Are you an aspiring lawyer looking to prepare for your future?
We’ve compiled a comprehensive deepdive into the field, with detailed advice on every step involved in becoming a lawyer, including A-level subjects, work experience, university courses and much more.
Plus, a guide to the different pathways you can take, and tips on what you can do to prepare for a career in law now.
Let’s get started!
First, it’s important to understand the different roles within the profession.
What is a lawyer?
In the UK, ‘lawyer’ is the general term used to describe anyone qualified to give legal advice. This includes solicitors, barristers and legal executives.
What is a solicitor?
A solicitor is employed by a client, whether it be an individual person, public organisation or private company, to represent their legal interests and offer legal advice.
They will usually be a client’s first point of contact as they pursue legal action and will work closely with them throughout their case.
Their day-to-day work might include attending client meetings, offering legal advice, preparing and negotiating legal documents, conducting research, liaising with other legal professionals and appearing on behalf of clients in court in certain situations.
What is a barrister?
A barrister is a specialist in court advocacy who is hired by a solicitor to represent their client in court and, in some cases, to act as an independent source of legal advice.
Unlike solicitors, they usually aren't needed until appearing before a court is necessary.
Daily tasks might include speaking in court, cross-examining witnesses, reviewing evidence, negotiating settlements or sentences, giving legal advice to clients and their solicitors, researching cases and writing legal documents.
What is a legal executive?
A legal executive is another kind of lawyer.
Their duties are somewhat similar to that of a solicitor (and they often work very closely with them) though their practice is usually more specialised. They tend to focus on a particular area of law such as litigation, conveyancing or private client law.
Their work includes giving legal advice to clients, drafting legal documents, researching cases and representing clients in court in certain situations.
Depending on the route you choose, it usually takes between 5 and 6 years to qualify as a lawyer if you study full time. It’s a lengthy and rigorous process, but a rewarding career awaits you if you succeed!
What is a paralegal?
A paralegal is someone who carries out certain kinds of legal work but is not a qualified solicitor, barrister or legal executive. Essentially, their role is to support other legal professionals. Their day-to-day work can cover everything from preparing legal documents and organising case files to admin, proofreading and conducting legal research.
A paralegal might work in a law firm, at a private organisation, in government or at a non-profit. They can specialise in a variety of areas.
The path to becoming a qualified paralegal is a lot less regimented - there are no strict entry requirements and training can usually be acquired on the job. As such, it’s not uncommon for aspiring solicitors and barristers to spend time doing paralegal work as a means of gaining legal experience. This can increase competition for job roles.
How to Become a Lawyer
Is a career in law right for me?
If you’re considering becoming a lawyer, the first thing you need to ask yourself is: will this be the right career for me?
It’s a prestigious career path that can be both stimulating and rewarding. Earnings are often high: salaries for newly-qualified lawyers can range from £27,000 to over £100,000 depending where you end up working!
But it’s also hard work. There are several extra years of study required after you’ve completed your degree and competition is fierce.
The training and qualifications required do mean added expense and, when you are qualified, you’ll need to be prepared to put in long hours. It is not unusual for lawyers at top firms to work 12-hour days, with evening and weekend work often seen as part of the job.
Take time to consider these factors before you decide.
If you’ve got the passion and the drive, a challenging and fulfilling career awaits you!
To find out more about the daily realities of working in law, take a look at our blogs: A Day in the Life of a Barrister and A Day in the Life of a Solicitor.
Already convinced that law is for you? Read on to find out how you can prepare for success.
What GCSEs do you need to become a lawyer?
You will need a minimum of 5 GCSEs at grade 4 (C) or above to become a lawyer. These should include maths, English and science. Some universities require higher grades in English and maths so make sure to check this if you already have a university in mind!
When it comes to GCSE choices, there aren’t any particular subjects you need to take to pursue a career in law, but universities tend to prefer academic A-levels like history and modern languages. It’s therefore a good idea to think ahead when choosing your options.
That’s the best advice that can be given about options/degree choices, if you do something you enjoy you’ll invariably get better results.
As law is so competitive, you will also need top grades.
According to UCAS, law was one of the most popular choices for students applying to university in 2020. A good set of GCSE results will help strengthen your application.
What A-levels do you need to become a lawyer?
Strictly speaking, there are no particular A-level subjects that are required to study law, which means you have some freedom to choose subjects you enjoy.
“I did history, English Literature, French and business studies,” says criminal barrister Rhys Rosser. “I chose the subjects because they were those I thought I would enjoy most. That’s the best advice that can be given about options/degree choices, if you do something you enjoy you’ll invariably get better results.”
A few select universities ask for English, whilst others require at least two choices from their ‘preferred subjects’ list. These tend to feature more academic options like history, geography, maths, foreign languages and science subjects.
Some A-levels - such as art and P.E. - are not counted by certain institutions, and general studies/critical thinking are rarely considered.
Make sure you check the entry requirements at each individual university you wish to apply to to be sure.
Useful A-levels for law
Essay subjects like English and history are great choices for aspiring law students. Not only will they improve your essay-writing skills (essential for a law degree), they will also boost your critical thinking and communication skills, and teach you how to argue your case effectively.
A foreign language like French, Spanish or German is also likely to come in useful when studying law. Besides being well-respected, a language could benefit you in your future career, particularly if you end up at a global law firm or working abroad.
“I took English Literature, French and History for A-level, with AS’s in Mathematics and Critical Thinking,” says solicitor Kathryn Finch. “I chose them because I was interested! Critical thinking was in the mix as well because I thought it would be a useful (and complementary) skill to develop. The day before I had to finalise my options I actually had Physics, Chemistry, French and Maths down as my AS level subjects, so I really was on the humanities fence!”
You do not need to do law A-level to apply for law at university, though it will give you a good idea of what to expect at degree level.
“I was always interested in law, but didn't really consider it properly until after I graduated,” says one newly-qualified solicitor. “My A-levels were Physics, Maths and English. My undergraduate degree was nothing to do with law either. Being able to do a law conversion or an SQE preparation course after your degree is an excellent way to get into the law world. Employers often look for other skills you can bring. For example, IP firms look for science grads."
Law is a competitive field and the entry requirements are typically high, so it is more important to concentrate on getting excellent grades.
Need more guidance? Check out our blog: What A-Levels Should I Take?
Other entry requirements
In addition to A-levels, some Russell Group universities will also require their applicants to pass the LNAT, the National Admissions Test For Law. These include:
- University of Oxford
- King’s College London
- Durham University
- University of Bristol
- University of Nottingham
- University of Glasgow
The University of Cambridge has its own admissions test, The Cambridge Law Test.
There may also be English language requirements for international students.
What work experience do you need to become a lawyer?
Law work experience can be difficult to come by before you get to university, but if you want to make your UCAS application stand out, it’s a good thing to have. You can arrange to do it during the holidays, or as part of your designated work experience scheme at school.
A week or more spent shadowing a lawyer will help you get a sense of what the day-to-day job entails so you decide if it really is the path for you. It can also help you establish which role you’d like to pursue and which areas of law you might be interested in.
Where to get law work experience
- Appeal to local law firms and chambers - scope out the law practices in your area and contact them by phone, email or in person to ask if you could shadow a solicitor or barrister. As local firms are likely to be inundated with requests, a persuasive cover letter-style application may help.
- Apply for formal work experience schemes - though most law firms and chambers only accept undergraduates for work experience placements, there are some that run schemes for sixth form pupils. Have a look online to find programmes you’re eligible for. As they are so few, opportunities like these are intensely competitive, but there are several schemes designed to improve access to the legal profession for students from underrepresented groups. If this applies to you, take a look at the programmes offered by Prime - an alliance of law firms committed to this goal - or check out InvestIN’s bursary scheme, which is designed to help students from underrepresented backgrounds get the opportunities they need to succeed.
- Volunteering - if you can’t secure a place at a law firm or chambers then volunteering is an excellent alternative. There are countless legal charities, nonprofits and organisations across the country. Unfortunately, some aren’t able to take on younger volunteers, but it’s worth looking through lists of law volunteering opportunities online to find potential opportunities in your area.
- Personal connections - ask around your family, friends and neighbours to see if they know any solicitors or barristers you could shadow. It’s also worth asking at school. Your teacher or careers counsellor may know about opportunities you don’t; perhaps there’s an ex-student working in law that they could put you in contact with!
- A career experience programme - courses like the InvestIN Law Programmes offer a unique way to get the experience you need. Rather than shadowing a lawyer and helping with filing or getting coffee, you will take part in authentic simulations of the things lawyers do on a daily basis: arguing cases, negotiating deals and representing clients in court. Each of our programmes is led by top lawyers from different firms and chambers, meaning you can benefit from their diverse range of expertise and start building a wide-reaching network. On top of this, there is no application process, so you won’t be competing against hundreds of other students for your place!
What skills do you need for law?
If you want to become a lawyer, there are a number of key employability skills essential to the role that you can start working on now.
Here are our top 5, with insights from professional solicitor Kathryn Finch and criminal barrister, Rhys Rosser.
Good communication skills, both written and verbal, are essential if you want to work in law.
On a day to day basis, so much of your work will involve writing, whether it be drawing up contracts, drafting documents or writing emails or letters to clients. Being able to write quickly, clearly and accurately is integral to the role.
Verbal communication is also a fundamental skill. All lawyers work closely with their clients and colleagues and need to be able to communicate effectively with them. On top of this, barristers have to argue their case in court, so strong public speaking skills are a must.
“[You’ll need] confidence and the ability to communicate with a variety of different individuals.”
Rhys Rosser, Barrister at 2 Bedford Row Criminal Barristers Chambers.
2. Problem Solving
Being a lawyer is all about solving a problem for your client.
Often, this means thinking outside the box to come up with innovative solutions: how will you stay one step ahead of the opposing party; how might you argue a particularly tricky case?
The ability to solve problems creatively will get you far.
Being a solicitor really comes down to being able to absorb and understand a lot of information, stay organised and communicate complex ideas clearly to people without your training. You also need to be able to write well.
3. Commercial Awareness
Commercial awareness is all about understanding how law firms operate and knowing what's happening in the world around you that might impact your work.
There are all sorts of political and social events that might have wide-reaching implications for the legal field. Brexit is a good example. The UK’s departure from the EU has impacted tax, intellectual property law and solicitors’ ability to move freely across borders between EU states - among many other things!
As a lawyer, it's important for you to stay up to date with current affairs, business news and social issues so you can anticipate how they will impact your client.
You will often be collaborating in some way in your work as a lawyer, whether it be with colleagues, clerks or trainees.
It takes a team of legal professionals to win a case, so the ability to work well as part of a team is crucial. If you’ve ever seen How to Get Away with Murder, you’ll have seen Annalise Keating working round the clock with her team of student lawyers collecting research and cracking cases!
5. Research and Analytical Skills
There will always be research involved when you’re working on a case.
Being able to research quickly and efficiently, and translate your findings into language your client can understand, is an invaluable skill.
“Being a solicitor really comes down to being able to absorb and understand a lot of information, stay organised and communicate complex ideas clearly to people without your training. You also need to be able to write well.
It’s a lot to get used to and obviously everyone has different particular strengths, but it’s nothing that can’t be learned.”
Kathryn Finch, Solicitor and General Counsel of Quartz Counselling, Psychotherapy and Training Limited
Check out the full blog: Skills Advice from 20 Top Professionals.
Organisation, attention to detail, time management, interpersonal skills, initiative and the ability to work under pressure are also key if you want to become a lawyer.
But how you can start developing these during your GCSEs and throughout sixth form?
How to Build Key Law Skills
There are tons of ways you can start building these professional skills now.
- Subject choices - even if the universities you’re applying to don’t request specific A-levels, choosing your GCSE and A-level subjects thoughtfully will help you start honing the skills you’ll need in your future career. English will improve your written communication, maths will teach you to problem solve and history will improve your research skills. Give some thought to the areas you want to improve before you make your subject choices.
- Extracurriculars - clubs, societies and out-of-school hobbies are a great way to develop key skills and demonstrate initiative. Joining a sports team will, naturally, improve your teamwork. Debating society will help you master public speaking. Managing a club will help with your organisation. Explore what’s on offer at school and in the local area.
- Part-time work - getting a part-time job is an excellent way to build skills. A hospitality role will teach you to work under pressure and allow you to practise your interpersonal skills, whilst a job in retail could help you learn responsibility and time management.
- Volunteering - not only will volunteering teach you compassion and get you involved in the local community, it can also show initiative, organisation and reliability, and can be a great thing to talk about in applications and interviews. Bonus points if it’s law-related!
Want to hear more from working professionals, including a top barrister, about what they did to make themselves more employable whilst still at school? Click here to view 8 Ways to Improve Employability at School + Expert Advice.
What qualifications do you need to be a lawyer?
Once you’ve finished school, you’ll need to complete several years of academic study and obtain the relevant qualifications in order to become a lawyer.
Depending on whether you want to be a solicitor or barrister, there are several pathways you can choose.
There are 4 different avenues you can take if you want to become a solicitor in England and Wales.
1. A law degree
It is not necessary to study law at university to become a lawyer, but it will cut down the time it takes you to qualify.
If this is the route you want to take, you will do a qualifying law degree (LLB) before sitting stage 1 of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
The SQE is a new qualification introduced in 2021 to replace traditional training models like the GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law) and the LPC (Legal Practice Course). It consists of 2 exams that aspiring lawyers must pass if they want to become a solicitor.
SQE 1 is designed to test your ability to use and apply legal knowledge.
SQE 2 will test your legal skills.
The two exams cost £3,980 and you must pass stage 1 in order to move onto the next stage.
After you have passed stage 1, you will undertake two years’ legal experience. Before the introduction of the SQE, it was traditional to apply for a training contract. Under the new system, you can do your work-based learning at any legal institution approved by the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority), and can divide up the 2-year period into several placements with up to 4 firms or organisations. This can still include a formal training contract, but can also incorporate volunteering at a law centre (e.g. Citizens advice) or working as a paralegal or apprentice.
After completing this 24-month training period, you will be required to take stage 2 of the SQE. Once you have passed you will be fully qualified and can apply to be registered with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (the register also known as the ‘roll of solicitors’ that entitles you to practise as a solicitor).
2. A degree in a different subject
If you want to study a different subject, you can.
The obvious benefits of this route are the freedom to pursue a non-law subject you enjoy and that you are able to keep your options open in case you change your mind later about wanting to go into law.
It does, however, mean you then have to take an SQE preparation course before taking the SQE, which will add time and expense.
SQE preparation courses are usually split into SQE 1 and SQE 2 training, and they can take anywhere from 10 weeks to a year or more to complete, depending on the course you choose.
List of SQE training providers.
Otherwise, this route is exactly the same as the one above.
3. A law apprenticeship
Some law firms run apprenticeship schemes for students who’ve completed their A-levels (or paralegals and chartered legal executives who wish to become solicitors).
These typically last 6 years, during which you will split your time between working at the law firm and studying.
The key benefit of this route is that you won’t rack up lots of university debt and will have the opportunity to ‘earn as you learn’.
Learn more about solicitor apprenticeships and which firms offer them.
4. CPQ (CILEX Professional Qualification)
The CPQ is a new qualification offered by CILEX, the professional body for chartered legal executives, paralegals, legal practitioners and apprentices.
Marketed as a ‘new approach to legal training’, the CPQ offers a more flexible, practical route to becoming a qualified lawyer. Like an apprenticeship, it combines work with traditional study. Unlike other routes into the profession, the CPQ does not require you to have a degree or legal experience.
The CPQ is essentially a course comprised of 3 stages - Foundation, Advanced and Professional. The Foundation level is for aspiring paralegals, the Advanced level caters to advanced paralegals and the Professional level is for those wishing to become fully-qualified CILEX lawyers.
Each stage takes about 18 months - 2 years to complete (with breaks possible between stages) and the whole thing costs a maximum of £12,500. Whilst still expensive, it is much cheaper than going to university.
Find out more about becoming a CILEX lawyer.
To become a barrister in England and Wales there are 3 stages you will need to complete:
- An academic component
- A vocational component
- A work-based learning component
The process can be a bit confusing. There are all sorts of traditions, practises and specialised jargon associated with law that can be difficult to understand before you enter the profession.
Just take each stage step by step and refer to the law section of our career definitions blog if you come across a word you don’t understand!
1. The academic component
First, you’ll need an undergraduate degree at minimum 2:2 level.
This can either be a qualifying law degree (LLB), or another subject combined with a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), otherwise known as a law conversion course. (Whilst the GDL was scrapped in favour of the SQE for those wanting to become solicitors, you can still take a law conversion course if you want to be a barrister.)
The GDL is a 1-year course (or 2 years part time) designed to give non-law students the knowledge they missed out on by not doing a law degree.
Learn more about the GDL.
Once you have completed your degree (followed by a GDL, if necessary), you must then pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), a 55-minute assessment designed to assess your critical thinking, judgement and reasoning skills, and make sure you are capable of succeeding in the next stages of your training.
The BCAT must be taken the summer before you go on to your vocational component.
After passing the BCAT, you will then need to join one of the 4 Inns of Court: Lincoln's Inn, Gray's Inn, Inner Temple or Middle Temple. These are the professional associations for barristers in England and Wales, and provide professional support, resources and even financial assistance to aspiring barristers. They will also provide a sort of professional community as you proceed through the next stages of your training.
Learn more about the 4 Inns of Court, and why you have to join one.
2. The vocational component
You will then complete what is called the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), a postgraduate course designed to equip you with the practical skills and knowledge you’ll need to be a barrister. This is the vocational stage of your training that you must pass in order to move onto the final step.
There are a number of different Bar courses you can take, each split in different ways. Some take a year, some take several years to complete.
Click here for a list of organisations that deliver the vocational component of Bar training.
3. The work-based learning component
Finally, you must do your pupillage.
A pupillage is a practical training period usually completed in chambers and supervised by experienced barristers.
It lasts 12 months and is split into 2 parts. In the non-practising six months (the ‘first six’), you will shadow your supervisor and assist with various tasks. In the practising six months (the ‘second six’), you’ll start taking on your own cases.
Unlike the other training stages, a pupillage is paid: as of January 2021, pupils in London should expect a minimum annual salary of £18,960, and pupils outside of London a minimum of £16,601.
After you have finished the vocational stage of your training you have 5 years to complete your pupillage, but most students start applying well before they even start their vocational component. In fact, it is customary to start thinking about where you want to apply from your 2nd or 3rd year of academic study (before you do your BPTC).
Applications open yearly in January on the Pupillage Gateway, a recruitment portal designed by the Bar. You can submit up to 20 applications through this system, though some chambers will ask you to apply directly to them. Applications close in February and offers are made in May, about a year and a half before the pupillage starts.
In each application you will have to demonstrate your knowledge of the chambers you’re applying to, as well as the skills and experience required. This is where excellent grades, relevant extracurriculars and ample additional work experience (mini-pupillages, voluntary/pro bono work at a law centre or even a vacation scheme at a solicitors’ firm) will really help make you stand out.
Competition for pupillages is fierce. There were nearly 2,800 applicants for 2021/22 and 2022/23 pupillages; less than 8% were successful.
Be prepared to put all your efforts into making a strong application and don’t be discouraged if you’re not immediately accepted. Just ask for feedback from the chambers you applied to and use the time before you reapply to gain extra experience.
Once qualified, most barristers in England and Wales go on to become self-employed in chambers, acting as independent law practitioners and taking on as many cases as they choose.
It is also possible to become an employed barrister within an institution or organisation, whether it be a government department, the armed forces or a charity.
How long does it take to qualify as a lawyer?
Depending on the route you choose, it usually takes between 5 and 6 years to qualify as a lawyer if you study full time.
It’s a lengthy and rigorous process, but a rewarding career awaits you if you succeed!
Where to study law
If you’re trying to work out where to study law in the UK, university league tables can be a good resource.
See below for a list of the top universities in the UK for law, along with A-level requirements and the admissions tests needed for entry.
Correct as of 10/01/2022, source: The Complete University Guide
Check out the full list for student satisfaction scores, graduate prospects and more: The Complete University Guide law subject league table 2022.
If you are interested in studying internationally, check out the top world universities to study law.
Law is a complex field with stringent training requirements. Do as much research as you can into the profession to make sure you are fully prepared.
What can you be doing now to prepare for a career in law?
- Do your research! Law is a complex field with stringent training requirements. Do as much research as you can into the profession to make sure you are fully prepared. Guides like this one are a great place to start, and the following resources may also prove useful:
- The Lawyer Portal
- The Law Society
- The Bar Council
- Prospects (we liked this piece on the reality of working in law!)
- Careers fairs
- University websites
- Law firm websites
- News sources
- Study hard! As law is so popular, competition can be intense at every stage of the qualification process. You will need excellent academic results to be in with a chance of succeeding. Make sure you dedicate a good amount of time to your studies to secure those top grades!
- Ace your extracurriculars! You can use your extracurriculars to gain important knowledge and experience. Participating in school elections, joining debating society or taking part in Model United Nations could all equip you with relevant skills.
- Up your skills! Focus on building the key skills essential to the legal profession. Join clubs, volunteer or find part-time work to get started. But don’t feel pressured to push yourself too hard; if you’re feeling overwhelmed during term time, use your holidays to upskill yourself.
- Gain valuable experience! Apply to a prestigious firm for work experience, or shadow a solicitor at a local practice. If you can’t find an in-person placement, why not try an online equivalent? Plenty of firms (as well as InvestIN!) are offering online learning opportunities in the wake of the pandemic. If you’re struggling to secure law-specific experience, search for something in a related field, or apply for a scheme where you’ll still develop important law skills. Why not try approaching a local MP to see if you could shadow them, applying to your local newspaper or completing your work experience with a relevant charity? InvestIN's Law Programmes are designed to equip you with the skills and experience you'll need to become a successful lawyer. Participate in a live murder trial, get public speaking training from leading barristers and guidance from top corporate lawyers on improving your negotiation skills. Plus, career coaching with experts. No application necessary!
We hope you found this guide useful and you have everything you need to kickstart your career in law now.