cases at an advanced paralegal level
  • Professional - for those who want to be CILEX Lawyers in their chosen specialist area of law and with full practice rights.

Students who already hold an undergraduate or postgraduate legal qualification will not have to start at the beginning. Qualifying as a CILEx lawyer through the CPQ will cost a maximum of £12,500 - less for those with some kind of legal qualification, making it considerably cheaper than university study. The CPQ route opens for enrolments in June 2021. Students can study through CILEX Law School or through a number of approved providers.

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 will take about five or six years to qualify as a solicitor. This includes a three-year law degree, the SQE assessments and two-years of qualifying legal work experience. Studying a non-law subject for your degree means you'll need to take an SQE preparation course before sitting the exams, which can extend the training period.

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 a law conversion course if your degree wasn't in law.

Meanwhile, if you're studying to become a lawyer via the CILEx CPQ each stage will take between 18 months and two years - although students can progress at whatever speed suits them - meaning a student could qualify as a CILEX Lawyer in five to six years.

Which A-level subjects should I choose?

There are no essential subjects that you must take at A-level. 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 an SQE preparation course.

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 SRA or the Bar Standards Board (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. The CILEx CPQ route (where you can study to become a paralegal (Foundation), advanced paralegal (Advanced) or lawyer (Professional)) does not require a degree, or equivalent qualifications and experience.

Legal apprenticeships are also available and these provide another viable alternative to university study.

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 are the best universities for studying law?

Where you choose to study should be based on your own research into different locations, institutions and their facilities, reputations, industry connections and employability records. It's a personal choice - just because an institution tops the rankings doesn't necessarily mean it's right for you.

However, according to the Times Word University Rankings by subject 2021, the following UK universities top the list for law:

  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Oxford
  • University College London (UCL)
  • London School of Economics and Political Science
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Kings College London
  • Durham University
  • University of Warwick
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Kent.

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 the 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.

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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