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Becoming a solicitor is a long, hard slog of essays and exams. Legal Week Student takes you through the steps you have to climb to get there

Step 1

Get your degree

A qualifying law degree has traditionally been the first step on the road to becoming a solicitor.

It will exempt you from the Common Professional Examination (CPE) or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), provided it covers all seven foundations of legal knowledge: obligations I (contract) and II (tort); criminal law; equity and law of trusts; European Union (EU) law; property law; and public law.

However, an extra hurdle awaits applicants for many of the UK’s leading universities, following the introduction of the National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT), a uniform legal exam that must be completed before advancing to the undergraduate law courses of participating universities.

The first wave of applicants to universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Bristol and East Anglia sat LNAT in November 2004 for entry in 2005. More recently, King’s College, the University of Glasgow and Manchester Metropolitan University also signed up to the scheme, which is computer-based and taken at test centres across the country.

Registration for this year’s exam for entry can be completed online from 1 August and costs £40 within the EU. Further details are available at lnat.ac.uk.

Once a law degree is completed, you can then apply for the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Academic results are important and, with a few exceptions, a 2:1 is usually a minimum requirement – whether or not you have a law degree.

GCSE and A-level results are taken into account as well as degree performance. Firms may not be as Oxbridge-dominated as in the past, but most of the larger practices are still more impressed by graduates from more traditional universities. However, if you have a good, non-academic reason for choosing a new university over an old one, this may be taken into account.

Some universities have arrangements with individual law schools, whereby LPC places are guaranteed for students who achieve certain grades. It is worth finding out if your university is one of these institutions. Also, look out for universities that run their own LPCs.

And there is no rest for the best because a vacation placement at a firm is still the best way to get your foot in the door when it comes to applying for law school and training contracts.

Step 2

Those whose degree is not a qualifying degree will have to take the Common Professional Examination (CPE) or the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)

How long? One year (full-time); two years (part-time).

How much? Up to £8,735.

When to apply: Third/final year of first degree.

Although the main route to becoming a solicitor is via a law degree, there is evidence that many law firms actually prefer candidates to go through the CPE/GDL route, due to the wider range of experience they get. The CPE/GDL comprises an examination in each of the seven foundations of legal knowledge, plus one other area of legal studies.

The course is offered by a multitude of institutions across the country, from universities to traditional law schools (details are available on the Law Society website; see ‘useful contacts’ box, opposite). While applicants for part-time courses should contact the relevant college directly, applications for full-time courses are made centrally to: CPE Applications Board, PO Box 84, Guildford, Surrey GU3 1YX. Forms can be downloaded from lawcabs.ac.uk or completed online.

Distance learning options are also available from a limited number of providers.

Competition for places on the course can be fierce, especially for the top-rated colleges. The more popular schools, such as The College of Law and Nottingham Law School, are considerably oversubscribed. When awarding places, the primary consideration is academic achievement and the minimum degree grade is a 2:2. However, the majority of students hold a 2:1 or better.

Full-time students have three years in which to complete the CPE/GDL. Except in extreme circumstances, a candidate can not sit for an examination on more than three occasions.

Completion of the CPE/GDL does not automatically guarantee a place on the LPC. However, there are some institutions that do guarantee places if the CPE is passed at the same college. So check this when applying.

It is also worth investigating the law firm contacts your CPE course provider has. These can be helpful in securing that all-important vacation placement. As with a qualifying law degree, the LPC must be started within seven years of passing the CPE or GDL, or you will have to start again.

Those with training contracts in place may receive a maintenance grant, with many City firms now offering around £7,000 towards living expenses, as well as having their tuition fees paid.

Step 3

Legal Practice Course (LPC)

How long? One year (full-time); two years (part-time).

How much? Up to £12,500.

When to apply: The final year of a qualifying law degree or, for non-law graduates, at the beginning of your CPE/GDL course. Application forms are available from September until 1 December in the year prior to you requiring a place. You are notified of placements the following February.

While a law degree or CPE/GDL is academic in nature, the LPC features a more practical approach, ensuring trainee solicitors have the knowledge and skills they need in their first two years of practice, when they undertake their training contracts. LPCs can vary considerably in content and assessment methods, particularly at the elective stage. So it is important you get a copy of the prospectus of the college(s) you are interested in before you apply.

In 2006, five top City law firms struck a deal with BPP Law School to incorporate elements of MBA-style business training into the LPC, in a pioneering attempt to bring business training into legal education.

Further developments have seen greater emphasis placed on business awareness and management skills, as well as the advent of LPCs tailored to individual City firms, meaning students must give extra thought to their preferred career path from an earlier stage.

Many City firms also offer financial assistance to future trainees, with contributions of up to £7,000 towards living expenses for LPC students with training contracts.

In 2007, Addleshaw Goddard raised the bar among national firms, offering £7,000 to its London trainees, although students based outside London will continue to receive £4,500. US firms are the most generous, with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton’s London arm paying its UK students a maintenance grant of £8,000. Course fees will also be paid by most large firms.

Despite the widening differences between individual courses, the basic framework laid down by the Law Society remains in place, with courses broken down into five broad areas: core; compulsory; pervasive; skills; and elective.

‘Core’ covers ethics, basic skills, taxation, the European ‘context’ and probate/administration of estates. ‘Compulsory’ consists of litigation and advocacy, business law and practice, and property law and practice.

‘Pervasive’ areas are those that should be considered in the context of the other areas of the course. They comprise professional conduct and client care, EU law, revenue law, accounts and the Human Rights Act. ‘Skills’ includes practical legal research, writing and drafting, interviewing and advising, and advocacy.

As the name suggests, ‘elective’ requires that three subjects are studied from a range of corporate and private client topics. If you already have a training contract, your firm will probably give you some guidance as to which electives it expects you to take. For those without a training contract, tailoring your electives to the type of firms to which you are applying will certainly help in future job interviews.

Step 4

The training contract

How long? Two years.

How much? They pay you! The Law Society-recommended minimum salary is £17,110 in London and £15,332 in the rest of England and Wales. City trainee salaries go up to £38,000, with some US firms paying more than £40,000.

When to apply: In the second year of a qualifying law degree or the final year of any other degree.

The bonus of winning a training contract is that, with the larger firms at least, you get your CPE/GDL/LPC fees paid and can often receive an additional maintenance grant. However, it is not game over if you do not get taken on by the time you leave university. Plenty of people do start the CPE and LPC without a training contract.

The format of the training contract can vary substantially, with larger firms tending to have a more structured programme than smaller firms. Law Society guidelines stipulate that in all cases you must be allocated a ‘training principal’ (who must be a partner or solicitor of equivalent status), who will monitor and appraise your work.

They will also keep training records (although it is recommended that you keep your own training diary in case of Law Society spot-checks, and for your CV should you decide to apply elsewhere later). The training principal can then delegate your day-to-day monitoring to a supervisor.

The Law Society has a checklist of training requirements. It should be completed by the end of the training contract (a copy is available on the Law Society website, see ‘useful contacts’ box). The supervisor is responsible for providing the trainee with sufficient balanced and useful work, to answer your questions and to give guidance and feedback on your performance.

Whether you train in a large or small firm, your experiences should be varied. In a larger firm you usually get the advantage of experiencing a variety of departments and different supervisors.

Wherever you train, by the end of the contract you should have been allowed the opportunity to practise communication and support skills, legal research, drafting, interviewing and advising. In addition, you should have gained experience in negotiation and advocacy, as well as oral presentation skills.

You must gain experience of at least three practice areas. These should encompass both non-contentious and contentious work, and an ‘appreciation and understanding’ of litigation.

Brush up on the research skills you learned at law school because they will be called upon often. And remember, the other things that were not part of your academic curriculum are just as important – the right attitude, for instance.

Do not be seduced by the legal culture of long hours merely for the sake of appearance. But, by the same token, try not to be first out of the door in the evening. Present yourself as enthusiastic and willing to learn and do not be put off by the mystique surrounding many legal concepts. Nothing is that difficult and explanation is just a question away. You have been taken on as a trainee, not a consultant, so questions are expected.

During your training contract, you will have to complete the professional skills course before you can be admitted as a solicitor. The course is divided into three compulsory components: financial and business skills; advocacy and communications skills; and ethics and client responsibilities.

Although the number of applications has fallen a little in recent years, many firms receive thousands of applications for relatively few training contracts. The availability of training contracts compared with the number of people passing the LPC has improved considerably. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people who passed their LPC in previous years who are still competing for contracts.

According to our research, most firms retain between 75% and 100% of their trainees. However, this does not mean surviving the training contract is easy; the same qualities that will see you through the recruitment process will be needed during the training contract.

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