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How to become a solicitor in the UK

A rundown of what it means to be a solicitor and the different ways of becoming one in England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

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CONTENTS

  1. Working as a solicitor

  2. Becoming a solicitor in the UK

  3. How to become a solicitor in England and Wales

  4. How to become a solicitor in Northern Ireland

  5. How to become a solicitor in Scotland

Working as a solicitor

Solicitors provide expert legal advice and support to individuals, groups, private companies or public-sector organisations. They're 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 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 and work with precision.

What’s it like to work as a solicitor?

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 manage high-profile mergers or acquisitions.

As a solicitor, you’re generally contracted to a 37-hour working week. You can expect to work longer hours, particularly when approaching deadlines. Work is usually office-based but can include external client meetings, where overnight stays may be necessary.

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 midsize firms can expect to earn £25,000–£57,000 a year. Salaries in London can be far higher – particularly for those working with large US firms or the magic circle.

Those working for large corporations tend to be paid upwards of £62,000 a year. With experience, you can expect to earn more money.

Partners or heads of department may earn over £100,000 a year.

If you’re considering a legal career as a solicitor, be aware that it’s very competitive. A good degree is vital – it can help to get a training contract, which is currently the final stage of qualifying.

Becoming a solicitor in the UK

To become a solicitor in the UK, you normally start by studying for a degree. It can be in Law, or a different subject followed by a Law conversion course or graduate Law degree. After the degree, specific vocational qualifications and in-work training are then required to practise as a solicitor.

Each nation – England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland – has its own legal system and regulators, which decide on the training to qualify as a solicitor. If you're not sure which law career is right for you, see our information about barristers and chartered legal executives.

How to become a solicitor in England and Wales

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is the regulating body for England and Wales. It decides what's required to qualify and practise as a solicitor. The current pathway has three stages for becoming a solicitor.

NOTE: This will be changing from autumn 2021 – see info about the Solicitors Qualifying Examination/SQE.

The stages of training are:

  • Legal knowledge: Degree or experience
  • Vocational qualifications: Legal Practice Course (LPC)
  • In-work training: Period of Recognised Training (PRT)

There are also other ways of qualifying, such as the Level 7 'trailblazer' solicitor apprenticeship.

Legal knowledge: Degree or experience

Usually the starting point for a career in law is a qualifying Law degree (QLD) – or a non-Law degree followed by a Law conversion course or graduate Law degree.

A 'qualifying' Law degree includes all the elements of legal knowledge specified by the regulating body (in this case, the SRA). Graduates of these courses can progress into any legal career.

If you already work in a legal role, it’s possible to become a solicitor without going to university. You can apply to the SRA for exemption from all or part of the training. The SRA will need evidence of how, under supervision, you've achieved the required standard of skills and learning through 'equivalent means'. The simplest way is to gain qualifications through CILEx, the Chartered Institute for Legal Executives. The SRA will also consider other evidence on a case-by-case basis.

Vocational qualification: Legal Practice Course (LPC)

Currently, the next step is a Legal Practice Course. This gives you a grounding in the knowledge and skills required for legal practice. Afterwards you complete a period of recognised training (PRT) to become a solicitor. It’s advisable to get a training contract for the PRT before starting the LPC, as there are few places available.

LPC providers are authorised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Courses run full-time or part-time on evenings and weekends. Accelerated options are available, but most courses are nine months full-time.

The LPC may be offered as part of another course. For example, there's the undergraduate Exempting Law degree. Or it may be part of a master's degree such as an MSc or LLM in Legal Practice. This opens up the possibility of postgraduate loan funding, dependent on eligibility. Courses must be a full master’s of 180 credits and not a ‘top-up’ masters.

Institutions offering the master’s level course include BPP, Nottingham Trent University, the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Law, the University of the West of England and more.

What does the Legal Practice Course cover?

There are two stages. The first covers core knowledge and skills, while the second has elective options that allow you to specialise.

Stage 1: The three core practice areas of business law, property law and litigation (both criminal and civil). You gain skills in advocacy – i.e. putting forward your client's case – as well as interviewing and advising clients. Written skills are developed in practical legal research and drafting, i.e. creating binding legal text such as contracts or wills. It also covers professional conduct and regulation, taxation, and the administration of estates.

Stage 2: Elective options. These may be chosen in line with your training contract (if you have one) or in an area of work where you hope to secure a traineeship.

Assessments include exams, research assessments, written assignments and oral presentations. LPC providers approach these differently. Some offer ‘open book’ exams where you bring textbooks and are assessed on the application of theory to a specific issue.

Entry requirements and applications

Entry requirements are a minimum 2:2 in a qualifying Law degree, or non-Law degree followed by a Law conversion course. However, many legal firms will only accept trainees with a 2:1 or higher. Candidates with relevant professional qualifications may be considered e.g. from CILEx (Chartered Institute of Legal Executives).

You may also need to provide proof of your English language ability, for example, if you’re an international student and not from a majority English-speaking country.

Applications for full-time places are made via the Central Applications Board (CAB). For part-time applications, you normally apply directly to the relevant institution.

How much does the LPC cost? Is funding available?

Full-time course fees vary from £9,500–£17,300 for UK/EU students, with part-time course fees pro-rata. Fees are often higher for international students.

If the LPC is combined with an undergraduate or master’s degree, you may have access to a student loan.

If you have a training contract with a law firm, you may receive funding for the LPC. Some LPC providers offer bursaries and scholarships to help with course fees.

In-work training: Period of Recognised Training (PRT)

After the Legal Practice Course, you must complete in-work training for two years if working full-time. This is known as the Period of Recognised Training (PRT). During this, you gain practical experience in at least three distinct areas of English and Welsh law and complete a Professional Skills course.

There are fewer trainee positions than there are candidates – securing a PRT is highly competitive, and you have to take a suitability test. 2018 figures from the Law Society show that 5,811 trainees began a PRT – and that around half the training contracts were in London. Some firms have upward of 100 applications per place.

Vacation schemes are short-term legal placements that you can apply for during the second year of a Law degree or the final year of a non-Law degree. These schemes can help with securing a training contract either directly, through contact with a law firm, or by enhancing your CV.

It’s possible to gain exemption from the PRT through 'equivalent means' but this must be through supervised training in a work-based setting. It must also cover the range of legal experience required by the SRA. If you’re struggling to get a PRT, it may be worth considering training with CILEx. Bear in mind the route for training will change after the Solicitors Qualifying Examination is introduced (see further down the page).

Once all education and training requirements are met, to enter the legal profession as a solicitor you must pass a final assessment on your character and suitability. To practice, you must be registered with the SRA.

Other ways of qualifying: Level 7 solicitor apprenticeship

You can also become a solicitor through a Level 7 higher apprenticeship while working for a law firm. The training is equivalent to a master’s degree and may include the award of a degree. As an apprentice, you must also pass the SRA’s new SQE examinations. 

Apprenticeship standards are set by the government and informed by employers and professional bodies. Places are advertised by employers as they become available. Training is paid for by the employer and as an apprentice you're paid at least the relevant minimum wage, with some firms offering a higher starting salary.

Entry is open to post-A Level candidates, with no age restrictions. Normally taking five to six years, the apprenticeship can be reduced to a minimum of two years depending on whether you have relevant work experience, a previous related apprenticeship or other legal qualifications.

If you complete a Level 7 solicitor apprenticeship, you fulfil all the requirements to practise as a solicitor.

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What to expect from autumn 2021: Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)

The SRA is changing the path to become a solicitor by introducing a new two-part Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) that won't start before autumn 2021. If you begin a qualifying Law degree or Law conversion course before the SQE is introduced you can choose to follow either the old or new route to qualification.

The SQE will be a common, centralised entrance exam. It'll test you on your functioning legal knowledge (SQE Stage 1) and your practical legal skills (SQE Stage 2) through written and practical assessment. If you’re starting the route to qualify as a solicitor after the SQE is introduced, you’ll need:

  • A degree in any subject, or equivalent qualification such as a Level 7 apprenticeship or professional qualification or experience
  • To pass part 1 and part 2 of the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)
  • Two years' qualifying work experience, which can start before part 1 of the SQE is taken and can be with more than one employer
  • To pass a final character and suitability test

What do the SQE exams cover?

SQE 1 will test you on applied legal knowledge through two 180-question multiple-choice exams. The first covers business law and practice, dispute resolution, contract, tort, the legal system of England and Wales, constitutional and administrative law plus EU law and legal services. The second part will examine property practice, wills and the administration of estates, solicitors accounts, land law, trusts, criminal law and practice.

SQE 2 focuses on practical legal skills, sampled across five practice areas: criminal litigation, dispute resolution, property practice, wills and intestacy plus probate administration and practice, and business organisations rules and procedures. Skills such as client interviewing and advocacy, legal analysis, legal research, drafting and writing will be assessed through 15–18 tasks or ‘stations.’ 

Ethics and professional conduct will be assessed through both SQE 1 and SQE 2.

The SRA expects that SQE 1 is likely to be taken after a law degree or preparatory course, while SQE 2 might be taken once the qualifying work experience is completed. You must pass SQE 1 before taking SQE 2. You have three attempts to pass each stage of the SQE, but the SQE must be completed within six years of taking your first assessment for SQE 1.

How much will the SQE cost?

It’s anticipated that the cost of taking the exams will be around £1,100–£1,650 for SQE 1 and around £1,900–£2,850 for SQE 2. These figures may change – and they don’t account for any preparatory courses that may be required. As the exams sit outside the academic system, there’s no provision for funding via student loans.

What counts as qualifying work experience?

You need to gain 24 months' experience of providing legal services. This can be with up to four organisations – whether paid or unpaid – and it doesn't need to be completed in one go. It could include placements while on a law degree, working with a voluntary organisation such as Citizens Advice Bureau, or within a law firm as a trainee, apprentice or paralegal. Experience must be signed off by a solicitor.

If you begin a QLD or a Law conversion course before the SQE is introduced

You can opt to follow the existing path to qualify as a solicitor, or take the SQE route, as both pathways overlap for a number of years. However, you won’t be able to swap from one route to the other.

If you’re considering university after the proposed SQE starts

Although it requires a degree in any subject (or equivalent qualification), if you haven't taken a Law degree you’re likely to need a preparatory course to pass the SQE exams. The SRA anticipates a range of preparatory courses will be developed, and it'll compile resources to inform students as these are established. Law degrees may also incorporate work experience to gain the in-work training required. If you’re taking a Law degree after 2021, check with the university to ensure it'll prepare you for the SQE if you wish to become a solicitor.

How to become a solicitor in Northern Ireland

Solicitors in Northern Ireland are regulated by the Law Society of Northern Ireland. The Institute of Professional Legal Studies (IPLS) at Queen’s University, Belfast, oversees professional training for both solicitors and barristers.

The stages of training are:

  • Legal knowledge: Law degree or Law conversion course
  • Vocational qualifications: Solicitor's Course at the IPLS
  • In-work training: Apprenticeship

Legal knowledge: Law degree or Law conversion course

In Northern Ireland, you can study for a Law degree at Queen’s University, Belfast, or Ulster University to make it to the next stage of training. You can also study elsewhere in the UK for your undergraduate degree – the IPLS has a list of acceptable Law degrees on its website in its Information Booklet for Applicants.

The Law of Evidence is required in Northern Ireland, which can be taken as a separate exam if necessary.

For non-Law graduates, Queen’s offers a a two-year master’s in law (MLaw).

Vocational qualification: Solicitor's Course

The IPLS (Institute of Professional Legal Studies), based at Queen’s University Belfast, is responsible for training the legal profession in Northern Ireland. Trainee solicitors and barristers complete a similar course and are awarded a Postgraduate Diploma in Professional Legal Studies (Bar or Solicitor as appropriate).

What does the solicitor's course cover?

You gain knowledge of practice and procedure in a broad range of areas. This includes high court, county court and consumer law, as well as criminal procedures, family law, company law and partnership. You learn about accounts, insolvency and revenue, along with conveyancing, drafting wills and more. The course has elective options. Client skills are developed, including advocacy (arguing the client's case), interviewing and negotiation. 

Written skills cover drafting legal texts and legal research. You also learn about practice management.

In areas of joint training, separate tutorials or practical exercises may be given to solicitors and barristers. Other areas are taught separately. For example, solicitors get more training on land law and conveyancing.

The PgDip Professional Legal Studies is preceded and followed by the in-work training that together forms the two-year apprenticeship for solicitors. The apprenticeship runs from September–December, the full-time vocational course at IPLS runs from January–December, and finally you resume your apprenticeship from January–August.

Entry requirements and applications

Entry requirements are a recognised Law degree or a non-Law degree followed by a Law conversion or graduate Law degree. You can check the approved courses on the IPLS website. Applications are made online from September to mid-November where, if successful, you’ll sit an admissions test. If you’re an international student, you have to prove your English language proficiency.

You start your apprenticeship before beginning the diploma course. After applying to the IPLS but before getting the offer of a place, you need to find a 'master' for your apprenticeship. Start this as soon as possible, as there's intense competition.

On securing a master, register with the Law Society. This can be a 'conditional registration' if a place on the diploma hasn't been confirmed. You must register by the deadline or risk losing your place on the diploma.

Fees and funding

For 2021/22, UK/EU fees are £10,100. You may be eligible for a postgraduate loan, and scholarships may be available from universities.

In-work training: Apprenticeship

As outlined above, in Northern Ireland the two-year apprenticeship starts before the vocational qualification and finishes after it. Apprenticeships are under a 'master', a qualified solicitor of seven years standing. Apprenticeships may be advertised on law firm websites, undergraduate notice boards or by the Law Society. You normally make direct contact with masters and send them a detailed CV. The apprenticeship begins on the same day for all trainee solicitors.

On completion of your apprenticeship, having passed all examinations, you can apply for a Practising Certificate. Initially, you can't practise on your own or in partnership for at least two more years.

How to become a solicitor in Scotland

The Law Society of Scotland regulates individual solicitors and law firms in Scotland. It accredits providers of the LLB in Scots Law, as well as the vocational Diploma in Legal Practice.

The stages of training are:

  • Legal knowledge: Law degree (or senior status LLB) in Scots Law
  • Vocational qualifications: PEAT 1 (Diploma in Professional Legal Practice)
  • In-work training: PEAT 2 (traineeship)

Legal knowledge: Law degree in Scots Law

Scotland has a separate legal system to that of England and Wales. Commonly, a trainee solicitor starts with a degree in Scots law. Accelerated courses are available for non-Law graduates. If you have a dual Scots and English Law degree, you’re qualified to practise as a solicitor in both jurisdictions. You must take exams in the subjects specified by the Law Society to continue onto the vocational qualification. 

Alternatively, if you work in the legal sector you may be able to enter a three-year 'pre-PEAT training contract' with a Scottish solicitor. During the training contract, you’ll need to complete coursework and professional exams set by the Law Society.

Vocational qualification: PEAT 1 (Diploma in Professional Legal Practice)

Professional Education and Training Stage 1 (PEAT 1) is commonly known as the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP). It’s taken by both trainee solicitors and advocates, who follow the same path as solicitors for most of their training. As elsewhere, getting a traineeship after the DPLP is highly competitive. Some firms recruit years in advance, while other places may become available while students are on the DPLP.

What does the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice cover?

The DPLP is practical in focus. It includes a high degree of skills-based teaching, much of it delivered by qualified solicitors. Courses vary by provider but all cover business, financial and practice awareness, private client work, litigation (i.e. taking legal action), conveyancing and tax. Core outcomes include professionalism, professional communication (within teams as well as the skills required for effective legal work) and professional ethics and standards. Elective modules allow you to specialise.

Six Scottish universities are accredited to run the course by the Law Society of Scotland. The course is nine months full-time or two years part-time. Assessments are determined by the university. They may include exams, written assignments, online multiple-choice tests or client interview scenarios using actors.

Entry requirements and application

For entry, normally you need the LLB in Scots Law. Or more rarely, you can enter as a non-graduate who has completed a three-year 'pre-PEAT training contract' with a Scottish solicitor (see above). In all cases, entry is based on the marks achieved from the first exam sitting in subjects specified by the Law Society. If you’re an international student, you must demonstrate proficiency in the English language.

Applications are open from February–April. If you have the LLB in Scots Law you must submit your application to the university where you completed your Law degree, even if your first choice for studying the DPLP is elsewhere. Exact requirements vary by provider so refer to university websites. You can indicate any university where you don't want to study.

If you’re on a pre-PEAT training contract. you can apply directly to your first choice DPLP provider.

You should indicate if you've secured a training contract to follow the DPLP, as this may help you secure a place.

How much does the DPLP cost? Is funding available?

In 2020/21, UK/EU fees range from £7,500–£9,170 (including materials), with international fees from £8,850–£21,670. Part-time fees are pro-rata.

You may be eligible for a postgraduate loan, and scholarships may be available from universities.

In-work training: PEAT 2 (traineeship)

PEAT 2 is known as the traineeship, where the skills and values learned on the DPLP are honed 'on the job'. Both solicitors and advocates are required to complete a period of in-work training as a solicitor. For solicitors, this is two years. The diploma is valid until the end of December two years after it's awarded, but you can ask for an extension. Before starting the PEAT 2 traineeship, you must apply for an entrance certificate.

Large firms often advertise for traineeships up to two years ahead, so if you’re completing an LLB you can apply during the final year of your degree before starting the DPLP. The Law Society recommends that trainees are paid £19,500 in their first year of training and £22,500 in their second (figures from June 2019).

Qualified solicitors are registered with the Law Society of Scotland.

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