Find out how to start your law career and discover which routes you can take into the legal profession
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, there are other jobs in the legal profession:
- 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.
Which A-level subjects should I choose?
In general 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, you may want to 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.
As such, entry requirements for an undergraduate law degree at top universities typically range from A*AA to AAB. Other institutions will have less stringent criteria so check when searching for courses.
Some universities will specify required GCSE grades in English, maths and possibly a foreign language.
In addition, to study law at university you will 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?
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) and Bar Standards Board - a requirement if you're to become a practising lawyer.
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 Graduate Diploma in Law (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.
It's possible to join the legal profession without going to university at all by taking CILEx qualifications to become a chartered legal executive. CILEx also offers legal apprenticeships.
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 win 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 approaches to smaller high street solicitors rather than applying to major city firms.
If there are genuine mitigating circumstances that led you to get a 2:2 or third instead of a higher grade, you can explain this on application forms or contact recruiters directly.
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, see 7 skills for a successful law career.
How do I get legal work experience?
Getting plenty of work experience at all stages of your studies is vital if you want to become a lawyer - it will help you to develop the skills you need and learn whether it's the right career for you.
You can 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 university course, you should apply for formal work placements. These include vacation schemes at law firms, which take place during academic holidays, and mini-pupillages in barristers' chambers. Find out more about vacation schemes.
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 debating society.
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 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.
Those wishing to become barristers should take the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) followed by a pupillage (practical experience in barristers' chambers). After this you'll be ready to apply for tenancy as a self-employed barrister in chambers or go into practice as an employed barrister.
If you prefer the non-university route, you can 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 instead of an LPC or BPTC.
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 your BPTC 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.
Discover how to become a solicitor or barrister, read about life at some of the UK's top firms and take a look at the A-Z of training opportunities.