If you haven’t yet considered law as a profession, solicitor and advocate Ahmed Al-Nahhas, of London-based law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp, explains the variety of opportunities it offers that might make it a very advantageous career move – it may even offer you the chance to help other ex-Service people and maintain your connection with the Forces
There are around 35,221 practising solicitors, 15,899 barristers and 7,500 Chartered Legal Executives working in approximately 10,726 law firms in England and Wales, as well as in in-house legal departments of large companies and public-sector organisations. That’s lots of opportunities and potential employers. Although the largest, best-known firms are based in London, there are law firms on most high streets across the UK.
One of the first questions for you to think about is whether to pursue the career route of solicitor, barrister or Chartered Legal Executive. Barristers are historically the elite of the legal profession and spend the majority of their time on their feet in court representing clients and arguing cases before a judge. Depending on their speciality, solicitors and Chartered Legal Executives advise clients on a daily basis about a number of issues, many of which may be ‘non-contentious’ and may not require the involvement of a barrister. They will typically instruct a barrister if they need specialist advice on a particular legal subject or if they need a client to be represented at court.
One of the best things about becoming a lawyer is, once qualified, you can specialise in the area of law you’re most passionate about, be that criminal, employment, corporate … the list is a long one. For ex-military personnel like you, a career in law could mean getting the chance to help other ex-Service people in claims for injuries and other issues that might make their return to civilian life tricky. Or, if you don’t want to specialise, you can work in a general practice, which can be even more varied.
What can life as a solicitor or Chartered Legal Executive be like?
First, the work can be fast paced and you regularly have deadlines to meet. You will need to absorb a lot of information – both facts and legal principles – and there’s lots of bureaucracy and paperwork. You will need a mind for business; understanding the economics behind a successful practice will be crucial to your success. There is a great variety of work, and each individual client and case can be very different. There are also many areas for you to specialise in, including criminal, corporate, media, family and litigation, as well as many others.
Lawyers are regulated by professional bodies and there are very stringent rules that you must learn and adhere to, as well as very high standards for client care. You may be subject to serious disciplinary proceedings if you drop the ball.
You may have to travel to meet clients or attend court, but the career is largely desk based. You may find this a struggle if you prefer an outdoor environment, as many Service personnel do. As with any other demanding profession, it can be stressful and getting the right work/life balance can be tricky.
Related skills gained in the Services
Of course, becoming a lawyer requires significant training and study. There are a number of skills you may have gained while in uniform that are transferable and very necessary for a career in the law. You will need to be:
- a good communicator
- open minded and not judgmental
- a problem solver.
What skills will you develop?
There are a number of personal and professional skills that you will develop as a solicitor, including:
- IT skills
- mental agility
- presentation and advocacy skills
- analytical skills.
Becoming a solicitor involves a big investment of your time and money. It’s not easy and can be very competitive, but having served in the Armed Forces you may be ahead of the curve and the experience you already have could be sought after. Normally, you will need:
- GCSEs and A-levels (good ones preferably)
- a qualifying law degree (normally three years)
- at least a pass on the Legal Practice Course (LPC)
- a training contract from a law firm.
If you don’t have a law degree, but do have a degree in another subject, you will need to complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before taking your LPC.
Depending on what qualifications you already hold, securing all of the requirements for a career as a solicitor can add up to a very big investment – not just several years of study, it can also cost many thousands of pounds. For an undergraduate degree in Law (LLB), you will have to pay tuition fees of approximately £9,000 per year for three years. The LPC will normally cost between £10,000 and £15,000, and can be done full-time (one year) or part-time (two years). The GDL will normally cost between £7,000 and £10,000, and can also be done full-time (one year) or part-time (two years). These courses can be funded with a professional development loan from a bank.
The Chartered Legal Executive route enables you to get work in the legal sector while you are still training. You can join the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) without a degree and follow its vocational training course. The minimum requirement is four GCSEs. To become a lawyer through CILEx, you need to take a series of exams at level 3 (equivalent to A-level) and level 6 (equivalent to honours degree standard), which will take a minimum of four years by distance learning to achieve. However you would be able to apply for paralegal roles within the legal sector once you had achieved the first year of training, which leads to a CILEx Level 3 Certificate. The full qualification at both levels entitles you to Graduate Membership of CILEx. In order to qualify as a Fellow of CILEx, and become a Chartered Legal Executive, you also need to undertake a three-year period of qualifying employment, one year of which has to be taken after passing all exams. This means you can start studying for the CILEx route via distance learning while still serving, and apply for roles in the legal sector while continuing your studies.
If you are aiming to become a solicitor, securing a training contract will be crucial and you shouldn’t leave your applications until the last minute. Many big firms recruit two years ahead of the start date, so think about applying as early as possible, while you are still studying for your law degree.
Different law firms may have different standards for applicants; the most sought-after law firms have the highest standards and competition. Research the law firms you are interested in, find out what makes them unique, and make sure you tailor your CV and covering letter to target them.
Some law firms will sponsor you through your Legal Practice Course, which can alleviate a huge financial burden.
Perfect your CV and focus on relevant work experience: what sets you apart from the crowd? Some firms offer two-week ‘vacation schemes’ – a work experience placement that will not only enhance your CV but may also allow you to get your foot in the door for a training contract. (Many such schemes in fact incorporate an interview for a training contract at the end of the placement.)
There may be many in-house positions that you should not ignore. Working in-house normally involves being employed by a company to work as a lawyer, i.e. your only client is the company. These can be equally competitive jobs and can offer very attractive financial packages as well as a better work/life balance when compared to the traditional work in a law firm.
As someone who has been in the Services, you already have a foot in the door of a particular market: Service personnel. You probably understand the mind-set of your fellow Service personnel better than a civilian would. This may not necessarily make you a better solicitor, but understanding your client can be crucial to your success on many levels. Importantly, you will be able to market yourself to Service personnel and veterans, who will be eager to do business with someone who speaks their language. Use this to your advantage, and consider the links and contacts you may already have. For example, many of your former colleagues may have already moved on to establish themselves in civilian careers – they may be accountants or run their own businesses, or even be lawyers themselves. Use your network to your advantage. Can they offer you work experience? Will they potentially be a client of yours?
What can you earn?
Many people assume that lawyers earn a lot of money. However, this can depend on your speciality and location. Commercial/corporate lawyers tend to earn more than generalists, for example, and those that work in the City of London can command high salaries, well in excess of six figures. Most newly qualified solicitors, however, are likely to be looking at salaries between £25,000 and £40,000.
CILEx students who get entry-level roles as paralegals can earn between £16,000 and £30,000 while working in a law firm at the same time as studying, with income increasing as the various stages of the qualification are achieved and experience is gained. CILEx members who pass all the qualifications and satisfy the three-year employment requirements to become Chartered Legal Executives can command a salary of between £35,000 and £55,000 or more, especially if you become partner in a firm.
It is a good idea to research areas that you might specialise in to see if they are economically feasible for you before you start investing your time and money in your studies.
Ahmed Al-Nahhas is a solicitor and advocate. He works at London-based law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp and acts exclusively for Service personnel, dealing with a wide variety of different types of claims. He can be contacted by emailing email@example.com