If you're interested in the legal profession and want to know how to become a lawyer, read on to learn more about the different paths you can take

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 the Government Legal Profession. Advocates play a similar role in Scotland.

Besides solicitors and barristers, other legal jobs that are often collectively referred to as 'lawyers' can 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 preparing briefing notes and interviewing clients and witnesses.

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

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 will eventually replace the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC), although there are transitional arrangements in place up to 2032 for those who started their law degree, GDL or LPC prior to September 2021 and would like to qualify via the traditional route.

Those who studied an unrelated subject at undergraduate level may find it helpful to embark on a law conversion course and/or an SQE preparation course before sitting the exams.

The next step on the SQE route 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:

  • academic component (law degree)
  • vocational component (a Bar course)
  • work-based learning component (pupillage).

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 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. Students can study through CILEX Law School or through a number of approved providers.

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 factor in the time it takes to study for a law conversion course and/or an SQE preparation course, both of 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.

What A-levels do I need to become a lawyer?

There are no essential A-level subjects. However, to demonstrate that you have the skills, choose subjects that involve research, analysis and communication - such as law (if it's an option at your school) 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. Fees for those taking the LNAT at a UK or EU test centre are £75.

Do I need a law degree?

To become a solicitor or barrister you will need a degree (whether this is gained through university study or via an apprenticeship) but this degree doesn't necessarily have to be in law.

'You are eligible with any degree,' says Keith Mitchelhill, early talent recruitment advisor at Womble Bond Dickinson. 'For those with a non-law degree, it is recommended (though not compulsory) that you complete a law conversion course, commonly the Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL), which provides you with the foundations of legal knowledge that will help in your legal career.'

Upon completing a law conversion course you'll need to take the SQE (solicitors) or a Bar course (barristers).

If you do study law at undergraduate level, ensure that your LLB is a qualifying degree - meaning it's approved by the SRA (for solicitors) or the Bar Standards Board (BSB) (for barristers) - 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 qualifying legal work experience, a training contract or pupillage after their studies.

'In general, firms tend to look for a 2:1, however if you don't have the results that you feel best represent you, don't give up,' explains Keith. 'A lot of law firms allow you to explain any mitigating circumstances. Some firms don't look at grades at all, rather just your eligibility to complete a training contract or QWE.'

However, it might be a good idea to make speculative applications to smaller high street solicitors, rather than applying to major city firms.

'You can still make your application stand out to law firms by gaining valuable work and life experience, demonstrating your understanding of the key skills gained through this, and how they may transfer to a legal environment,' adds Keith.

Find out more about writing a legal CV and cover letter.

What are the best law schools in the UK?

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 World University Rankings by subject 2023, the following UK universities top the list for law:

  • University of Oxford
  • University of Cambridge
  • University College London (UCL)
  • University of Edinburgh
  • King's College London
  • London School of Economics and Political Science
  • The University of Manchester
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Warwick.

Durham University, Queen University Belfast and the University of Leeds also feature in the Complete University Guide's law subject league table for 2024.

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. 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.

'There is also the online platform Forage, which provides valuable work experience as well as a certificate of completion that is recognised by many law firms,' says Keith. ' 'Citizens Advice is also a great way to develop your soft skills, they provide fantastic training and give you the opportunity to help members of the public overcome difficult circumstances.'

Find out more

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