There are lots of stereotypes surrounding legal careers, especially when it comes to lifestyle and earning potential. Wayne Vickers, senior associate solicitor within Rothera Sharp's personal injury department spills the beans on what it's really like to work in law
What you're paid depends on the size of the firm, the location and practice area. Take a look at areas of law to find out more. A newly-qualified solicitor working in a smaller commercial or regional firm may earn anywhere between £25,000 and £40,000, which can rise to £65,000 in the City, and up to £100,000 in 'Magic Circle' firms. Wages are now more in-line between legal executives (fee-earning qualified lawyers) and solicitors.
The corporate commercial side of law is one of the highest paid sectors, with gross salaries ranging from £70,000 to £200,000. However, salary isn't everything and graduates are often drawn to the more personal departments, such as family law. Salaries in this sector can range from £40,000 to £90,000 per year. Civil practice is another relatively high earner, with wages between £40,000 and £120,000.
On the lower end of the scale are departments such as personal injury, criminal and probate. Personal injury lawyers, for instance, operate on a fixed fee, which limits earnings in the sector.
To find out more, see how much do lawyers earn?
There's no doubt that some areas of law are very well-paid, but you won't always find yourself working in a glass high-rise in the City or downtown Manhattan. A number of firms are local, with some more traditional than others. The 'high street solicitor' is alive and kicking, with many supporting a core network of loyal clients.
The industry is more relaxed than it used to be and modern firms manage cases through their own case management systems - effectively a digital documentation system. There has been a digital shift as larger firms head down the paperless route, so graduates are expected to have good IT skills. All documents are scanned into these case management systems, resulting in less physical paperwork and more streamlined working.
It's not all about being behind a desk. Depending on the nature of your work you might find yourself in court, visiting a client at home or, in the case of personal injury, carrying out a site inspection following an incident.
The market is hugely competitive and saturated with graduates, so you'll need to make sure you stand out. Larger firms will have more training contracts due to their need to develop new talent. However, for smaller firms it can often be a question of cost versus the long-term reward. Early on in their training, new starters will be non-fee earners, a potential burden for a smaller firm, hence the limited number of training contracts they may offer.
Nevertheless people do move on, and these firms will need new blood, so never dismiss them outright. It's worth considering the trade-off between training at a small firm compared to a larger one. A larger firm may appear to be more impressive on a CV, but that isn't always the case. It depends on the employer and the skills they're looking for. Find out more about top UK law firms.
As a regional firm, the number of training contracts Rothera Sharp offers is based entirely on our business requirements at the time. We usually average three per year. This will of course differ for much larger, more corporate firms, especially those operating out of the City.
We tend to advertise training contracts on social media platforms, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as advertising internally. We then carefully review CVs and cover letters and invite a selection of candidates to an assessment day. Successful candidates are then offered a training contract. We get a few enquiries a month over the summer and up to two a month in general. These can range from really basic emails asking whether we have any availability to more in-depth emails attaching a CV. I much prefer a good quality cover letter that demonstrates the candidate has done their research, rather than just firing out the same email to all firms. Get tips on writing a legal CV and cover letter.
I think most newly-qualified trainees would agree that, due to how competitive it has been just to get a training contract, it's probably a great relief to qualify. Even if there are no opportunities to stay on at the firm you trained with, there are still more job opportunities for newly-qualified solicitors than there are training contracts for LPC graduates.
Typical working day
The general rule is 9am to 5pm, but evening and weekend work isn't uncommon. If you're in court on Monday morning, you may find yourself prepping for the case over the weekend. You may also need to visit a client at home, out of their working hours. Likewise, if you're working in criminal law, you might need to visit a client in prison or at the police station; the latter may be at a less than typical time.
A legal executive or solicitor will bill on average six to nine working hours per day, with an expectation of between 1,200 and 1,600 hours per year. With this comes the responsibility to meet financial targets, dependent on your sector and the size of the firm - this could vary from £100,000 to £400,000.
Managing your caseload forms the bulk of any working week. However, the number of cases will vary dramatically depending on the department. A personal injury lawyer could be managing 100 to 200 cases over a three-year period, whereas their equivalent in the commercial team might be working on one substantial deal.
Opportunities for promotion
Promotion to senior associate and then partner shouldn't be expected within the first few years. Once qualified, you might expect to reach associate level within five to seven years, and senior associate within 10 to 15. This will vary depending on the firm and its internal promotion structure. If progression is a high priority for you then you can help make it happen by exceeding any targets you might be set.
As for being appointed as Queen's Counsel, this can be a 20 to 25-year process, but if this is your aim, it's something you will have to work towards, especially as appointments are made on merit, as well as level of experience.
Current issues in the legal sector
The first issue is fixed rates, with the government trying to control fees in sectors such as personal injury and crime. This is having a knock-on effect on salaries and the potential earnings of solicitors, and will continue to do so going forward.
In addition, the cuts in legal aid have affected criminal law, which means there are now fewer firms willing to handle it. Primarily, because the process to become a Crown/Magistrate recognised law firm is through a tender. If you're representing the defendant, the government pays you, but the cuts limit your earnings.
Law firms are also seeking to bring costs down, especially since the impact of the recession. Some firms are employing paralegals to handle the same work as a newly-qualified solicitor, with a partner overseeing and supervising their work.
One of the biggest changes is that you no longer have to be legally qualified to run a law firm, which has encouraged investors outside of the sector to run their businesses. This also links to external firms now moving into the sector, as seen with the likes of Tesco and The Co-operative offering legal services.
Interest is also growing around legal apprenticeships. There is an upward trend for some of the larger national firms to offer apprenticeships that can lead to roles as paralegals and solicitors. However, I think it will take time before this becomes more commonplace. It will be interesting to see whether apprenticeships increase in popularity over the next few years and rival the traditional route of university and LPC. Apprenticeships can be a great way for firms to strengthen their workforce by recognising that there is top talent out there who want an alternative route in to law and prefer to learn on the job.
Find out more
- Search for training contracts.
- Discover 7 skills for a successful law career.
- Take a look at what's on offer at Rothera Sharp.