Careers explored: Solicitor

Navigating the intricate pathways of the legal profession can be overwhelming. From deciphering the complexities of legal education to gaining practical experience, the journey to becoming a solicitor is both rigorous and rewarding. In this issue, we explore the routes to becoming a solicitor, highlighting the key steps and considerations for those thinking of joining the legal profession.

A solicitor is a qualified legal professional who provides specialist legal advice on different areas of law and is responsible for representing and defending a client’s legal interest – either for an individual, business or organisation.

Becoming a solicitor is not easy and there are no shortcuts, so how does one start this formidable journey?

Typically, it begins with A-level qualifications or an equivalent. There are no specific subject requirements to study law at university, but subjects such as law, English, history, politics, and mathematics can provide valuable skills and knowledge applicable to legal studies.

Next, aspiring solicitors will pursue an undergraduate law degree (LLB) at a university. Alternatively, students may opt for a non-law degree followed by a conversion course, such as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), which enables them to qualify for further legal training.

However, individuals must be able to demonstrate specific skills which are essential to the profession. A pivotal benchmark in gauging these requisite skills is the Law National Aptitude

Test (LNAT), which is used by many universities as a computer-based entrance exam. It assesses your verbal and written reasoning skills, ability to understand and interpret information, inductive and deductive reasoning abilities and ability to analyse information and draw conclusions. It is not designed to test your knowledge of the law.

In 2022, 33,720 students applied to study law at undergraduate level in England and Wales, and 29,905 of these students were accepted onto courses.

Liverpool John Moors University (LJMU) offer an LLB (Hons) law degree, with the additional opportunity to embark on a placement year.

Rachel Stalker, subject leader in Clinical Legal Education (associate professor), at LJMU says: “We are one of the only law schools in the UK where every LLB law student can gain legal work experience from their first year onward as part of their studies in our world-class law clinic. Your time in clinic, or working at court, can count towards your qualifying work experience. Last year, our students contributed to £1.145m worth of free advice and casework.”

While academic qualifications are crucial, gaining practical experience is equally important in the legal profession. Many universities, like LJMU, offer opportunities for students to participate in mooting competitions, legal clinics, and internships to develop essential skills such as legal research, writing, and advocacy.

On average, if you study full-time, it will take around six years to qualify as a solicitor. This includes a three-year (or four-year, if you choose the option of a 12-month placement) law degree, the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE), and two years of qualifying work experience at a maximum of four organisations.

The SQE came into place in 2021 and offers a flexible and cost-effective pathway for students compared to the traditional legal practice course (LPC). The SQE consists of two parts; SQE1 focuses on legal knowledge through multiple-choice questions, while SQE2 assesses practical legal skills such as client interviewing, advocacy, and case and matter analysis. From September 2024, the SQE1 will cost £1,888 and the SQE2 will cost £2,902 – this is much cheaper than the traditional LPC which is anywhere from £10,000 to £17,000.

There is also the additional option to complete an SQE preparation course which may increase your chances of passing the assessments. However, it is not mandatory to take a preparation course. Courses can last around eight months, and costs vary depending on the provider. These start anywhere from £4,000 per assessment.

When it comes to qualifying work experience, there are many options which can count towards this, including the traditional routes such as a training contract. Other types of work experience will also count such as a law degree placement, volunteering in a legal advice centre or working as a paralegal.

Richard Capper, partner at Hill Dickinson, has some important advice for those pursuing qualifying work experience. He says: “Particularly since COVID and the invent of working-from-home and downsized offices, work experience is hard to come by. Seize any opportunity you get and don’t be afraid to approach direct. Some law firm partners will ignore you but many more will be flattered that you have shown an interest.”

In the UK, the average starting salary for a newly qualified solicitor is £34,000 per year.

When applying for qualifying work experience or training contracts, Richard shares what he looks for in a successful application: “No spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. I’m looking for a reason to make you an offer. What makes you special? What is your USP [unique selling point]? I am keen to see something that demonstrates that you are resourceful and have the ability to lead, and work, as part of a team. Don’t be afraid to talk about it!”

For those interested in specialising in a particular area of law, such as environmental law, intellectual property, or human rights law, he says: “If you’re passionate about a particular area, apply to a firm that does that. Try and let your passion show through – our health team see that all the time. Before you make an approach or complete an application form, research, research some more and be well prepared. It really helps you understand the firm that you are applying to.”

Richard also reveals one misconception about the industry that isn’t often talked about.

He shares: “People think law is a simple business – get the work in, do it well and get paid for it! However, the ability to sell is important and they don’t teach you that at any law school. Someone who has work experience in retail is going to be good at it and just as valuable as any law-related work experience.”

The final part of the journey towards becoming a solicitor lies with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). It will assess the character and suitability of anyone applying to be admitted to the roll of solicitors. Be aware, if there are any issues in your personal history it could mean that you will not meet the SRA’s assessment of character and suitability rules. If you don’t meet these requirements, you will not be admitted as a solicitor.

The pathway to becoming a solicitor is very complex and gaining a breadth of working experience is a vital aspect of this process. While securing training contracts is highly competitive, there is an alternative option that can be explored: working as a paralegal. Securing a paralegal role following your degree can help self-fund your qualification as a solicitor.

Amanda Hamilton, the patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals, sheds light on this alternative path, offering valuable insights into the role and significance of paralegals in the legal profession.

The average salary for a training contract is around £26,000 per year.

Paralegal as a stepping stone

Paralegals play a vital role in law firms, providing essential support to solicitors and barristers. Their responsibilities may include legal research, drafting documents, client communication, and assisting with case preparation. This hands-on experience allows aspiring solicitors to develop a deep understanding of legal procedures, case law, and client management.

Working as a paralegal offers invaluable opportunities to hone practical skills essential for a career in law. Paralegals often work closely with solicitors on a wide range of cases, gaining exposure to various areas of law such as family law, criminal law, corporate law, and litigation. This exposure not only enhances legal knowledge but also cultivates skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, and attention to detail.

As part of a legal team, paralegals have the chance to network with experienced professionals; building strong relationships with solicitors, barristers, and other legal professionals can open doors to career advancement.

Working as a paralegal can count towards your two years’ qualifying work experience should you wish to go on to do your SQE.

Transitioning from working as a paralegal to qualifying as a solicitor

If it is your intention to qualify as a solicitor, then working as a paralegal and gaining qualifying experience is just as essential as completing the SQE itself as it opens up options.

Starting your legal career as a paralegal is a great way to gain experience while earning a living and, if you choose to, it can also be a stepping stone to becoming a solicitor. But if you decide that’s not for you, but you’d still like to work within the law, then choosing a career as a paralegal is a great path to choose. And you won’t be restricted to work within the legal sector as there are plenty of opportunities in other sectors to use your paralegal skills.

Wide variety of jobs

Most organisations will have an element of legality to what they do and will always have a need for someone with paralegal skills to assist them.

For example, a few years’ ago Jimmy Choo Shoes advertised for a NALPqualified paralegal to work in their legal department. The possibilities of gaining a glam job are endless: working with a premiership football club, working with one of the big oil companies, or working in retail or car manufacturing companies.

But remember that being a paralegal is a profession in its own right. With the virtual eradication of legal aid some 10 years ago, there is an increasing requirement for consumers to gain access to justice at a reasonable cost. Paralegal practitioners can fill that gap simply because many solicitors will not wish to take on work at the ‘bottom’ end of the scale. Examples would be an individual who requires assistance to collect a ‘small claim’ debt or needs help to complete forms after someone has died, or even needs advice on how to take an individual to court for breaching a contract.

Downsides to working as an independent paralegal practitioner

The only potential downside is that there are rules relating to what a paralegal can and cannot do. Reserved activities are those that are specified in The Legal Services Act 2007 which can only be practised by authorised individuals such as solicitors or barristers. Paralegals cannot undertake these activities.

There are two main reserved activities which affect paralegals.

The first is ‘conducting litigation’ which is something that only solicitors can do. This means effectively that paralegals cannot act as agents for their clients. • The second is that there is ‘no right of audience’, meaning that a paralegal does not have the automatic right to represent a client and address the court on a client’s behalf.

There are also four other reserved activities: conveyancing, probate and notarial activities, and administration of oaths.

Paralegals must never claim or imply that they are solicitors. This is called ‘holding out’ and means that a paralegal must never suggest that they are anything other than a paralegal practitioner.

In conclusion

Working as a paralegal in the legal sector can be a stepping stone to qualification as a solicitor. If this is a path you wish to pursue there are SQE preparation courses that can be taken with an organisation such as BARBRI to help you prepare for both the SQE 1 and 2.

Alternatively, three years of paralegal work will count towards the relevant legal experience required to apply for a NALP Licence to Practise and you can set up on your own as a professional paralegal practitioner (subject to evidence of competency in the areas in which you wish to practise and to gaining professional indemnity insurance). The added bonus is that, as a paralegal you can work in a variety of sectors, not just the legal profession. From local government to fashion, from football to property, from charities to defence – all these sectors are open to you as a paralegal.

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