Law Careers in the UK
Thinking of a legal career after a degree at university? Then you might have a few questions about the main types of lawyer in the UK. What do solicitors do? How much does a barrister earn? What is a chartered legal executive? Here we give a brief rundown of the answers to these questions and more…
In the UK, ‘lawyer’ is a general term for someone who has a licence to practise law. This includes solicitors, barristers and – in England and Wales – chartered legal executives. In Scotland, advocates are similar to barristers.
Solicitors provide expert legal advice and support to clients. Clients may be individuals, groups, private companies, or public-sector organisations. Solicitors are usually the first person contacted about a legal problem – they assess and advise on the appropriate legal action.
What does a solicitor do?
Some solicitors specialise in personal or family law. They may consult on wills, buying property, divorce or personal injury. Others specialise in commercial law, working on mergers and acquisitions, or business disputes.
Solicitors can represent clients in 'lower' courts such as magistrates, county courts and tribunals. Solicitors with specialist training may appear in high courts. Otherwise they may refer the work to a barrister, as they specialise in advocacy.
The work of a solicitor is demanding and requires particular skills. They must be able to communicate well with clients, analyse large amounts of information, work with precision, and more.
Working as a solicitor
Solicitors are generally contracted to a 37-hour working week. Expect to work longer hours though, particularly when approaching deadlines. Work is usually office-based but will also include client meetings. Overnight stays are sometimes necessary.
Many solicitors work in law firms: these are partnerships of solicitors. Some solicitors work alone, while others work in-house for a business, or in government. The ‘magic circle’ is a small group of well-known law firms in London that specialise in finance and corporate law. They can manage high-profile mergers or acquisitions.
How much do solicitors earn?
- Trainee solicitors must be paid at least the national minimum wage. Most employers pay more than this but it depends on the company and its location.
- Newly qualified solicitors working for a small to mid-size firms can expect to earn £22,000–40,000 a year; salaries in London are higher.
- Those working for large corporations tend to earn more than £50,000 a year. With experience, solicitors can expect to earn more money.
- Partners or heads of department may well earn over £100,000 a year.
For those considering a law career as a solicitor, be aware that it is very competitive. A good degree is vital; it can help to get a training contract, which is currently the final stage of qualifying.
Find out how to become a solicitor.
Your character and suitability are important considerations for a law career. Once you set out to qualify as a lawyer, and throughout your working life, you must keep to the behaviour and standards expected by the profession. If you do not, you face being barred.
Barristers provide specific, specialist legal advice. They represent individuals and organisations before courts and tribunals, in writing or in person. In Scotland, advocates perform a similar role.
What does a barrister or advocate do?
In general, barristers are hired by a solicitor when advocacy before a court is necessary. Their role is to argue the client's case. Usually this is a one-off representation rather than ongoing advisory work.
Barristers normally specialise in an area of law. This may be criminal law, commercial or common law (such as divorce, housing and personal injuries). Other areas include chancery (dealing with estates and trusts) or entertainment and sports law. Barristers who specialise in criminal law can expect to spend much of their time in court. Those working in family law may be more involved in mediation. Commercial and chancery law may involve more advisory work and drafting legal documents.
The work is demanding. Barristers require a high level of intellectual ability and must be fluent in written and spoken English. They need to think and communicate well under pressure, have stamina and emotional strength. They must marshal and analyse large amounts of information, apply the law to the facts, present legal arguments persuasively in court, and more.
Working as a barrister or advocate
Expect to work long and unsocial hours. Court sits during the day but there’s a lot of preparation involved, including working to tight deadlines.
Most barristers are self-employed. To share costs, they band together with other barristers in offices referred to as sets of chambers (or sometimes ‘stables’ in Scotland). Experienced barristers may become sole practitioners and set up their own chambers. Some barristers work for government departments, or agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service. An increasing number of barristers are employed by private and third sector organisations. This may even include firms of solicitors.
Barristers must conform to strict dress codes.
How much do barristers earn?
- In England and Wales, trainee barristers undergoing pupillage are paid at least £12,000 a year. Most chambers will pay above this, even up to £65,000 depending on area of specialisation.
- Incomes for qualified barristers are hugely variable. It depends on their level of experience, location, and area of expertise. Incomes can range from £25,000–300,000. Self-employed barristers must cover the cost of their chambers, insurance, professional fees and work-related expenses.
- In 2016, barristers employed in the Crown Prosecution Service earned around £57,381.
If you are considering a legal career as a barrister, or as an advocate in Scotland, a good degree is vital. Securing the in-work training needed to qualify is very competitive. Gain as much information as possible before considering this route. Also try to get relevant experience such as working for a law firm, doing a mini-pupillage or talking to those who are recently qualified.
Find out how to become a barrister or advocate.
If you're not sure which legal career to choose, you can specialise after completing a law degree or law conversion course. Find out more from our page on qualifying law degrees and law conversion courses.
In England and Wales, chartered legal executives are trained to the same level as solicitors but specialise in one area of law. As a general rule they undertake the same work as solicitors, with certain conditions. They can also qualify to represent clients in court, or become judges.
What does a chartered legal executive do?
Chartered legal executives can take instruction from clients and provide legal advice. They may negotiate, or contact other professionals, on behalf of their clients. They may analyse and summarise complex legal information, draw up wills or draft legal contracts.
The work normally specialises in one of the following areas:
- Family law – legal matters concerning families, including divorce and children.
- Civil litigation – resolution of legal disputes between people. These may be about contracts, personal injury, debt recovery or housing.
- Conveyancing – legal matters to do with the purchase and sale of property.
- Probate – validation of wills and trusts.
- Commercial or employment law – covering tax, contracts, employment, mergers and acquisitions.
- Criminal litigation – advising clients accused of serious or petty crime.
- Public law – working within councils or government. This may include areas such as welfare benefits or immigration.
- Legal practice – such as practice management or Costs (i.e. legal costs) and accounts work.
Chartered legal executives can also qualify as a chartered legal executive advocate. This means they can represent clients in court on civil, criminal and family proceedings. They can even become judges in certain courts, or take the vocational qualification to become a solicitor.
Working as a chartered legal executive
The work is generally office-based. A 37-hour working week is normal, but with overtime when deadlines approach.
Chartered legal executives are usually employees. They may be associates or run a specialist department within a law firm. A Fellow can become a partner within a law firm, and can instruct barristers. They can also be self-employed, providing legal services to solicitors.
Legal executives will be required to attend meetings with clients. Overnight stays may occasionally be necessary.
How much do chartered legal executives earn?
- The salary for trainees can be from £15,000 to £28,000 a year, depending on location and stage of training.
- While gaining the 'qualifying employment' to complete their training, legal executives may earn up to £38,000 per year.
- Those with over five years’ experience can earn up to £55,000 a year.
Next page: Become a solicitor