How to Become a Lawyer in the UK
If you’re thinking about becoming a lawyer in the UK, you may assume that you can practise law anywhere in the United Kingdom. We so often refer to lawyers working in the UK as ‘UK lawyers’ that it’s an easy assumption to make. However, the question of how to become a lawyer in the UK is one with various answers as we will explain in this article.
Let’s start with a basic question—what is the UK?
The United Kingdom is a sovereign state consisting of four countries—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The capital of the UK is London, England, where the UK government sits. London is a global financial centre and home to the largest law firms in the world.
Does the UK have a Single Legal System?
No. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal system and courts. England and Wales share a legal jurisdiction and courts. If you want to become a lawyer in the UK, you should be aware that there is no ‘UK judicial system’ or ‘UK lawyer’. Each jurisdiction has its own distinct:
- Civil and criminal courts and procedures;
- Accepted professional titles; and
- Regulatory bodies (Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Bar Standards Board (BSB) in England and Wales, the Law Society of Northern Ireland, and the Law Society of Scotland.
The exception to this rule is the Supreme Court in London. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the highest court of appeal in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in civil (but not criminal) cases in Scotland. Each jurisdiction, therefore, has its own legal system and professional titles.
Many who talk about becoming a lawyer in the UK are referring to England and Wales, which will be the jurisdiction covered in this article. Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate procedures even if they are often still referred to in the context of UK lawyers.
What is a ‘Lawyer’ in England and Wales?
The English legal profession is divided into two branches: solicitors and barristers. The reasons for this division are mainly historical, rather than the result of a conscious effort to divide the profession into two distinct parts. The Bar Council (through the Bar Standards Board) regulates barristers and the Law Society (through the Solicitors Regulatory Authority) regulates solicitors.
The Need for Solicitors
Although some tasks must be undertaken by solicitors or barristers—for example, representation in courts—legal representation is not always necessary. Clients may not instruct a UK lawyer in simple matters such as debt repayments. However, if the claim is complex, or the claimant sues for a significant sum of money, they are more likely to seek legal advice. Very often, clients do not feel they have the legal knowledge or skills to represent themselves, and so solicitors can expect regular employment.
What Does a Barrister Do?
There are approximately 16,000 practising barristers who are employed or self-employed in England and Wales. They have their own areas of expertise just as solicitors do. The Bar Council defines barristers as:
“Barristers are specialist legal advisers and court room advocates. They are independent, objective and trained to advise clients on the strengths and weaknesses of their case. They have specialist knowledge and experience in and out of court, which can make a substantial difference to the outcome of a case.”
Becoming a Barrister
One of the ways to become a lawyer in the UK is to become a barrister. A barrister must first complete Academic Training—meaning a law degree or an unrelated degree followed by a conversion course (or Graduate Diploma in Law). Instead of training in a law firm like a solicitor, a barrister candidate will take the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) and, if successful, join an Inn of Court.
Once the candidate joins one of the four Inns of Court (Middle Temple, Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn) they undertake the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) over one or two years for Vocational Training. Once this is successfully completed and any extra training is undertaken, the Inn “Calls” you to the Bar.
Once you’re Called to the Bar, you become an unregistered barrister. You can’t practise as a barrister until completing the final stage—the pupillage. This is practical work experience/Work-Based Learning under an experienced barrister, and it’s very competitive to get a place.
After one year, the supervising barrister can recommend that you’re ready to work as a barrister. You can then apply for a Practising Certificate. The barrister can then apply for ‘tenancy’ of a set of Chambers—a group of Counsel who share the costs of premises and support staff, while remaining individually self-employed.
At one stage, barristers were rarely hired by clients directly but, instead, were retained or instructed, in most cases, by solicitors to act on behalf of their clients. Whilst this is still common practice, some companies and law firms now employ barristers ‘in-house’. Recent changes in the structure and regulation of legal services have also resulted in barristers now being instructed directly by the public. This is most likely why barristers are commonly referred to as UK lawyers.
Barristers often specialise in niche or complex areas of law. They are often consulted by others for research and advice on complex or unusual cases, or novel points of law.
Approximately 10% of practising barristers are Queen’s Counsel (or QCs). The rank of Queen’s Counsel has, traditionally, been a mark of distinction and seniority. The process of becoming a QC is known as “taking silk”, as they wear special silk robes. QCs are normally instructed in very serious or complex cases. Most senior Judges once practised as QCs.
Solicitors have also been eligible to become QCs since 1996.
Regulations and Representation
The Bar Standards Board regulates barristers and specialised legal services businesses in England and Wales, in the interest of the public.
The Bar Council provides representation, support and services for barristers in England and Wales.
Lawyers from other Jurisdictions Who Wish to Practise as Barristers in England and Wales
Lawyers from other European Union countries who want to practise in England and Wales as barristers are required to submit an application to the Bar Standards Board (BSB). This application provides evidence of their legal qualifications.
The applicants are then required to take all or part of the Bar Transfer Test if the matters covered by the education and training of the applicant differ substantially from those covered by the education and training provided in England and Wales, and if the knowledge acquired by the applicant in the course of the applicant’s professional experience does not fully cover this substantial difference.
EU applicants may seek exemption from all or part of the Bar Transfer Test. Lawyers in the EU may also apply for registration as a Registered European Lawyer pursuant to the European Establishment Directive 98/5/EC.
Qualified Foreign lawyers (outside of the EU), may also apply to the BSB for exemption from the Academic, Vocational and/or Professional Stages of training. If the Qualified Foreign Lawyer has, for a period of at least three years, regularly exercised rights of audience in courts which administer law substantially like the common law of England and Wales, the BSB will grant exemption from the Academic and Vocational Stages. If it thinks fit, the BSB will also grant exemption from part or all of the Professional Stage. Exemptions will usually be granted conditional on passing some or all sections of the Bar Transfer Test.
English solicitors can also apply for a relaxation of the usual requirements for Call to the Bar and entry into practice.
The system is designed to make it very possible for qualified lawyers to become a lawyer in the UK.
There are more than 140,000 solicitors currently working in England and Wales. For becoming a lawyer in the UK, this is where most people start.
A solicitor is a qualified legal adviser who has direct contact with his clients, combining legal expertise and people skills to provide expert legal advice and assistance in a range of situations such as:
- Everyday issues – solicitors provide expert guidance on the issues people regularly face, such as buying and selling houses (conveyancing), drawing up wills and dealing with relationship breakdowns, etc.
- Promoting business – solicitors help businesses with the legal side of commercial transactions.
- Protecting the rights of individuals – solicitors advise people of their rights to ensure they are treated fairly by public or private bodies, and that they receive compensation when the law permits it.
- Supporting the community – many solicitors spend a portion of their time providing free help for those unable to pay for legal services.
Solicitors can represent clients personally in the lower courts (Magistrates’ Court, County Court and tribunal) and with specialist training are also able to represent them in higher courts (Crown Court, High Court, Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court).
Solicitors could choose to work in private practice, within a business or organisation (‘in-house’), in local or national government or in the court.
The Work of a Solicitor
Solicitors are often the first point of contact for both individuals and businesses seeking legal advice and assistance. Solicitors tend to specialise in one or two distinct areas of law, such as personal injury, criminal, dispute resolution, property, or corporate/commercial law.
Fundamentally, solicitors are problem-solvers and project managers. Solicitors help to identify issues and find legal solutions to their client’s problems within the framework of the common law of England and Wales (case law, or laws made through cases which have already been decided), statute and regulations.
The solicitor generally manages the client and the legal issue from start to finish. They liaise regularly with all different people to bring matters to an end and find a solution—whether this is selling a house, settling a personal injury claim, or representing a client on criminal charges. These core skills are central to how to become a lawyer in the UK. How these skills are implemented, however, varies greatly across the vast array of practice areas within the profession, depending on the size and type of firm.
Solicitors must not only consider the legal position, but also the needs and the best interests of the client. In this way, solutions must not only be legal, but practical and viable. Solicitors, much like barristers, often consult with government agencies and bodies to shape and reform the law.
Following the opening of the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in October 2009, the full title of a solicitor has changed from “Solicitor of the Supreme Court” to “Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales”.
The change, which was made in accordance with the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, applies to all solicitors, including those admitted as solicitors before the 1st of October 2009. The name change, however, makes no difference to the role of solicitors. The main change is that the title “Senior Courts of England and Wales” now describes the former Supreme Court of England and Wales, made up of the Crown Court, High Court and Court of Appeal.
Solicitors are subject to regulation by specialist bodies. In England and Wales, the regulatory framework governing the solicitor’s profession restricts anyone except qualified solicitors from offering ‘reserved activities’, relating to:
- the exercise of rights of audience;
- the conduct of, and the preparation of documents in, court and immigration tribunal proceedings;
- the preparation of instruments and the lodging of documents relating to the transfer or charge of land;
- the preparation of trust deeds disposing of capital;
- the preparation of papers on which to found or oppose a grant of probate or a grant of letters of administration;
- the administration of oaths and statutory declarations; and
- to undertake immigration work not included under these reserved activities.
The Law Society
The Law Society represents solicitors in England and Wales. The Society offers training and advice, and they assist with negotiations involving regulatory and government bodies. They exist to help, protect and promote solicitors across England and Wales.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) regulates all solicitors in England and Wales, as well as registered European lawyers and registered foreign lawyers. The SRA deals with all regulatory and disciplinary matters, and sets, monitors and enforces standards for solicitors. Formerly known as the Law Society Regulation Board, it acts solely in the public interest.
The SRA makes the rules for the legal education and training solicitors receive. These rules are designed to ensure that the legal trainee receives an education which is both thorough and broad.
Solicitors are also regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). Under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, an enormous number of businesses of varying sizes (including banks, building societies, insurance companies, credit unions, fund managers, derivatives traders, stockbrokers, investment, pensions and other professional advisers, such as solicitors carrying on regulated activities as defined by the Regulated Activities Order), need to be regulated by the FCA.
Becoming a Solicitor
There are several routes to becoming a solicitor in England and Wales:
- The law graduate route (degree in law, Legal Practice Course (LPC), training contract and Professional Skills Course (PSC)).
- The non-law graduate route (degree in any subject, Common Professional Examination or Graduate Diploma in Law (CPE/GDL), Legal Practice Course (LPC), training contract and Professional Skills Course (PSC)).
- The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) – fellowship route and CILEx membership route.
- ‘Equivalent Means’ – the Paralegals’ Route.
- Apprenticeships – qualifying without a degree.
- Establishment of Lawyers Directive 98/5/EC – a European Union lawyer established and registered in another Member State.
- The Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) – a fast track route intended for foreign lawyers, with no experience or training requirement, and two assessments to complete.
Let’s look at each of these background groups in more detail.
Law Degree Graduates – the Traditional Route to Becoming a Solicitor in the UK
Wherever they wish to become a UK lawyer, most people start their journey with obtaining a university law degree (LLB). This known as the Qualifying Law Degree (QLD), which can be completed in one of the 100+ institutions offering this degree in the UK.
The next step is to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) which is the vocational stage of training, and finally a two-year training contract at a law firm prior to qualification.
It is possible to obtain a law degree/complete a training contract in one jurisdiction (such as Scotland) and later practise law in England and Wales so long as an appropriate conversion course is undertaken in England or Wales.
Non-Law Degree Graduates
The routes to qualify as a solicitor are diversifying and are open to non-law degree graduates wishing to become a solicitor in England and Wales.
People who have a degree in a discipline that is not law must undertake a conversion qualification known as the Common Professional Examination (GDL)/Graduate Diploma in Law (CPE), before going onto the LPC and completing the two-year training contract like other law degree candidates.
The course is designed as an intense period of study that covers roughly the same content as in a Law degree LLB (Hons), with the purpose of allowing people with a greater variety of educational backgrounds to access the legal profession.
CILEx is a professional body which represents legal executives and trainee legal executives. Legal executives in England and Wales (also known as “Fellows”) are fully qualified lawyers in a specialist area and undertake similar work to that of a solicitor, or other normal activities of a solicitor when supervised by a member of that profession. They will have at least five years’ experience of working under the supervision of a solicitor in legal practice, or in the legal department of a private company or local/national government. They can also take an extra CILEx qualification to qualify as advocates, although their rights of audience are restricted in comparison to those granted to solicitors or barristers.
CILEx Fellows are issued with an annual practising certificate, and only Fellows of CILEx may describe themselves as “legal executives”. Legal executives can become fully qualified solicitors if they take the Legal Practice Course. Some may be exempt from the training contract.
The work of legal executives requires them to have the same high ethical standards as barristers and solicitors, and all legal executives are regulated by CILEx professional standards.
The National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP) defines a paralegal as “a person qualified through education and training to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of the law and procedures and who is not a qualified solicitor or barrister or legal executive”.
Paralegals may work for or be retained by solicitors within the legal profession, or they may work within a legal environment such as commerce, industry or the public sector.
Working in a law office, the paralegal often acts as a legal administrative assistant. They routinely draft documents, complete forms, interview clients and prepare retainers. The type of work conducted often varies depending on the specialty of the law firm.
For instance, a conveyancing paralegal may routinely fill out documents pertaining to conveyancing of freehold and leasehold properties including sales and purchase, re-mortgages, and closing. A litigation paralegal, on the other hand, may conduct legal research for an upcoming court case.
‘Equivalent Means’ – The Paralegals Route
In 2015, the SRA introduced a policy of ‘equivalent means’, which enables applicants to evidence that they have met the knowledge and skills outcomes of the various stages of the solicitor qualification by alternative means i.e. not necessarily via a traditional law degree and LPC.
The ‘equivalent means’ allowed the SRA to acknowledge that the knowledge and skills outcomes (and the standard at which they must be acquired) may have been achieved by an individual through assessed learning and work-based learning rather than the traditional ways.
Where this proven to be the case, the SRA can grant exemption from all or part of the academic or vocational stages.
The system, also known as ‘The Paralegal Shortcut’, enables paralegals who completed the LPC to qualify as solicitors without doing a training contract.
While the numbers of equivalent means applications have been growing steadily, with the instruction of the SQE in 2020, all aspiring solicitors, including paralegals and others who were seeking to qualify through ‘equivalent means’ must now pass the SQE to qualify as a solicitor.
Apprenticeships – Qualify as a Solicitor without a Degree
The legal sector now offers solicitor apprenticeship opportunities thanks to a renewed enthusiasm for apprenticeships and the UK Government’s Trail Blazer Initiative. Apprenticeships give high-achieving school-leavers the chance to enter the workplace and secure professional-level employment without attending university. The solicitor apprenticeship, then, offers an opportunity for apprentices to qualify as solicitors without needing to undertake a university degree. This makes it far easier for candidates from all backgrounds to potentially become a UK lawyer.
While university was and still is the primary route for entry into the legal profession in England and Wales, it’s certainly not a requirement. In fact, holding a law degree has never been a condition for practising law in the jurisdiction.
Apprentice roles vary across sectors. Solicitor apprentices are likely to have a more complex range of duties and higher-level responsibilities than in some sectors. Now the standards have been confirmed, and it’s expected that law firms will begin offering apprenticeship opportunities to high-achieving high-school leavers, particularly those who cannot financially access university. It’s also likely they will continue providing paralegal training and qualification opportunities.
Establishment of Lawyers Directive 98/5/EC
Under the Establishment of Lawyers Directive 98/5/EC, a European Union lawyer established and registered in another Member State can apply for admission as a solicitor in England and Wales after practising UK law (which includes EU law) for three years, without needing to sit an aptitude test. Lawyers who have practised UK law for less than three years may also apply, provided they are registered with the Law Society and have pursued a professional activity in the UK for at least three years.
European Union lawyers practising, on a permanent basis, in England and Wales will have a choice between registering with the Law Society or the Bar Council, and they must comply with the rules of their chosen regulatory body. Irish lawyers, however, must register with the Law Society, if they are solicitors, and with the Bar Council, if they are barristers.
Other EU lawyers may apply to dual-qualify as an English solicitor by taking the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme, which may be a much quicker way to qualification.
The Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS)
The QLTS is a fast-track route for lawyers from foreign jurisdictions recognised by the SRA who wish to practise as solicitors in England and Wales. English barristers and Scottish solicitors can also qualify through the QLTS.
The assessments comprise a multiple choice test (MCT) and a practical assessment, know as the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE).
The purpose of the assessments is to ensure that foreign lawyers hoping to qualify as solicitors in England and Wales can perform their roles to the same professional level as domestic candidates. The QLTS assessments are administered by a sole assessment provider, Kaplan QLTS, which is not allowed to offer training for the assessments. The assessments are offered twice a year in the UK and in other locations around the world.
Preparation courses are offered by QLTS School, and includes textbooks, videos, practice questions, revision notes, mock exams with model answers for self-assessment, and extensive tutor support.
The QLTS assessments have become very popular in recent years among foreign lawyers seeking to advance their legal career, either in the UK or in their home jurisdiction. Carrying the ‘English solicitor’ title enhances the professional profile and marketability of foreign lawyers, especially of those whose practice areas are cross-border transactions, international commercial contracts, maritime and shipping law, financing, mergers and acquisitions, and international arbitration – as agreements in these areas are typically governed by the laws of England and Wales. This is unlikely to change in the future, even once the UK exits the EU due to Brexit.
Clearly, a dual-qualified UK lawyer opens up a wide range of career opportunities by becoming a truly ‘international lawyer’.
Qualifying as an English Solicitor in the Future – the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)
In the future, to become an English solicitor, you will need to pass a series of assessments known as the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).
The SRA plan to introduce the SQE in 2020 to ensure that all aspiring solicitors are assessed against the same standards regardless of their route to qualification. This means that whatever your academic, legal, or professional background is, you will need to pass the SQE. This applies to those with or without a law degree, apprentices, legal executives, paralegals, and foreign lawyers.
The SQE will require all candidates to demonstrate a high level of legal knowledge and practical skills, as well as intellectual and analytical ability. There is also a requirement that candidates (except foreign qualified lawyers in a recognised jurisdiction) will complete pre-qualification workplace experience of a minimum of 24 months before qualification. This work experience requirement will be more flexible than the current training contract requirement as to where, when and how candidates secure that work experience.
The SQE facilitates the development of flexible routes to qualification without compromising on the standard of legal, intellectual and practical skills expected from members of one of the world’s most prestigious professions. It also promotes a more diverse profession which is not based around financial access to formal legal education.
The SQE will be split into two stages: the SQE stage 1 (tests candidates’ ability to use their legal knowledge to address clients’ problems and review legal transactions) and the SQE stage 2 (tests the legal skills of case and matter analysis, advocacy, interviewing, legal writing, drafting and online legal research).
It is expected that many candidates will take SQE stage 1 before their work-based experience, and SQE stage 2 at the end of their work experience, as typically the skills are best developed as candidates train.
One of the major changes of the SQE is that candidates will no longer be required to take the Legal Practice Course (LPC), which is presently the mandatory vocational stage of the domestic route for qualification as a solicitor and a significant financial obstacle for many. Taking this financial obstacle away will make it easier to become a lawyer in the UK.
For those thinking of becoming a lawyer in the UK but who are unsure how to access the profession, the opportunities of the future are looking bright.
Please contact us if you are a foreign lawyer and wish to become a qualified English solicitor, leave your details to speak with one of our QLTS consultants, or check our QLTS course packages whenever you’re ready to commence your preparation for the assessments.
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