WHAT IS A SOLICITOR?
In general, solicitors are the first and point of contact for a lay client and remain so during the course of litigation. They will manage all paperwork and communication involved with their clients’ cases, which may involve drafting witness statements, court documents and letters.
After consulting with and taking instructions from clients, solicitors will give advice on available courses of legal action.
A solicitor’s work may also involve negotiation with opposing parties, the gathering of evidence and calculating monetary claims. They may also conduct work on a range of non-contentious matters, such as drafting contracts and other paperwork for new businesses, drafting wills, assisting with property transactions, and many other such cases.
Solicitors are employed in firms, which are led by partners. Firms may engage any range of work from the full spectrum of law.
Solicitors have rights of audience in the lower courts, and are therefore able to represent clients in court in some situations. Increasingly, solicitors are undergoing advocacy training in order to gain rights in higher courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Usually, however, solicitors will instruct barristers or trained advocates to provide specialist legal advice and to represent their clients in court.
ROAD TO QUALIFICATION
There is currently more than one way to become a solicitor.
Undergraduate and LPC
Like aspiring barristers, you can complete an LLB (Bachelor of Laws) undergraduate degree at university (which can also be a Joint Honours degree combined with another subject, such as a language). There are also BA and BSc degrees, where students spend a large portion of their time studying non-law modules.
An LLB, however, is not a prerequisite for a career as a solicitor. If you are a graduate of a non-law degree, you may undertake a one or two-year Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) – a legal conversion course covering all the foundation legal modules, which puts those students on exactly the same playing field as LLB Graduates (although be prepared to explain your change of path in interviews!).
The next stage is to apply to the study the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at one of the 40+ recognised providers, on either a full-time (one year) or part-time (two years) basis.
Getting a place on the LPC is not nearly as hard as entering university; as long as you possess the minimum grade requirements (which vary according to the institution), you’re likely to get in. The real challenge will be securing a training contract, however, and so aspiring solicitors should be self-critical and assess whether the cost and time of completing the LPC is likely to be fruitful.
As for choosing the provider, well, this depends mostly on where you want to study, and where you want to practice. Engage in your own research, but it tends to be a good idea to study where you have secured or intend to apply for a training contract, so that you can build up local work experience and get to know some of the practitioners in your area.
This one deserves its own category. Did you know that the cost of completing the LPC ranges from around £8,000 to around £16,000? If you are fortunate enough to secure a training contract before commencement (which is highly encouraged), the firm might sponsor your LPC (although this is usually only true for the richer commercial outfits). If you don’t have the benefit of a sponsored training contract, consider studying part time and working, or see whether your LPC provider or a community organisation offers its own scholarship (or perhaps sell something to the organ black market). It’s also a possibility to secure funding from Student Finance England or Wales in the form of a loan of £10,000 for postgraduate study.
If you don’t get a training contract or a scholarship before you start, or your student finance just won’t cover it, it may be worth to consider deferring. It’s a huge bill to be left with, on top of the university costs you’ve already borne.
The doors of opportunity for aspiring solicitors open wider yet; if you have A-levels or just GCSEs but no degree of any kind, you are still able to take the Chartered Institute of Legal Executive (CILEx) route to full qualification as a solicitor.
The training you need to undertake varies according to what stage of legal training you’ve reached, since you can become CILEx qualified at any stage of your legal career.
Those interested are encouraged, as always, to engage in their own research; however, in broad terms, from paralegal level you must qualify as a Chartered Legal Executive through training and vocational work, and once this is completed you may convert your qualification to become a fully SRA-qualified solicitor.
You should check the up-to-date SRA requirements, but the requirements to complete the LPC and to complete a training contract are waived on the CILEx route, which makes it the cheaper and potentially more attractive option.
As a law graduate, you can complete the CILEx Graduate Fast-track diploma, which is cheaper than the LPC at around £3,000 including books, travel and some other charges. Once you’ve completed this stage, you become a CILEx Graduate. The next stage is to become a Fellow (FCILEx), which requires graduates to complete work of a wholly legal nature for a certain number of hours a week for a period of 3 years.
If you have already undertaken the LPC, you need not complete the Graduate Fast-track diploma; you must simply apply to become a graduate member.
Following this, Fellows then need to satisfy the requirements of the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority), which may include completing a short Professional Skills Course (PSC), and once completed, Fellows become fully qualified solicitors.
You may also complete a solicitor apprenticeship, which can mean qualification as a solicitor in 6 years through on-and-off-the-job learning, beginning straight from high school graduation.
Be careful and complete your own research into specific apprenticeships, however; some end in qualification as a solicitor and some don’t, leading only to fee-earning status in the legal sector.
The holy grail and arguably the biggest hurdle, the ‘TC’ is usually a 2-year position in a law firm.
This is and will continue to be covered in more detail by Legal Loop, but briefly: the TC application process is no small feat and often involves two interviews for each firm, a legal exercise and a lot of waiting.
You’re encouraged to secure a TC before you begin the LPC, since once you complete the LPC you’ve got 5 years in which to complete the final stage of training. Many graduates don’t secure a TC until their 2nd, 3rd or even 4th year trying, which is – although an inconvenient truth – important to take into consideration.
SOLICITOR V BARRISTER
It’s as important to understand the difference between working as a solicitor and a barrister as it is to understand the varied role of a solicitor. Not only do you have to be sure that you’re cut out for what the job demands, but you must also be absolutely clear about what aspect of the legal process you will be dealing with and how the peculiarities of the job affect you. Here are some points of comparison with a career as a barrister:
Employment & structure
While the majority of barristers are self-employed, solicitors are mostly employees of law firms with bosses, a salary and sick days. A barrister’s work structure is usually regarded as being much more flexible, as solicitors tend to have fixed working hours.
On the flip side, however, there is inherently more job security as an employed solicitor.
Pay & evolution
What are the differences in earnings and pay evolution? The short and unhelpful answer is: it depends. It depends heavily on location, discipline and the type of firm you join (international firm? Regional firm? Small high-street firm?) The major difference between the two is that, as a solicitor, you hold a fixed salary and are paid by the hour, whereas a barrister is paid by the brief.
A solicitor therefore has the benefit of sick days and maternity leave. Also, since you work for an hourly salary, if one job falls through you’ll more than likely have something to replace it – at the Bar, that’s not a given.
As a solicitor you are more likely to engage in first hand client contact, as a rule of thumb. This is not a hard and fast rule due to barristers being able to complete direct access qualification (much like solicitors can qualify as solicitor advocates and enjoy the same rights of audience as barristers). The reasoning for this is simply because solicitors are, more often than not, the first point of contact for an aggrieved individual or legal entity.
Be sure to consider all these factors when making your decision about which legal yellow-brick-road to run down.