Student Special: Deciding whether to go down the solicitor or barrister path
Choosing whether to follow a career as a solicitor or barrister is one of the crucial decisions graduates face Linda Tsang looks at both sides and analyses the pros and cons of each profession for the budding lawyer.
With Legal Week’s recent survey of the 1998-99 financial year showing that there are now 13 lucky law firm members of the £100m club, and individual lawyers themselves heading for the millionaire mark, there has never been a better time to get into the law business. Even more relevant for those on the bottom rung of the ladder is the data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in August. The figures showed that law has the lowest graduate unemployment level – 2.7%, compared with education at 3.2%, civil engineering and mathematics at 4%, and sociology the highest at 8.4%.With the promise of profits per equity partner of £500,000-950,000 at the top end, and even the magic million figure if you are in that select circle of star silks or QCs at the Bar, if not quite a job for life, the lawyer’s lot is at least a relatively profitable one. As a highly employable graduate, the initial choice you need to make is whether to opt for the Bar or the solicitors’ side of the profession.The most used analogy for the two sides of the profession is that a solicitor is the general practitioner to the barrister’s consultant. The other difference is that while most solicitors are employed until they become equity partners, barristers are self-employed from the outset. But the perception of the divide: that barristers are the advocates in court with solicitors doing the preparation work and instructing, will be eroded with the current proposals in the Access to Justice Bill. It opens up rights of audience to solicitors, and the growth in the number of solicitor-advocates means that more solicitors are doing advocacy and cutting down on instructing the junior bar. So you need to do your research into what the pros and cons of each side of the profession are. This is the stage to start honing your research and decision-making skills for a legal career. And it has to be done properly – one partner has complained, only half-jokingly, that one student’s reason for wanting to be a lawyer seemed to be as a result of watching Ally McBeal and Kavanagh QC. SolicitorsOn the solicitors’ side, in the real world, there are more than 75,000 privately practising solicitors and 95,000 in total in England and Wales. Those who are not in private practice will be in local and central government, in industry and commerce, or in pressure groups or organisations. The usual route will involve getting a law degree followed by a one-year Legal Practice Course (LPC) and a two-year training contract and Professional Skills Course. The alternative for non-law graduates is to do a post-graduate CPE course, then the LPC and then the career track is the same.In law firms, the traineeship tends be a traditionally-structured training of four seats of six months each, rotating around the different departments of the firm, which will usually be divided into contentious and non-contentious, with other departments including commercial and finance and others covering both private and public law. Once you are qualified, the next step in the career track is to become an assistant solicitor, usually in the firm and department of your choice, and then the next target is partnership (the average age is normally 30-35), either salaried or equity. Another option is to switch in-house which combines legal with commercial and management skills. This is no longer seen as the choice of those who do not make it to partnership. The rapid expansion of law firms, both organically and through international mergers, means that students have to do their homework to know what is happening in the legal marketplace, and pitch to the right employer. One recent development has been the inroads made by accountancy firms. Arthur Andersen’s associated firm Garretts, which had its first intake of trainees in 1998, is the largest accountancy-tied law firm. Andrew Smith, the partner responsible for graduate recruitment at Garretts’ London office claims that the law-accountancy combination has now established itself with students.“What seems to attract students is the opportunity to work in a truly international environment, and not just a legal environment,” he claims. “They are also looking at the opportunities to be, both on a social and training level, with other professionals, and work in other areas such as corporate finance.”He contrasts interviews with today’s students with his own experiences at Linklaters: “What impresses is the degree of preparation that the interviewees have done. It does not just cover what the student may have done over the last two years, but covers the whole future of the legal profession, particularly globalisation and the impact of US firms on the UK legal market.”And there are options beyond the firms which are run from and based in the UK. US and international firm White & Case has been taking on trainees since 1996. It pays one of the highest trainee salaries, which is due to rise in 2001 to £25,000, when the London office will take on up to 10 trainees.The firm’s training co-ordinator, Elizabeth Normand, says: “Candidates are attracted by the ability to do English law from London – in particular, doing high-profile big ticket work – with an international firm.“There is obviously also the opportunity to work overseas – some have studied languages with their degrees, but that is not a prerequisite. It is an indication that they recognise that with the number of law firm mergers internationally and expansions, they will work in a multi-jurisdictional practice. They have also taken the long-term view that globalisation is the future. “But on a more individual level, they like the idea that they will not be too specialised in, for example, corporate or litigation, too early. And they say that they would rather work for a smaller dynamic office with that profile, and a support system for taking on early responsibility.” And Normand’s interviewees have already given reasons for their decision to become a solicitor, she says. “Students who have previous work experience in barristers’ chambers say they have opted for a law firm because they want to be in a business, and to be closer to the clients.”
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