How to have a career in law

Published by Ruth Cornish on 30 July 2014.
Last updated on 15 August 2014


The legal profession has been around a long time and is a core and fundamental part of civilised society as we know it. It's a profession that is both respected and loathed. As Thomas Jefferson said: "It is the trade of lawyers to question everything, yield nothing, and to talk by the hour."

To even think about a career in the law you must be both academic, competitive and be effortlessly able to consume and stay on top of vast amounts of detail. Being emotionally resilient is also important as is being honest, balanced and having a strong sense of fair play.

Laurence Mills, a trainee solicitor at Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP, chose a legal career because he was interested in representing different interests in a sphere he was excited by – the law and becoming part of a profession with a rich history.

The financial rewards can also be huge, with partners in City law firms easily earning a seven-figure salary. In London trainees will start on around £39,000, which will increase to £65,000 when they qualify. Solicitors in high street firms earn from £30,000 to £100,000 a year.

Robert Thomas, partner (employment) for Speechly BirchamLLP, reflected that the best bits of his long legal career included "the intellectual challenge, the status, the cash, sometimes helping people and doing good". The worst elements of his job were "the macho long hours, the posing, the arrogance in some quarters and what the general public think of you (one notch up from estate agents and mass murderers)".

It is a great second career option, and you don't have to look hard to find ex-doctors, salesman and teachers who have retrained in law.

But recent changes in legal aid have affected lots of high street practices significantly – particularly family and criminal lawyers. An increasing move towards commoditisation (think 'Tesco law') and away from traditional legal partnerships may make steady jobs and a guaranteed salary level more hard to come by in the future.

Jonathan Robinson, executive director of resources and legal services at the Environment Agency, says: "Surprisingly for most people, the world of law evolves all the time, and in some areas quite fast. Hardly any of the environmental law I work with even existed 30 years ago, and something changes almost every month."


The whole process of training as a lawyer can take six years, so the best advice to anyone considering it is to get a firm to sponsor you while you go to law school as they may also pay you a maintenance grant while you study.

After an initial law degree, you will complete the Legal Practice Course, which takes a year, and then finally a two-year training contract with a firm. People with a non-related degree can do a Graduate Diploma in Law, which takes a year and puts them on an equal footing with those studying law at undergraduate level.

While you are training you will need to do some pretty mundane work, so a large dose of humility will be helpful.

Career progression

A legal qualification opens the door to a vast range of opportunities from barristers, judges and tribunal chairmen right across to the public sector where government lawyers work with ministers and Parliament. Lawyers at the European Commission take cases against EU member states, with campaigning human rights lawyers working alongside NGOs at the front line.

Some lawyers choose to move into non-practising roles in more specialised areas such as corporate finance. The corporate financier is typically closer to the client (the lawyer is often one removed) and has a more commercially-oriented role. Lawyers can also have successful careers running their own businesses where their understanding of the law is an immediate asset.

All the lawyers I spoke to emphasised how hard they had to work to get where they are, adding a few slightly self-deprecating comments about what advice they'd give individuals considering a career in the law: "Unless you are very clever and have the constitution of an ox or you are very rich (in which case, why do it?), don't do it. Get yourself a real job where you actually make something."

The legal profession quite rightly has a rigorous code of conduct with honesty, integrity and discretion at its core firmly upheld by the Law Society. Robinson feels as proud of this as his original career choice.

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