How to become a lawyer
‘Lawyer’ is a term that covers a number of different legal professionals, including solicitor, barrister and legal executive. In this blog Juliet Brook and Gemma Hargrave from Portsmouth Law School help you understand the differences between these roles in England and Wales and the qualifications and training you need for each of them.
Differences between a barrister and a solicitor
A barrister is the type of lawyer you see most in films and TV dramas – they specialise in putting their client's case to the court (advocacy). As a barrister you have very little contact with the public as you'll normally be engaged by solicitors to take a case to court.
Most barristers are self-employed, although some work in government departments such as the Crown Prosecution Service.
As a solicitor you can give legal advice to individuals and companies on a wide range of issues, from housing, employment and family issues, to criminal or personal injury matters and business and commercial law. You may also get involved in dispute resolution.
Most solicitors are employed by law firms, but you can also work in-house as a legal advisor to a company or local authority.
As a solicitor you can get 'rights of audience', which means you can take cases to court without the need to employ a barrister. It's also a common misconception that you have to be a barrister to be a judge, when in fact solicitors can also become judges.
What's a legal executive (CILEx lawyer)?
The role of a solicitor and a legal executive (now known as a CILEx lawyer) are very similar, but they're regulated by different professional bodies and the qualification pathways are different. As a CILEx lawyer you can do nearly all the things a solicitor can do, including become a partner in a law firm, or become a judge. The biggest difference between the two roles is that as a CILEx lawyer you'll specialise in a particular area of law much earlier, whereas as a solicitor you have to prove legal knowledge in a wider variety of topics in order to qualify.
As a CILEx lawyer you become a specialist in your chosen area. Current pathways include:
- dispute resolution
- criminal law and litigation
- business and employment law
- family law
- wills and probate
CILEx lawyers often get confused with paralegals, but they're not the same thing. Paralegals are not lawyers (although they have often done a law degree) and their role is administrative and supportive. However, being a CILEx paralegal can be a stepping stone to qualifying as a CILEx lawyer.
What A levels do I need to be a lawyer?
You should study A levels that you're interested in and good at, as you'll need good grades to go on to study law. Subjects such as English, history, economics, maths or sciences are all good choices. Many universities also accept equivalent qualifications, such as BTEC qualifications.
Most universities don't specify which A levels you need for a law degree, but be aware that some places don't accept A levels such as PE or photography; you need to check the entry requirements of the university you want to study at.
You do not need to take A level law to get a place on a law degree.
Do I need a law degree to be a lawyer?
No, not any more.
To be a solicitor...
In 2021 the way you qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales changed. You now no longer need a law degree to go on to study for your solicitor exams. You will need a degree in something though, or an equivalent qualification, such as a solicitor apprenticeship. Sooner or later you'll need to learn some law, so a law degree is still a great way to start.
To be a barrister...
Most people who want to be a barrister study a law degree, but you don't have to. Before you can begin your Bar training you must study the 7 foundations of legal knowledge. If these are not studied through a law degree you'll have to do a law conversion course after you graduate (which can be expensive).
To be a CILEx lawyer...
You do not have to get any kind of degree to eventually qualify as a CILEx lawyer. The CILEx Professional Qualification programme (CPQ) is a work-based programme that provides a structured training route that can start straight from school. However, having a law degree that's accredited by CILEx will help you to qualify faster.
How long does it take to become a lawyer?
Whether you want to qualify as a barrister, a solicitor or a CILEx lawyer it's usually going to take 3 years after you graduate from your law degree to qualify as a lawyer.
If you don't study a law degree and you want to be a barrister you need to add an extra year to this, as you'll need to do a law conversion course to start your barrister training.
Qualifying as a solicitor
You'll need to study an additional course after your degree to prepare for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) assessments. If you already have a law degree then this course will be shorter and cheaper, especially if you choose something like Portsmouth's LLB Law with Legal Practice, which is specifically focused on the SQE requirements.
You need to:
- pass Stage 1 and Stage 2 of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam
- complete 2 years of qualifying work experience
- meet the Solicitors Regulatory Authority character and suitability requirements
There are costs involved in taking your qualifying exams. If you secure legal employment after you graduate your employer may pay your SQE exam and study fees. It's also possible to get a graduate solicitor apprenticeship.
Read the Law Society's guide to qualifying as a solicitor, which includes information on costs and funding.
Qualifying as a CILEx lawyer
Once you complete a law degree you'll be able to work as a CILEx Paralegal. If you complete a CILEx accredited law degree you'll also be exempt from the assessments you need to be able to practice as a CILEx Advanced Paralegal, so you'll be able to progress more quickly (and cheaply) to becoming a CILEx lawyer.
To qualify as a CILEx lawyer you'll need to:
- complete the online modules and pass the assessments
- complete your online professional experience portfolio
- meet the professional standards of CILEx
The CILEx route to qualification tends to be cheaper than the traditional solicitor route. Find out more about CILEx qualification and costs on the CILEx website.
Qualifying as a barrister
There are a series of set steps you need to follow to become a barrister in England and Wales after you graduate from a law degree.
1. Pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT)
You must pass the BCAT in order to enrol on a bar course. It's an online test and you don't need any extra training before you take the test, but there is a cost involved.
2. Pass a postgraduate bar course
Normally either 1 year full-time or 2 years part-time these courses are offered by universities across the country. You'll study civil and criminal litigation, advocacy, conferencing, drafting, opinion writing, professional ethics and legal research.
3. Become a member of an Inn of Court
The Inns are professional membership associations for barristers in England and Wales and you need to be a member of an Inn to complete your postgraduate training. Alongside your university studies you must complete 12 training sessions run by your Inn.
Note that although all 4 Inns of Court are based in London, you don't need to be in London to complete your barrister training.
4. Complete your Pupillage (work based learning)
You'll spend a year (more if part-time) working as a barrister, firstly shadowing an experienced colleague and then working on your own cases.
You'll need to cover tuition fees and living costs for your postgraduate bar course, but these courses often qualify for the Master's Postgraduate Loan. There is a minimum wage set for pupillage, which is currently £16,601 (outside London 2021).
Learn more about how to qualify as a barrister from the Bar Standards Board.
We hope we've managed to clarify your options if you want to practice law. If you have any questions about training to be a lawyer we haven't answered, please do get in touch and we'll be happy to help.
This blog post was written by:
- Juliet Brook, who is a non-practising solicitor and CILEx development lead at Portsmouth Law School
- Gemma Hargrave, who is a practising solicitor who supervises students in the University of Portsmouth Law Clinic. She's also Director of Clinical Legal Education and a principal lecturer at Portsmouth Law School