Why Become A Lawyer?

Updated 9 July 2018

The law is one of the oldest professions. Almost every society has a formal legal system, and has people who specialise in helping others to achieve justice – or to evade it!

Many people are ambivalent about lawyers, because a good lawyer on your side is wonderful, but a good lawyer on the other side is not wonderful. There is often a suspicion that lawyers are not entirely honest. Sometimes we are thought to be ruthless, uncaring, and greedy.

Some people become lawyers because they want to earn a lot of money, and there are lawyers who have become very rich through honest work.  It is said that equity partners in the big City of London firms often earn over £1,000,000 a year – and some barristers earn towards £10,000,000 a year. If you work for the mega-rich on high value cases, you can earn very significant money.

Some people want an adequate living, and there are many lawyer jobs that provide a good income. Quite often the legal qualification can be a stepping stone to jobs in Commerce and Industry, international organisations or national organisations.

Some people want to be involved in justice as prosecutors or as defence lawyers, as family or child care lawyers, as immigration lawyers, or as human rights lawyers.

You can also write law textbooks- or even teach! I enjoy teaching Law, partly because you meet so many pleasant and intelligent people.

The down side of being a lawyer is that it can be dangerous. In Colombia and Iraq, hundreds of lawyers are murdered every year. The third most dangerous country for a lawyer is the Philippines. In the USA and the UK a few lawyers are murdered – often by their clients. The worst that happened to me was a client who bit me, and a “friendly” witness who greeted me at the door with a carving knife. Oh, and a party I had to leave because someone I had acted against wanted to hit me. As an immigration lawyer I was “on call” for over 20 years, which carries its own stresses.

Becoming a Lawyer

So you have decided to become a lawyer!

You may be able to go to University and obtain a Law Degree. You may by force of personal circumstances have to start much more humbly, as a paralegal.

The absolute minimum educational qualification is 4 GCSEs at “C” Grade including English Language or Literature. If you do not have this you can take City and Guilds qualifications or Institute of Legal Executives qualifications to bring you up to this standard. The “paralegal” route involves becoming a Student of the Institute of Legal Executives, then an Associate, and finally a Fellow of the Institute. A Fellow is more prestigious than a newly qualified solicitor, and usually earns more. A Fellow can convert to a solicitor fairly easily.

There are people working in the law who do not have even 4 GCSEs, but although they are working as paralegals they have no prestige because they are not even attempting to become lawyers. They usually do not earn very much.

One group who are frequently poorly qualified but who earn reasonable to good money are Barrister’s Clerks. As I have not explained what a barrister is yet, you will have to read on to find out about barristers and Barrister’s Clerks.

Another group who do reasonably well are former police officers who work for criminal defence lawyers.

Many people working in law offices are paralegals.

The normal options for ambitious people who want to become lawyers are to become solicitors or barristers, but patent attorney is an often overlooked branch of the legal profession. In some jurisdictions, for example Germany, people enter the law to become judges, and become judges with no experience of practicing law.

In the UK one is usually a lawyer for at least seven years before becoming a judge. The normal route is to start as a lawyer, work as a part time judge while continuing your legal practice, and then to become a full time judge.

The distinctions between barristers and solicitors are becoming blurred. In the USA where there is a unified legal profession there tends to be a speciality of “trial lawyer”, who are famous for their skills in a trial. The American trial lawyer tends to be involved in publicity before the trial and directs the preparation of each case personally. In the UK it is usually the solicitor who prepares the case and chooses the barrister.

Solicitors are in every High Street, and deal with most legal needs themselves. They will write your will, buy and sell your house, divorce your spouse, fight your crime case, sue your neighbour, and help with your personal injury claim. If your needs are wider than this, the solicitor will manage your case, and select a barrister who knows about your area of law. So you can sue for libel, arrest a ship, arrange your affairs to avoid tax, or deal with international child abduction.

The Solicitor and Barrister organisations have told the universities what they want to see in a law degree, so a Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) contains English Legal System, Public and Administrative Law including Human Rights, Crime, Contract, Tort, Land, and Equity. Every QLD contains these subjects, although their names might be changed.

Market forces mean that virtually all Law Degrees are QLDs, but you should check that your proposed degree is a QLD before you sign up. The Degree usually also has optional subjects, and if these options are important to you, you need to read the prospectuses very carefully AND check if the option will still be available when you begin Year 2 or Year 3.

After your QLD, you take a year to study for the Legal Practice Course (solicitors) or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). Then you spend two years as a trainee solicitor or one year of pupillage (Barristers).

Be aware that there is the normal “LPC” and the “City” LPC. The course contents are very different, and equip you for different futures. To be admitted to a “City” LPC you  sometimes have to be placed on the course by a future employer, but there are LPC courses that will accept you even if you do not have a training contract arranged with a “City” firm.

Trainee solicitor involves working for a solicitor or firm of solicitors. During your training you are expected to work in at least 3 areas of law, one contentious, one non-contentious, and one which can be either. In the large firms this is exactly what you do. They move you from “seat” to “seat” in various departments. In the small firms you may work on 3 or 4 different kinds of case simultaneously without leaving your desk.

In pupillage you are assigned to shadow a barrister, who throws you little jobs to do. If you do the little jobs well the barrister gives you more stretching jobs. Eventually you write a barrister’s opinion which the barrister reads and signs and is paid for – and has legal liability for. You learn how a barrister thinks and operates. After a year you are a barrister. Then you have to find a chambers (see below) which will take you as a tenant.

Pros and Cons and Process of becoming a Barrister

Barristers are only used on the more important cases, and so they generally earn more than solicitors. Barristers can advocate in the higher courts as of right, whereas solicitors who wish to be advocates in the higher courts need an additional qualification. Consequently barristers have considerably more prestige than solicitors.

Barristers are generally speaking self employed. Each barrister is entirely responsible for their case load, and for managing their future. Barristers share costs by clustering in shared offices, called “chambers”. The barristers in each chambers elect a Head of Chambers and usually a managing committee. The chambers employs a Head Clerk and more junior clerks. The costs of running the chambers are shared among the barristers, usually in proportion to their income.

It is time consuming and embarrassing for a barrister to negotiate availability and fees with the instructing solicitors, so the solicitor speaks to a clerk, who is not officially negotiating. In theory the clerk is passing messages back and forth from the barrister, but in the vast majority of situations the truth is that the clerk is negotiating for the barrister.

The clerk is trying to maximise the income for the barrister.

In the very early days the barrister will usually take any work that comes in, but once a barrister is established s/he attracts more work than s/he can comfortably handle. At this point the clerk begins to negotiate the barrister’s payment rates up, and to turn away low paying work or work involving travel or overnight stays.

A solicitor telephones.

“Could Mr Snooks handle a contested burglary case in Carlisle on the 27th?”

“I am very sorry, but Mr Snooks is already booked for a trial in Kingston upon Thames that day”.  In other words “Mr Snooks can’t be bothered to trail up to Carlisle and stay overnight for an unimportant and poorly paying case”.

The disappointed solicitor still needs someone for his burglary case in Carlisle, so the Clerk will look through his list and see who could do a case in Carlisle. “Miss Jenkinson has had a cancellation, so she could help you.”

Miss Jenkinson is available. She has probably not had a cancellation, but the clerk is not going to say Miss Jenkinson has nothing better to do than go to some small town in the North to take part in an unimportant case. Eventually Miss Jenkinson will build a reputation herself, and her Carlisle cases will be passed to a newish barrister who needs the work.

“Could Mr Snooks appear before the European Court of Justice (the European Union court) in Brussels on the 27th?”

“Well Mr Snooks is booked for a trial that day but I understand the trial will be adjourned so he can take your case.” The European Court of Justice is a very high court, and Mr Snooks fees will be extortionate. The Kingston case, if there is one, will be passed to another barrister.

The clerk is hugely important to the barristers in maximising their income. The Head Clerk used to be on a percentage of the fees, out of which he had to pay the running expenses. Some Head Clerks earned a lot of money, more than some of the barristers. The pattern now is for the Head Clerk to be on an income plus bonus, but still earning a very large income for a person who may have started as an office boy with no qualifications.

Which chambers you are in is hugely important.

If you wish to do high paying work, you need to be in chambers that attract that work. If most of the work of the chambers is burglaries and stealing cars (the clients obviously!), then the barristers will earn much less than the barristers in the chambers next door, who are doing multi-million pound cases.

If you can succeed as a barrister the financial rewards are considerable. If you are doing the right kind of work it is normal to become a millionaire before age 40. The hours are long, the work is hard, the intellectual expectations of you are awesome, and you have to keep winning. Sometimes “winning” is saving your client a lot of money so they pay out much less than they should.

A common misunderstanding is that murder trials, which make a barrister famous, are high paying. Yes they are, but nowhere near as high paying as the tax barrister who in one afternoon advises how to dodge say £10,000,000 in tax. A planning appeal for a supermarket site or a large housing estate is worth literally millions, and the barristers are paid appropriately – and much more than for a murder trial of the same length.

The barristers have a long history. Long before there was a Bar Council, the Inns of Court admitted and supervised and disciplined barristers. The Inns still have many of these functions. There are four Inns, Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Greys, and Lincoln’s Inn.  Quite early on you have to decide which Inn of Court to join. Research the Inns and decide which most sounds like you would enjoy it.

There is no law that says that to undertake a particular kind of barrister work you must be a Member of a particular Inn, but there is a tendency for Inns to attract barristers who do particular kinds of work. Having joined an Inn you must then dine several times a year at your Inn. You will sit at the same table as practicing barristers and judges, and you will listen to their conversation. They may even encourage you to join their conversation. Think of this as an opportunity to network with some very high achieving people. You may not have to go to London to eat your dinners, as there are often Circuit dinners where you meet members of the Inn in a particular region.

Some barristers work in Industry and Commerce or work full time for a firm of solicitors or a local council. They have decided that the job security and fringe benefits, and not working incredibly long hours, make the work/life balance in their favour.

To enter the BPTC you must have a good Law degree, either a First or a 2:1. The thinking is that if a person cannot achieve a good law degree they will not succeed as a barrister, because their mind is simply not good enough. Even with this hurdle there are far too many people training as barristers, the vast majority of whom will not obtain a pupillage.

There used to be literally hundreds of applicants for every pupillage, even though pupillages were unpaid. The barristers have been persuaded to give financial assistance to pupils, so the number of pupillages has gone down sharply while the number of applicants continues to rise.

I still remember with anger an event when I was at University. A student in the year above asked Daddy to help him find a pupillage. Daddy wrote to an old school friend (the right kind of school obviously) and the friend pulled strings so the lad landed a pupillage at the chambers of the Attorney General.

If you have been to the right fee paying schools and Oxford or Cambridge and you have family to pull strings it is easier to become a barrister.

The Bar Council has recognised the dangers of this. First, some very good people are not getting their chance, so they are becoming solicitors, qualifying as Higher Advocates, and wiping the floor with barristers – damaging the relative superiority of barristers. They are a loss to the Barrister profession.

Second, if only toffs can become barristers, why not abolish barristers? This is a more serious danger, because it could be done by an elected government who would simply fuse the professions. To get round the “old school tie” appearance of bias there is now a portal for applications through which all applications must be made. Chambers may only select by using the portal.

Obviously if my niece did some work experience at the chambers of which I am a member, and everyone knows her and knows she is my niece, she will get an interview. And there is a strong chance she will get the pupillage, even if I ostentatiously decide not to sit on the appointments committee. But if you apply in a year when no barristers have a relation applying you are in with a chance. And if I am not popular in chambers my niece may not be appointed.

If you have the opportunity for a “mini-pupillage”, take it. Think of it as a long job interview.

I do not think the barristers can change their ways quickly enough. For those without “pull”, becoming a barrister is close to impossible.

Or you can become a solicitor, earn a reputation, and then apply to the bar.

Then when you have become a barrister, you need to find a chambers to join. There are often vacancies in chambers through death, retirement, and people becoming judges. Some chambers are gaining work, and decide they can expand.

Once you are a barrister, how do you attract work? The usual way is that you are very nice to the Head Clerk and he passes cases to you. Or you write a book and/or academic articles which may attract work. Or you do some work for free and begin to build a reputation.

Pros and Cons and Process of becoming a Solicitor

I am a solicitor, so I am perhaps biased. Solicitors can practice solo like barristers, but they tend to operate in “firms”. Some firms are just one person and a receptionist/typist, and some firms are huge, with literally hundreds of partners, thousands of staff, and offices in many parts of the world. A small firm may specialise in a particular kind of work, or it may accept any work that comes in. The large firms will normally take anything that pays enough.

The bigger firms are desperate for the brightest students. They will not only pay you well but they will sometimes fund you through your LPC.

The firms know they will make a lot of money by charging you out at an amazingly high hourly rate, but to justify those rates they have to have the cream of the cream. At the other end of the scale many small firms pay you the minimum trainee wage, or sometimes much less than that. The shabby end is very shabby. but at the lower end there are many people desperate for a training contract who will accept any conditions.

Like barristers, would be solicitors have to have a 2:1 to be allowed to start the LPC course. This will weed out some good people and a larger number of people who are simply not up to it. Hopefully the outcome will be a better balance between the numbers seeking a training contract and the number of training contracts on offer.

If you have a Law Degree at 2:1 or better you can take an LPC course. If your degree is not in Law, you can take the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), which is the core subjects of the Qualifying Law Degree (QLD). Then you need to take the LPC.

Then you need a training contract. The best advice is to start as upmarket as you can. Moving downmarket is easy, but moving upmarket is very hard. If you want to work in a big firm it is easier if you train with a big firm. If you want to work in a particular area of law try to secure a training contract with a firm that does that work.

After two years of a training contract, you will be a solicitor. At various points in your training contract you will have to study solicitors’ accounts and advocacy. The good firms will pay your fees and the cheapskates won’t.

A new solicitor cannot set up immediately. He has to wait until he is three years qualified. This is for the protection of the inexperienced solicitors and of the public. After 5 years a solicitor can be given permission to take on two trainee solicitors.

If you set up your own firm, or become a partner, your firm can employ people and make money from their efforts. If you are very successful you can become wealthy. You can specialise within the solicitor field. I was a specialist in immigration, but there are many specialities and niches you can enjoy. Or you can enjoy the knockabout world of litigation, divorce and crime in a small High Street practice.

After Qualifying

It is only when you qualify that you really begin to build a reputation. One young female Asian solicitor asked me how she could get the other solicitors in her town to respect her. My advice was short.  “Beat them”.

I am generally courteous to colleagues and opponents. It is not in anyone’s interests to have people so cross with you that they refuse to negotiate with you. On the other hand, if you are a soft touch, some colleagues will walk over you. You have to find your own balance.

When a client told me that the local police station had advised her not to use me I was utterly delighted. After less than a year in that town, and only two years qualified, the local police did not want me against them. As I explained to her, if I were incompetent the police would not warn against me. It was because I was highly competent that they already feared me.

The next stage after this recognition is that the local Police Federation (the police professional association) will begin to use you for police officers who are in difficulties. I was fairly often contacted by people I had acted against asking if I could act for them this time, because their solicitor had not done a good job last time. That is how you build a reputation.

One employer told me years later that his solicitor had sighed when he heard I was on the other side in a claim. What did that mean?

After a pause the solicitor had said I was “tenacious”. When we got to court my client won.

So you build a reputation in your chosen field. You can add to or augment your reputation by being a news hound, always in the paper. Or you can write books and articles. You can join national and local organisations devoted to your concerns, and you can network. You can advertise. Try to keep your integrity.

The law qualification is also useful in industry and commerce, in politics and in society, in voluntary organisations of all sorts. And it can lead to surprising job offers. At one point when my career hit the buffers I was asked by a client to manage the performers in his lap dancing club. I decided I would not be able to manage a routine of late nights so I declined. In my early days I nearly went on the road with a pop group, but the group broke up before I had actually quit my solicitor job.

Stay Sane

A qualification as a lawyer is not a passport to a sports car, a big house, and foreign holidays. It is the beginning of a vocation where you use your intellect and skills to help your clients and society. Particularly as a solicitor you learn how the world works, and how many industries are structured. You can advise in many areas, and you become a trusted person in the local community.

As a general rule of thumb, if you would not like your activities reported in Private Eye or the local newspaper, don’t do them. Try to be honourable and to deserve respect. Money may or may not come, but there are riches other than money.