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How to become a lawyer

There are several paths that you can follow to pursue a legal career, but here we break down the simplest ways to go about it

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Isabella Ford's avatar

Isabella Ford

October 24 2017
Barrister's wig


Imagine the process of becoming a lawyer drawn out as a map. At one end, the mystical land of fully qualified legal professionals; at the other end, you, standing outside your college or university door.

The map is full of different routes, each boasting different scenery and different challenges. For any student, fresh out of college or university and ready to begin their travels, the map can be daunting – what if you take the wrong path? Or become lost? Or get denied entry to the next stage along the way? To prepare you for the journey, here is a guide to help you navigate through the legal application process.

The first crossroads: Bachelor of Laws (LLB) or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)?

Unless you’re intrigued by the apprenticeship route, which many law firms offer for prospective solicitors, paralegals and chartered legal executives, your first decision will most likely be over your degree preference.

Path one: LLB

For those confident in their aspirations, what better way to start than with a degree in law? During the next three years, you’ll venture through the different areas of legal practice and be able to confirm those that interest you and those that are better left behind.

While at university, would-be solicitors are advised to apply to vacation schemes (a period of work experience at a law firm), while prospective barristers should look into a mini pupillage. These work experience opportunities will set you apart in the scrum of training contract/pupillage applications. If you’re wanting to follow the solicitor path later on, the second year is a good time to apply for your training contract, as many large law firms recruit two years in advance. But more on that later.

Path two: GDL

You may want to spend your university years studying a completely different subject or you may decide partway through your undergraduate degree that you would like to pursue law, in which case a conversion course is the path for you. During your final year of university, you should start applying for the GDL.

Budding solicitors should also have applied for a training contract to commence after the GDL and Legal Practice Course. The GDL is an intensive one-year course straight after university that will get you up to scratch with the knowledge of an LLB graduate.

Best universities for law degrees

The second crossroads: solicitor or barrister?

The two main legal professions begin to divide your journey post-university/GDL. 

Path one: solicitor

Having completed a vacation scheme, as advised earlier, you will be in a good position to apply for the LPC in your final year of university. Your can study the LPC full-time and complete it within one year, or study part-time over two years. The course will introduce you to the more practical aspects of law that are tailored to the solicitor career path.

You will also get the opportunity to study more closely those areas of law that you were interested in during your LLB/GDL.

The two-year training contract is the final (vocational) stage, usually located in a law firm or equivalent. The fully qualified solicitors of the firm will act as supervisors, guiding you as you move through the different legal departments, or “seats”, as they’re known. This will allow you to develop a whole new breadth of knowledge with regards to your future law career and, on completion, you will finally reach the land of the fully qualified solicitors.

Path two: barrister

Those mini pupillages have served you well and now it’s time to put them into practice. Like the prospective solicitors’ LPC, you have your own course to be getting on with after university or the GDL: the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).

This is once again a vocational course, designed to introduce you to typical barrister duties with an emphasis on advocacy. To proceed on the BPTC, you’ll need to have passed the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), a test taken the summer before. You are also required to join one of the Inns of Court, which are currently responsible for calling barristers to the Bar. You must attend 12 of the events or sessions run by the Inns to pass the BPTC.

The final stage for the barrister route is pupillage, which must be completed within five years of finishing the BPTC. Pupillage lasts for one year and during the first six months you will be placed in barristers’ chambers, shadowing qualified barristers and contributing research to their cases.

In the second six months, you will be dealing with actual cases yourself. The harder you work during pupillage, the more likely you are to secure tenancy with the chambers – if not, you can apply for a third placement at another chambers. Once you have tenancy, that’s it; you too have reached the end of the road. 

Isabella Ford is the lead content editor at The Lawyer Portal a resource for aspiring legal professionals and in official partnership with the Bar Council and CILEx.

Read more: which subject should you study at university? 

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