Law Careers in the UK

If you are interested in a law career but aren't sure if it's right for you, you might have a few questions. 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…

Firstly, 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 perform a role similar to barristers.

Be aware that your character and suitability are important considerations for a law career. From the time you begin a law degree and throughout your working life, it is vital to maintain the behaviour and standards expected of a lawyer – or face being barred from the profession.

If you aren’t sure which law 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.

Read on to find out more about law careers in the UK.

A law career as a solicitor

Solicitors provide expert legal advice and support to clients, who may be individuals, groups, private companies, or public-sector organisations. Solicitors are usually the first person contacted regarding a legal problem; it is their job to assess and advise on the appropriate legal action.

What does a solicitor do?

Some solicitors specialise in personal or family law, advising clients on matters such as wills, divorce, personal injury and buying property. Others specialise in commercial law and can work with commercial clients on mergers and acquisitions, or business disputes.

Solicitors can represent their 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, who specialise in advocacy.

The work of a solicitor is demanding and requires particular skills including the ability to communicate clearly 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 – but expect to work longer hours, particularly when approaching deadlines. Work is usually office based but solicitors will be required to attend meetings with clients. Overnight stays are occasionally necessary.

Many solicitors work in law firms which are partnerships of solicitors, some work alone, while others work in-house for a single business, or in government. The ‘magic circle’ is a small group of prestigious law firms in London who specialise in finance and corporate law, such as managing 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 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 in excess of £50,000 a year. With experience, solicitors can expect to earn more money.
  • Partners or heads of department may well earn in excess of £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, as this can help secure the training contract currently required to finish qualifying.

Find out how to become a solicitor.

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A law career as a barrister or advocate

Barristers – or advocates, in Scotland – provide specific, specialist legal advice, representing individuals and organisations before courts and tribunals, in writing or in person.

What does a barrister or advocate do?

In general, barristers are hired by a solicitor once advocacy before a court is required, to argue the client's case. This is normally for one-off representation rather than ongoing advisory work.

Barristers usually specialise in an area of law such as criminal law, chancery law (estates and trusts), commercial or entertainment law, sports law, and common law (which includes family law and divorce, housing and personal injury law). Barristers specialising in criminal law can expect to spend much of their time in court, while 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 must be able to think and communicate well under pressure, have stamina and emotional strength. They need to 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 and, to share costs, 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, including 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 a minimum of £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, depending on factors such as level of experience, location, and area of expertise. Incomes can range from £25,000–300,000. If self-employed, there are costs to set against this – including chambers costs, appropriate insurance, professional fees and work-related expenses.
  • In 2016, barristers employed in the Crown Prosecution Service earned on average £57,381.

For those considering a law 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. The advice is to gain as much information as possible before considering this route, as well as 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.

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A law career as a chartered legal executive

In England and Wales, chartered legal executives are trained to the same level as solicitors but specialise in one area of law (although in practise, this is often true of solicitors and barristers also). As a general rule they undertake the same work as solicitors, with certain conditions, and can qualify to represent clients in court, or become judges.

What does a chartered legal executive do?

The work could include taking instruction from clients and providing legal advice, negotiating on their behalf, or contacting other professionals. They may be required to analyse and summarise complex legal information, or prepare legal documents such as drawing up wills or drafting contracts.

The work will normally specialise in one of the following areas:

  • Family law – legal matters concerning families, including divorce and children.
  • Civil litigation – resolution of legal disputes between people, such as contracts, personal injury, debt recovery or housing.
  • Conveyancing – legal matters concerned with the purchase and sale of property.
  • Probate – validation of wills and trust.
  • Commercial or employment law – relating to tax, contracts, employment, and mergers and acquisitions.
  • Criminal litigation – advising clients accused of serious or petty crime. 
  • Public law – working within councils or government in 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, enabling them to appear in courts in civil, criminal and family proceedings. They can even become judges in certain courts, alongside barristers and solicitors, or take the vocational qualification to become a solicitor.

Working as a chartered legal executive

The work is generally office based and is usually for a normal 37-hour working week, although overtime may be required when deadlines approach.

Commonly, chartered legal executives are 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 anything between £15,000 and £28,000 a year, depending on location and stage of training.
  • After training, legal executives can expect to earn up to £38,000 while gaining the three years qualifying work experience required to become a fully qualified lawyer.
  • Those with over five years’ experience can earn up to £55,000 a year.

Find out how to become a chartered legal executive.

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