How to become a Lawyer
Ever seen Suits? Of course you have. Suits, Law and Order, even Legally Blonde: the world of law has been all over our screens for many years. Although no-doubt over-dramatised and a little bit glamourised for the purpose of entertainment, being a lawyer can be just as rewarding and engaging as it seems on the big screen.
Like medicine, the path to becoming a lawyer can be a long and expensive one, involving many years of study beyond an ordinary three-year bachelors degree. In the UK you follow one of two paths to become either a Barrister or Solicitor, involving an extra two or three years training respectively. In the US, things are not so specialised and everyone will pass through law school and take the Bar exam. The differences between these two systems are covered below in “How do I get there?”
The world of law requires people with all sorts of skills. If you’re outgoing and like debating and public speaking then the prosecution and defence law of the courtroom could be for you, but if you prefer quieter, methodical work then the work of a Solicitor (UK) or Litigator (US) might take your fancy. The one thing all lawyers have in common though is a rigorous attention to detail, the ability and desire to pour over the intricate subtleties of law in order to do the best for their clients.
Being a lawyer is hard work with long hours and a considerable amount of pressure, but if you like a challenge and thrive in a competitive environment, the rewards can be great.
What subjects do you need?
Unlike subjects like Medicine, there are no specific subjects that aspiring lawyers must study before law school.
Many law firms actively encourage future applicants to study as widely as possible before going on to law so that they have a well-rounded background. Lawyers deal with individuals and companies in all walks of life and in all sorts of fields, so it is good for the legal profession to have lawyers who have a broad spectrum of experience. However, being a profession of analysis, research, and communication, subjects such as languages, humanities, science, and maths can be a good starting place for your future law career.
How do I get there?
In the UK
Your foundation training begins with a bachelors degree in law or, increasingly, by doing the one-year Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) having first completed a bachelors degree in another subject. Both routes put you on the same footing at the end of each respective course. At this point, lawyers specialise to become either a Solicitor or a Barrister.
Solicitors are legal professionals who provide legal advice, support, and litigation (filing lawsuits) to their clients. They are generally the first point of call for clients who are seeking legal help with a particular issue, be that commercial, familial, or criminal.
In order to become a solicitor, a law graduate must study for a year for their Legal Practice Course (LPC) and then undertake a further two-year training contract at a licensed law firm.
Barristers are a client’s representative in Court and tribunals. They can also offer specialist legal advice but are more often hired by Solicitors to bring forward a client’s case to court.
Trainee barristers must gain hands-on experience of working at Court, so a law graduate hoping to become a barrister must study for their Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) for one year and following this undertake one year’s pupillage in court chambers.
Read about what Ella’s experience doing the GDL after an undergraduate degree in Modern Languages is like here.
In the US
All prospective lawyers enter law school for three years following their bachelor’s degree. After completing this Juris Doctor (JD) degree, most states require all law school graduates to pass their state-specific Bar exam, which normally takes a few months to prepare for.
It is important to remember that there is no distinction between solicitors and barristers in the US, so passing the Bar exam does not mean you will necessarily go on to spend a lifetime working in court.
Even after all this training, landing your first legal job in either country can still be very challenging. Many people work as a paralegal (someone who supports lawyers administratively, preparing lawsuits and interviewing clients) for a period at some point in their training in order to broaden their experience and confirm that law really is the career for them.
What books can I read?
Nicholas J McBride
(2000: Penguin Classics)