How do I become a solicitor?

What does a solicitor do?

There a two types of qualified lawyer in England and Wales, solicitors and barristers. Both types have different roles and carry out different types of work within the practice of law.

The general position is that solicitors carry out all general legal work except conducting legal proceedings at court. They are the first person you approach when you have a legal problem. However, the distinction is not always so clear these days. Solicitors can attend and act in certain court proceedings, the courts to which solicitors have ‘rights of audience’ (can be heard in court) are generally the lower courts such as the Magistrates Court or the County Court. There is also the opportunity now for qualified solicitors to become Solicitor Advocates after the competition of a further course, this grants Solicitor Advocates rights of audience in the higher courts such as the Crown Court and High Court.  

Solicitors Firms or Practices

Solicitors traditionally work as part of a partnership. A number of the more senior solicitors being the partners who either take a percentage of the profit made or, if they are salaried partners, take a salary from the partnership.

The partners then employee solicitors at various levels to assist with the work carried out, including trainee solicitors.

There are now a number of other ways a solicitors firm can be incorporated but generally the more senior solicitors are still either partners within the firm or referred to as partners or directors with less senior solicitors being referred to as ‘Associates’. The larger firms can have hundreds of solicitors employed in a number of jurisdictions whereas a smaller high street firm can have a sole practioner.

Recent changes even mean that it is possible for solicitors and barristers to work together in multi-disciplinary practices.

Specialisation

It is possible for a solicitor to deal will a number of different types of law within their day to day work. Many high street firms have general practioners who may be drafting a Will in the morning and attending the police station with their accused client in the afternoon.

However, after qualifying as a solicitor it is common to choose an area of specialisation.

This can be a broad area of specialisation such as general company and commercial matters or civil litigation. In the larger firms the solicitors are usually even more specialised to work on a specific area of the law and if a client requires advice on a different aspect of the law this is deal with by another department of the firm.

If you wish to become a solicitor you do not need to decide which area of the law you which to specialise in until you are completing your training contract or on qualification but it is always useful to think about the areas of law you are interested in practicing and look at studying modules in these areas.

How to become a solicitor

The most common first step to becoming a solicitor is studying towards a university degree. This does not have to be a law degree however depending on the degree you choose to study your further studies will differ.  

With a law degree

If you do choose to study towards a law degree you will typically spend three years at university before your degree is obtained. Following this you will need to complete your Legal Practice Course. This course is offered by a number of universities and institutions in England and Wales. The course lasts for one year full time or two year part time and you will be expected to study towards certain compulsory modules such as criminal law, property law and practice and litigation. You will then also have the opportunity to choose particular elective subjects that you will also study.

Without a law degree

It is possible to become a solicitor having studied any type of degree at university. The first step is to complete your degree (three or four years depending on the type). You then have to go on to complete a law conversion course called the Graduate Diploma in Law.  It was previously known as the Common Professional Examination or CPE. This course lasts on year in which you must study certain compulsory legal subjects, for example EU law,Contract and Tort.

Once this is complete you can go on to complete your Legal Practice Course in the usual way.

Once you have completed your Legal Practice Course you must complete a two year training contract working in a law firm. This involves working as a trainee solicitor for a period of 2 years and completing further courses and modules within this time, known as a professional skills course.

Your training will depend on which firm of solicitors you join as a trainee. In larger firms it is common to have ‘seats’. This means spending a certain number of months in specific departments in order to gain experience of these areas of practice. No matter the size of the firm you join there are specific areas, both contentious and non-contentious work that you must experience within this time.

Whilst you are training you will have a ‘principal’. This will be a solicitor within the firm who will be the person responsible for your training.

Once the two years as a trainee has been completed along with the professional skills course you will be eligible to be admitted as a solicitor.

Without a degree

It is also possible work in the legal profession without studying towards a degree. This is done by studying towards a qualification with the Institute of Legal Executives which can lead to professional qualification and carrying out the same work as a solicitor. Typically, a student works and studies at the same time receiving training within the practice they are working in and attending classes or studying via distance learning.