If you’ve ever watched the likes of Boston Legal, Silk and Judge John Deed, you could be forgiven for thinking that being a lawyer is all about going to court, battling for justice against a dogged opponent – and sometimes the judge too – and ultimately emerging triumphant. But is that really what it’s like? The short answer is not necessarily.
The United Kingdom: one country, three legal systems
The first thing you need to know is that qualifying as a lawyer in one part of the United Kingdom doesn’t automatically entitle you to practise in every part of it.
That’s because there are three different legal systems in the United Kingdom, respectively covering England & Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. And of these three, the odd one out is the Scottish legal system.
The reason for that is that Scotland’s legal system developed differently from those in the rest of the UK up until the Treaty of Union in 1707. And because the independence of the Scottish legal system was guaranteed by both the Treaty and the Act of Union, many of those differences remain.
And it’s not just the structure of Scottish law that’s different, the entry routes to practising law in Scotland are too. So, for that reason, you’ll find some useful links at the end of this article that will take you to websites that explain exactly what you need to have – and need to do – if you want to become a lawyer in any of the three UK jurisdictions.
Once you’ve decided that you want to be a lawyer, you’ll need to start thinking about what kind of lawyer you want to be.
Solicitor, Barrister, Advocate, Solicitor-Advocate
In very simple terms, the distinction between these categories of lawyer can be summarised by the fact that barristers (in England & Wales and Northern Ireland), advocates (the Scottish equivalent of barristers) and solicitor-advocate (a solicitor who has been granted the right of audience in the higher civil or criminal courts of a particular jurisdiction) are all what you may term courtroom lawyers, whereas solicitors tend to carry out office-based legal work (including preparing cases for court) and are less heavily involved in presenting cases personally (except in Scotland, where solicitors undertake the bulk of court appearance work).
With that out of the way, we can now look at some of the main areas of practice, bearing in mind that there can be some degree of overlap between them.
Litigation lawyers prepare and conduct cases in court. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The reality, however, is that there are many different branches of litigation – criminal law, divorce and family law, debt recovery, mental health, human rights, medical negligence and employment to name but some of them. It’s a very large field, so it makes sense to specialise in one or two particular.
Certain qualities are needed to become a successful litigation lawyer: an eye for detail, a thorough approach to case preparation, a probing mind, the ability to think on one’s feet, a robust nature (it’s not a job for shrinking violets) and a strong command of the English language.
This is another huge area, ranging from buying, selling and letting houses to complex commercial property and construction transactions. It’s a largely office-based role that is well suited to people who have a steady, careful and diligent approach to their work. It may lack the adrenalin rush and the close quarters cut and thrust of courtroom battles, but it’s a challenging job that gives great satisfaction whenever you steer a tricky transaction to a successful conclusion.
Probate/Private Client/Inheritance Planning
For as long as people make wills and inheritance tax is charged, lawyers will be needed. The function of private client lawyers (we’ll call them that although they go under a variety of names) is to ensure that a client’s estate passes on their death to the persons or charities that they have specified, and that means making sure that the client’s will or other testamentary document (such as a trust deed) is properly drawn up.
And then, of course, there’s the taxman to think about. Private client lawyers help clients to minimise the amount inheritance tax due on their death by advising them on how best to distribute their estates. Private client lawyers also gather money and property belonging to a deceased, apply for Probate* (a court order authorising the deceased’s representative, known as an executor to deal with the deceased’s money and property), give professional advice to a deceased’s executor(s), draw up Powers Of Attorney and advise clients on asset and age planning. As with property law, this is a role ideally suited to steady, diligent people.
*The Scottish equivalent of Probate is called Confirmation.
This is another huge area of practice. Corporate lawyers give advice to clients on everything from company formations to sector specific contracts (such as those relating to oil, gas and construction projects) as well as advising on regulatory issues, corporate social responsibility, takeovers, taxation issues, receiverships, liquidations, intellectual property rights, general corporate litigation and so on. Financial rewards for corporate lawyers can be significant, but it can be a highly pressurised environment to work in. Moreover, it tends to be the first sector in which jobs are shed in the event of an economic slowdown.
This has been a growth area in the last 20 years or so, with specialist immigration, asylum and nationality law practices having been established in many locations within the UK. Although something of a niche area, many of the skills required to successfully practise in this field are identical to those required by litigators.
Other areas of practice
There are lots of other areas of practice, such as maritime law, licensing law, media law, environmental law and public law. Finding employment in some sectors of the law – the niche areas that are attractive to work in but which don’t have the volume of work to support a large workforce – can be challenging, but opportunities do arise from time to time.
Public or private
Although a lot of lawyers work in the private sector, many work in the public sector for local authorities, central government departments, government agencies, the NHS, the police and so on. Even in the private sector, many lawyers work for corporate bodies rather than in law firms. Lawyers are also directly employed by charities, such as Shelter and Citizens Advice, and in local law centres wholly or partly funded by local authorities or charitable initiatives.
It’s different on the TV.
Law can be a rewarding career in terms of both job satisfaction and, depending on which sector you work in, financial reward. It’s not for everyone, however, and it’s most definitely not a career to embark upon unless your eyes are wide open. If possible, try to obtain some summer or voluntary work with a law firm before committing to it as career. You may love it, but it’s best to be sure before you take the plunge…
Becoming a solicitor in England and Wales
Becoming a Barrister in England and Wales
Becoming a solicitor in Northern Ireland
Becoming a Barrister in Northern Ireland
Becoming a solicitor in Scotland
Becoming an Advocate in Scotland
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