The reality of working in law

Author
Wayne Vickers, associate solicitor
Posted
December, 2016

It's easy to find out about average salaries, practice areas and pro bono opportunities but you might need more information to help you make your decision. Discover what you can really expect from a law career

Salary

What you're paid depends on the size of the firm, the location and practice area. 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 £80,000 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.

Culture

There's no doubt that some areas of law are very well-paid, but this isn't like the television series Suits; 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.

Its 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.

Competitiveness

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 tradeoff between training at a small firm compared to a larger one. Training from 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.

As a regional firm, the number of training contracts Rothera Sharp offers is based entirely on our business requirements at the time. We currently have two trainees, with one due to finish in the new year and the other having only just started. Therefore you're probably looking at one a year on average. This will of course differ for much larger, more corporate firms, especially those operating out of the City.

We don't advertise training contracts on our website as we're more likely to promote a member of staff internally. We tend to get a few enquiries a month over the summer and up to two a month in general. These can range from being 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.

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 of thumb 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 case load 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 specific targets you might be set.

As for reaching the 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 specifically work towards, especially as appointments are made on merit rather than level of experience. The process to become a judge is similar. The mentality around both positions is slowly changing, with the aim to attract younger people to the roles, as well as appeal to women and those from different ethnic backgrounds. This appears to be a considered approach to lose the stigma of 'grey old man' and promote equality.

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, then you're paid by the government, 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.