Are you interested in studying law? Choosing the right study pathway for a career in Law can be confusing for students from as young as 14 who are looking at which GCSE options to choose.
Need a Solicitor has researched this very subject and published an informative interview between a student and a qualified Barrister and University Lecturer, which will be extremely beneficial to any potential law students out there.
Choices at 14yrs for those considering a legal career
Hello, my name’s Anna. I’m 15 and I’m looking for some advice about how to get into the law.
You’ve come to the right place, Anna.
Great. Before you give me some advice, though, I’d like a bit of advice for my sister, she’s going to be doing her GCSEs next year. I know she’s interested in becoming a solicitor or barrister. And I did GCSEs. But are GCSEs the best qualifications to do?
I guess the short answer is yes.
What do you mean by that?
Well the thing about GCSEs is that they keep your options open. Certainly, if your sister wants to do a law degree and get into a good university, she’ll be well advised to do GCSEs. The top universities expect to see applicants having a good spread of GCSEs.
If you are looking at careers in the law besides those of barristers and solicitors, it may be acceptable to do qualifications other than GCSEs
I think you’ve answered my next question: which GCSEs should she do?
I’ve answered it partly. She should do a good spread. Maths and English are essential. She’ll need to think about possible A Level choices (if she does A Levels). There are some A Levels where you will be expected to have studied the subject at GCSE.
Exactly right. Sciences as well probably.
Anything else she should do?
What subjects are you doing by the way?
I’m doing maths and English (literature and Language) I also do French, History, Geography, Biology, Music and a couple of others.
That’s a pretty decent mix. At GCSE, the most important thing is to get a fairly good spread and get some decent grades. It’s very competitive at the top universities.
Does it matter that I’m not doing GCSE law?
Not at all. It’s an option but it’s certainly not necessary.
I’ve heard that when you apply for jobs as a barrister or solicitor they also look at your GCSEs even though you’ve got a degree. Is that right?
It is. What they are looking for are well-rounded individuals. GCSEs are one of the elements they’ll look at.
So, are things besides qualifications important?
Yes. This is something for both you and your sister to think about. When it comes to university applications, job applications and applications for courses that you need to do to qualify as a lawyer; you have to remember that the person who reads you application doesn’t know you. You need to impress them. Remember what I said about well-rounded individuals.
Your application form is all that the person doing the selecting has to go on. So you need to stand out from the crowd. So, if you can talk about your work experience, your sporting achievements, your voluntary work and the part you had in the local amateur dramatic production: so much the better.
Just going off track a bit: What’s a lawyer and how’s that different from a solicitor or barrister?
The term lawyer is a general one. It can cover a whole range of people who work in the law. So, both solicitors and barristers are lawyers. So are judges. People who teach law in universities might sometimes be referred to as lawyers. And legal executives are lawyers as well. I think we might be mentioning them again soon.
Thanks, I’ve always wondered about that. Anyway, going back to what you were saying about other things besides qualifications: it sounds like universities and employers are asking for a lot?
Not really. Universities and employers are looking for people who are going to get things done; people who don’t sit about waiting for things to happen; people who make things happen. And how are they going to find out if you are one of those people unless you have things to say on your application form.
I guess that makes sense. Anyway can I ask you some advice for me now?
Choices at 16yrs for those wanting to become a Solicitor or Barrister
Okay, like I said I’m 15, doing GCSEs and I’m thinking about A Levels next year. Just before we go on, what’s this I’ve heard about having to stay at school until I’m 18?
That’s not quite right. If you attend school in England, from September 2013 you must remain in education or training until you are 18. That doesn’t mean staying at school. You could go to college, choose an apprenticeship or employment with an element of training attached.
Thanks, that’s cleared that one. Well I’m interested in going into the law. How do I qualify as a solicitor or barrister?
As a general rule, there are three stages to your training to qualify as a solicitor or barrister. We can call these the academic stage, the vocational stage and the professional stage. The academic stage usually involves taking a degree. The vocational stage requires a further course of study: prospective solicitors take the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and prospective barristers take the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). The professional stage is a type of on the job training: solicitors undertake a two year training contract and barristers undertake a one year pupillage.
What do you mean as a general rule?
There are other ways to qualify, but most solicitors and barristers take the routes I’ve outlined above. Today, it must be said, the ways outlined above are followed overwhelmingly by people entering the legal professions.
Do I need to do A Levels?
The short answer is no you don’t. There are alternative qualifications. However, if you are seriously considering applying to one of the top universities, you are strongly advised to study A Levels.
You like short answers, don’t you? Do I have to go to university?
Short answers are good where possible. It’s not always possible to keep things short. No you don’t have to go to university, but as I said above, most solicitors and barristers are alternatives that we’ll look at below. However, you don’t have to go to university full time, it’s possible to study part time; we’ll look at part time study as an option, later.
Okay, so if I go to university you say I need A levels?
Certainly, if you are aiming for one of the Russell Group Universities, I’d advise it.
That’s the top 24 universities in the country. That’s how they style themselves, don’t let that put you off other universities.
Anyway have a look at the entry criteria for some of these universities, for example, The London School of Economics, The University of Birmingham and The University of Warwick. If you apply to any of the 24 Russell Group Universities you will find they have a preference for A levels and high entry grades.
Outside of the Russell Group institutions you will find that universities are more likely to welcome applications from students with qualifications other than A Levels. This will be particularly the case with the New Universities, for example, have a look at The University of Derby.
If I take A Levels, which ones should I choose?
Before you decide on your A Levels you need to decide on what subject you are going to study at university.
Surely, I’m going to do law, aren’t I?
Perhaps. But you don’t have to. You don’t have to have a law degree to be a solicitor or barrister. Let me say something about A Levels then I’ll explain about the types of degree you might consider.
The best advice I can give is take the A Levels in which you have the best chance of getting the highest grades, and they are likely to be the ones you’re most interested in. To study law you need, amongst other qualities, to be very analytical, to have well developed critical abilities and the ability to follow and construct reasoned arguments. Therefore, subjects like English Literature, English Language, History, Philosophy, Sociology and Modern Languages provide an excellent preparation.
How about Latin?
Another excellent choice for developing you critical faculties. The same applies to Greek as well. However, they would not be compulsory.
Do I need to do A Level Law?
It’s certainly an option to consider. It’s not necessary. Some law schools might prefer you not to take law at A level. Check with individual universities on their approach. The only good reason not to take law at A level is that the by taking other subjects you are broadening your academic base, which is a good thing.
Can I do sciences?
No reason why not. There are few subjects you can’t do, with the exception of general studies. Critical thinking will probably be accepted only as an additional qualification. And with subjects like media studies, it’s best to check with your chosen universities.
What’s a LNAT test?
It’s the national admissions test for law. It’s a type of verbal reasoning test. It tends to be used by some of the top universities. There no pass or fail as such. You get a score out of 42. If the universities you apply to use this as an entry criterion they may not be consistent in how they view it.
You mentioned about not doing a law degree?
You can study almost any subject you like. The advantage is that, just as with your A Levels, this broadens your academic base. The disadvantage is that it will add at least one year (and extra expense) to your overall training.
If you take a qualifying law degree you will have taken modules in the 7 foundations of legal knowledge (or core subjects), which are: The law of contract, the law of tort, public law (including constitutional law, administrative law and human rights law), criminal law, property law, equity and trusts and European Union law. You will also cover a study of the English legal system and legal research. If you don’t do a qualifying law degree you have to study these on a separate course known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). Incidentally, the GDL used to be called the Common Professional Examination (CPE) and you will sometimes still see it referred to as this.
Did you say I could study part time?
Part time study is certainly an option. There may be a lower age limit (21 sometimes) at some institutions so do make sure you check. However, there are two main options open to you:
- Attend a university on a part time (often evening, sometimes day time and sometimes weekends) basis. Birkbeck, part of the University of London, has been providing part time study programmes since 1823. A number of the New Universities offer part time degrees, for example, have a look at Wolverhampton University.
- Distance learning is another option. London University is one of the world’s oldest distance learning institutions. Take a look at the cost of studying with London University by distance learning and be prepared to be amazed. The Open University has vast experience as a distance learning institution. And a number of other universities, for example Nottingham Trent, have distance learning programmes available.
Are all law degrees the same?
No they’re not. Broadly, there are two approaches to studying law. One is sometimes called a black letter approach. This is a very traditional approach. The concentration here will be on the law as a body of settled principles. There will be a limited focus on subjects outside the law itself.
The alternative is what is sometimes called a contextual approach (or a multidisciplinary approach) where you will look at how the law has developed in the context of other disciplines. A contextual study gives you a much broader view of how the law has and is developing. Take a look at Understanding Law by Adams and Brownsword for a good idea of what a contextual study involves.
Often you will find that there is no single approach taken on a law degree course and that different lecturers take different approaches.
Do I have to do all law?
No. Another possibility is to combine your study of the law with something else. If you want to avoid doing the Diploma in Law make sure that the degree you are on is a qualifying law degree – that’s one that covers the foundation subjects. You could then look to combine your legal studies with almost anything. A language would be very useful.
Okay, there’s quite a bit there isn’t there? I didn’t realise there were so many choices. You know that book you just recommended?
The one by Adams and Brownsword? Yes, it’s quite a good one. Well worth looking at.
Any other books I could dip into?
There’s quite a few. Try these:
What About Law?: Studying Law at University by Barnard, O’Sullivan and Virgo
How to Study Law by Bradney, Cownie, Masson, Neale and Newell
Letters to a Law Student: A Guide to Studying Law at University by Nicholas McBride
Just a note of warning here: Some of these books have been through quite a few editions, so make sure you get the most up to date one. You can pick up out of date editions quite cheaply but it’s not a good idea to do so.
That’s great thanks. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but did you say there are three stages of training for Solicitors and barristers?
Yes, that’s right. The degree is the academic stage. You then have to go through the vocational and professional stages.
Can you advise me about those?
Yes. We’ll look at Solicitors’ training first then look at what Barristers have to do.
Vocational and Professional Training for Solicitors
Once you have your degree you need to do the legal practice course (LPC).
Unless my degree’s not a qualifying law degree, in which case I have to do the foundation subjects on a Diploma in Law course: is that right?
Spot on Anna, well remembered. So once you’ve completed your academic training with a qualifying law degree, or a degree in another subject and a Diploma in Law, you move on to the LPC. Before you start the course you’ll need to get student membership of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The SRA also produce a guide: The Legal Practice Course: what you are expected to know before you start that’s worth looking at.
How long is the course?
It’s one year if you do it full time and two if you do it part time.
And where do I do it?
There’re about 50 institutions spread around the country that do the course: here’s a list.
Most are universities. Some are private institutions.
I’m not really sure what a vocational course means.
The best way to describe it is like this: you’ve just completed a sound academic training, but you don’t know much about the skills you need to be a solicitor (or barrister). So what the vocational course is trying to do is to give you some of those skills before you start practicing.
So what does the course involve?
There may be some variations amongst the different institutions; however, in general there are compulsory elements, which will be taught wherever you study. These include criminal litigation, civil litigation, business law and practice, and property law and practice. You also study such legal skills as advocacy and drafting…
Presenting a case in court. You’ll sometimes hear lawyers who practice in court referred to as advocates.
Drafting involves writing legal documents.
Sorry I interrupted your flow. What else is on the course?
You’ll also study things like accounts, legal research and drafting (writing) wills. There’s also the chance to study elective subjects. The word elective refers to the fact that you choose them. What’s on offer will vary from one institution to another.
How do apply?
Usually, through the Central Applications Board. You apply in your third year if you do a qualifying law degree. You apply while you’re on the Diploma in Law if you didn’t do a law degree. Incidentally, if you do the Diploma in law, you apply through the Central Applications Board as well.
And when I finish the course, what’s next?
When you finish you get a training contract with a solicitor’s firm, the training contract is the, third and final stage, (the professional stage) of training.
It may be possible to get a training contract before you do the LPC.
That seems back to front if the training contract is the third stage and the LPC is the second.
Yes it does seem like that. But if you can secure one prior to doing the LPC, you’ll probably get your course fees paid for.
That’s quite an incentive; I know the fees are very high. I’ll bet it’s very competitive?
It is competitive. There will be far more people chasing a training contract than there are training contracts.
I guess it’s the same after the LPC is completed. No guarantees of a job?
You’re absolutely right. Your LPC education will never be wasted but you do have to consider how competitive things are.
So, tell me about training contracts.
The training contract is on the job training: A bit like an apprenticeship. It lasts two years. Here’s the most important thing: many solicitors firms will have closing dates for applications two years in advance of the staring date.
But I won’t have my LPC at that point.
That’s right you need to apply while you’re at university. Have a look here. There’s a lot of useful information about law in general on this site and training contracts in particular.
Are all training contracts the same?
No. It depends on the type of firm you do your training contract with. If you go to a large city firm that deals with a number of different areas of law you’ll probably spend a period of time in each of the main departments. In contrast, if you go to a small firm that deals mainly with conveyancing and wills, that’s what you’ll be doing as well. Here’s some advice about different types of law firm.
When you do your training contract you also have to complete a professional skills course.
I’m afraid so. Many of the big firms will do in-house training. You have to study three core units: financial and business skills, advocacy and communication skills; and client care and professional standards. There are elective units as well.
Before you tell me about the training to be a barrister, can you tell me what the difference is between solicitors and barristers?
It’s not easy to give you a short answer.
And you like short answers.
Usually. So, I’ll do my best. In general, barristers specialise in going to court and presenting cases.
So they’re advocates?
That’s right. But the answer’s only partially right because many solicitors are specialist advocates as well. What we can say is that barristers have rights of audience in all courts and…
Rights of Audience?
A right to represent someone in court. ..and solicitors have rights of audience in the lower courts (Magistrates’ Courts and County Courts) and have to do further qualifications to have rights of audience in the higher courts.
More studying then?
Yes. One other thing: barristers in private practice are self-employed.
Okay, how do I become a barrister then?
Vocational and Professional Training for Barristers
Just as with solicitors you do a vocational course, Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)and a professional stage of training called pupillage.
Let’s start with the BPTC, then, please.
Once again it’s one year full time or two years part time. There are not quite so many places where you can do the course this time. Remember, there are fewer practising barristers than there are practising solicitors.
How do I apply?
There’s a central admissions system again. Here’s the timetable for applications. From 2013, you must pass the Bar aptitude test before an offer for the course will be made. The aptitude test is a test of your powers of reasoning and critical thinking.
You will also need to join an Inn of Court.
What’s one of those?
There are four of them: Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn. I suppose they’re a bit like colleges or clubs. They provide support for barristers. They have libraries, dining facilities and a lot more.
And I have to join one of these?
Yes before the 31st of May in the year that you will start your course.
And what will I study on the course?
There you go again with your short answers.
…and it is short this time. Have a look for yourself. You study knowledge based subjects like litigation and learn skills like advocacy.
So what about pupillage?
Again there is a central admission system called the pupillage gateway. It lasts for 12 months. In the first 6 months you do not practise. You will have a supervisor and essentially they will help ensure you learn as much as possible about being a barrister.
If I’m self-employed I won’t get paid will I?
Barristers work from offices known as Chambers. You will do your pupillage in a set of Chambers (the whole block of offices is referred to as a set). The Chambers will pay you at least £1000 per month for the first 6 months. However, some Chambers will be exempt from having to do this.
During the second 6 months you can start taking instructions (ie taking on cases). Your Chambers ensure you earn at least £1000 per month in each of the second 6 months.
What does it mean when you are called to the Bar?
It means you have graduated as a barrister. You have to have passed the BPTC and completed 12 qualifying sessions. Qualifying sessions are held in your inn of court. They involve educational sessions or dining in the Inn of Court. You must be called to the bar before you start your second 6 months of pupillage.
Yes. In a sense they are networking opportunities. You get to meet other more experienced barristers and who knows where that might lead.
And when I finish pupillage I just start working?
Not quite. You have to find a tenancy in a set of Chambers. There are no guarantees that a tenancy will be available. While searching for a tenancy it may be able to get a temporary tenancy where you are known as a squatter.
When you get a tenancy, it’s then down to you to grow your business. Remember you are self-employed, and like any self-employed person, you have to build up your business.
Okay, that’s given me a quite bit to think about. Could you run through alternatives to studying for a degree.
Choices at 16: Alternative Legal Careers
You don’t have to study for a degree to have a career in the law. There are careers besides those of solicitors and barristers. It may also be possible to qualify as a solicitor or barrister without taking a degree, although today that would be quite rare.
Okay, so what if I don’t want to do a degree but still want to work in law?
There are other options open to you. The main ones would be training to be a legal executive. Legal executives are highly qualified lawyers in their own right. They tend to specialise in a particular area of law and work in solicitors’ practices. Many of the largest law firms will employ legal executives.
That’s sounds interesting, are legal executives new to the legal world?
No not at all. They’ve been around for at least 50 years and even before that but in a different name. Have a look at the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) website where there’s quite a bit of information. And this is their dedicated careers website.
Tell me more about what’s involved
There are two qualification levels: Level 3 and level 6. You start off by studying for CILEx Level 3 Professional Diploma in Law and Practice. Level 3 is A Level standard, so this is an alternative to A Level. This is generally studied on a part time course at a college over two years. Some colleges may do a full time course. Students doing a part time course will usually be employed by solicitors firms as trainee legal executives. Some will be studying independently.
So do I get a job first?
Very often that’s how it will work. So it’s best to get some careers advice and see what’s available at local firms of solicitors. You will find some students who do things the other way around: they start on the course and then get a job. Colleges sometimes have good contacts, so it’s well worth contacting your local Further Education College.
Do I need GCSEs to get on the course?
Generally you’ll need at the very least 4 GCSEs one of which must be English Language. If you don’t have GCSEs there is a level 2 (GCSE level) qualification offered by CILEx. Your GCSEs will probably need to be in academic subjects. Have a look at the CILEx website and their careers website for more information.
Another thing to consider is that individual firms of solicitors may have their own requirements in terms of the GCSEs they ask for.
Incidentally, if you have an A Level in law you may be eligible for exemptions. Check withCILEx.
So, what will I study?
Have a look at the subjects here, where you can see the course outline and the detail of each subject. Essentially, the course is a mix of what’s called substantive law subjects – they are subjects covering the law itself, like contract law and criminal law – and practice law subjects – they are subjects related more to do with what you will have to do as part of your practice as a legal executive.
You said there were two levels to study at?
That’s right. When you pass your level 3 course you then progress on to level 6, that’s degree level study and the course is called CILEx Level 6 Professional Higher Diploma in Law and Practice. You’ll sometimes see this course referred to as stage 2.
There are four units to pass on the level 6 course. You choose one practice unit. This will be related to the area of law that you are going to specialise in as a legal executive. For example, if you work in criminal law you’d choose criminal litigation; and civil litigation if you work in civil law. There are other choices of practice paper.
You then choose one linked substantive law paper (linked to the practice paper) and two other substantive papers. There are then two other mandatory units Client Care Skills and Legal Research Skills.
Just a point here that’s worth mentioning, if you have a law degree you can still train as a legal executive and may get exemptions from some of the level 6 subjects.
Also, it’s worth saying that some legal executives will train to become a solicitor.
Okay, a job as a legal executive is worth thinking about. What are the other options?
A second option is to be a legal secretary. Incidentally, it’s not unusual to start as a legal secretary and then train to be a legal executive. Here’s some information about becoming alegal secretary. You’ll do qualifications at level 2 and level 3.
Do I need GCSEs?
Probably not. Things might vary depending on the college you go to. Courses are usually part time. However, to get on the level 3 course you’ll probably have some secretarial experience or maybe a law qualification.
Can I do an apprenticeship?
Yes, this may be another option; however, it’s pretty new, so not all legal firms may be up to speed with things.
What exactly is an apprenticeship?
An apprenticeship has two elements: on the job training (four days per week) and a theoretical element completed away from the workplace (one day per week). Apprentices are paid for the work they do (currently £2.68 per hour if you are under 19). See here for general information about apprenticeships.
Will I need GCSEs?
Yes, most likely. You’ll probably start with a level 3 advanced apprenticeship in legal studies, and you’ll need 4 GCSEs one of which must be in English language or literature. Be aware that individual employers will have their own entry requirements.
How long does an apprenticeship last?
Generally between 18 months and 24 months.
Am I guaranteed a job at the end?
No. There are no guarantees. If you work hard and do well, however you’ll put yourself in a good position for any jobs that are available.
I’ve heard something about paralegals, what are they?
This is another alternative to consider. However do bear in mind that the term paralegal refers to a very wide range of jobs?
What do you mean by a wide range of jobs?
Well almost anyone working in a law firm who is not a barrister, solicitor or legal executive is a paralegal. Take a look.
So can I train to be a paralegal?
Yes, you can do a level 2 or level 3 qualifications. Have a look here at the courses offered by CILEx. The course you take will depend on your existing qualifications and experience. For example a legal secretary might want a qualification that allows a move into paralegal work. Alternatively you might be a school leaver with GCSEs who is working in an administrative role in a solicitor’s office and you want to widen your options. If you have A levels, you might look at a level 3 paralegal qualification.
Well that’s given me quite a bit to think about: thanks.