Its that time of year again when we get telephone calls from potential lawyers and their parents, asking how to get into law..
Law is tough
You have to be aware that getting into the legal profession is not like anything else that you will do. It is one of the hardest professions to break into once you have completed your academic study, and this is very different to a career in medicine or veterinary science. Basically, to get into medicine you have to get the grades at A level and then complete a degree. Once you have done this your career is pretty much set for life. Doing law is completely different – once you have completed your academic stage you then have to get work experience and a job, and this is the hardest bit.
When you graduate you will be up against other students who have got outstanding qualifications, a high level of extracurricular activities, be exceptionally skilled and gifted individuals, but going for a very limited pool of jobs. This has always been the case in law and it will never change because of the nature of the demand for careers in law compared with the amount of actual work there is available.
Two types of lawyers
Contrary to the headlines in the newspapers, most lawyers do not make huge amounts of money. This is a very important concept to understand and something that a lot of entrants into the legal profession do not realise.
Lawyers earning average wages
Working on the high street is very rewarding in that you get to help people with their legal problems and make a difference in their lives, but it is really not well paid in comparison with other options.
Lawyers earning above average wages
The well paid lawyers work in the highly technical and complex commercial areas of law, whether this is corporate, commercial contracts, shipping, corporate finance, banking, mergers and acquisitions and many more besides. There was a rule of thumb many years ago that the more boring an area of law sounds, the better paid the lawyers are! There are solicitors in London who will qualify into their first job and earn over £110,000 per year as a newly qualified solicitor. The usual salary for a newly qualified solicitor on the high street is around £30-35,000 per year at most.
Accessing higher paid roles
The key to getting into the better quality legal jobs and the well paid ones is a) your level of academic achievement, and b) your extracurricular activities which make you stand out from the crowd. a) is overwhelmingly the number one priority – if you do not get an extremely good degree result at undergraduate level and hold extremely good A levels, then you are probably wasting your time applying to most of the larger law firms in the UK. You would be better off considering a career on the high street.
If you have outstanding qualifications at A level and degree, you then move on to your extracurricular activities. If you have a number of interesting things that you can add to your applications, which will include an extensive amount of work experience and vacation placements, then you stand a good chance of getting in providing luck goes your way on the day of the various assessments and interviews.
Getting these extracurricular activities onto the CV and work experience are the key to a career in city law firms (i.e. the larger well paid ones), but even if you go down the route of trying to get as much of this as possible, it will not stop you looking at the high streets law firms as well.
The key to getting work experience at larger law firms is to make sure that your academics are exemplary right from the start of your degree. You must aim to be getting high results in all your years at university and you cannot take any time off from this. It is very common for first year law students to have the time of their life and not get particularly great grades because they’ve been busy doing other things involving a hectic social life, sports and clubs and much more besides. You must spend the first year studying very hard, because you need the grades in order to get on to the vacation placements with the various larger law firms. Most people start looking for these at the end of their first year/start of their second year, and the only thing that you have to give evidence of your ability as a successful lawyer is your A level grades and your first year degree results.
Extracurricular activities are essential as well, and evidence of a solid and healthy life outside of study is extremely important. Law firms want to see evidence of someone who is confident and able to formulate arguments and present them convincingly when required, and evidence of things like this include being head girl at school, captain of the hockey team, member of a debating society or participation in a model united nations. Reading, going to the cinema and spending time with friends are definitely not things that we want to see on applications, and it is so common to see them on so many applications because people have spent all their time either studying or working in weekend jobs.
Interesting hobbies, activities and past times will similarly have an effect when you go for interview with a law firm. Basically, people want to work with other people who they find interesting, share the same interests and perhaps have the same sense of humour, although this is always hard to predict because some lawyers fail to possess a sense of humour in any shape or form!
So number one aim is to get good at academics, and number two is to get a good level of work experience under your belt. Work experience is vital to enable you to know exactly which areas of law you want to practice when you qualify. If you have not experienced them, how do you know it is suitable for you in the longer term?