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A Career as a Solicitor (England and Wales)

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At the present time there are about 50,000 solicitors in practice in the UK (compared with 6,000 barristers, 2,000 judges and 29,000 magistrates). A great majority of solicitors work in private practice -- about 5,000 employed by commercial and industrial organizations and 3,000 by local government.

A solicitor in private practice usually starts as an assistant solicitor, later becoming a partner and sharing the profits and management of the business. Firms of solicitors vary from large partnerships in the City of London and other large towns to smaller 'High Street' practices throughout England and Wales.


Private Practice

The role of the solicitor in practice is to give legal advice and to counsel their clients on the best way to proceed with their particular problem. Much of the work is routine in nature and articled clerks or other clerks (legal executives) often assist in these duties.

A large proportion of a 'High Street' solicitor's work will be involved with conveyancing property - the purchase of houses, flats, shops, even factories! Anyone purchasing property needs to have safeguards against any future plans for the development or otherwise of the land on which the property is situated and also needs advice on the contract of sale, etc.

Solicitors also advise clients on the course of action to take if they are facing criminal charges - anything in fact from a traffic offence to murder - since many such cases need to be defended in a court of law.

The drafting of wills is yet another side of the solicitor's work and he or she may also be responsible to see that the terms of the will are executed (by acting as an executor or administrator). Compensation claims, divorce, custody of children, and maintenance also falls within the province of the law in addition to anything from the setting up of companies to debt collecting.

In small town practices, many clients will use the same firm throughout their lives, but at the other end of the spectrum large city practices may concentrate on one particular specialism such as company law, shipping, airline or commercial law, or libel and slander (defamation).

If you have a hidden talent, therefore, for drafting important documents then there could be a place for you; alternatively as a solicitor you might prefer court work (litigation), conducting cases in magistrates' or county courts.

Civil Service

Outside private practice there are still very many opportunities to practice law - the Civil Service being one of them.

Large numbers of lawyers (solicitors and barristers) work for the government legal service in almost all departments. Civil Service departments constantly need to review their policies (economic and political) and legal experts are in constant demand. These departments include:

Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which includes the EC common agricultural policy;

Education and Science - from nursery school to universities - involving pay scales, the youth service and schools meals service;

Energy - coal, gas, oil, electricity and nuclear power;

Employment - covering all aspects of manpower;

Environmental and Transport - involving housing, planning, road construction and transport;

Health and Social Security - administering the National Health Services;

Trade and Industry - EC policy, exports and imports;

The Ministry of Defense - formulating defense policy and administering the armed services.

There are also other departments such as HM Treasury (economic policy); the Cabinet Office (administering Cabinet business); the Central Office of Information; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (British interests abroad) and the Home Office (law and order and justice). Another important legal area is that of the Lord Chancellor's Department which administers all criminal and civil courts (except magistrates' courts) in England and Wales.

Other departments include the Land Registry, Inland Revenue, the Office of Fair Trading, the Health and Safety Executive, HM Customs and Excise, the Crown Estate Office, the Charity Commission, the Department of Public Prosecutions, the Public Record Office, Ordnance Survey, National Savings and Stationery Office.

There are, however, other opportunities for work as a solicitor, for example in local government within departments of education, town and country planning, and social services. In such a role much of your time will be spent arranging for the election of council members to carry out their duties.

Alternatively, you may be amongst the 5,000 solicitors in commerce or industry since most large companies now have their own legal departments dealing with business law, company law, taxation and other specialized areas.

Have You the Right Qualities to be a Solicitor?

A recent report from the Law Society stated that:

'The Dickensian image of a solicitor as a middle-class, elderly man has changed quite considerably. Solicitors these days come from both sexes, all races, and from any social background. The profession is "getting younger" too - about half of all practicing solicitors these days are under 36 and only a minority of solicitors qualifying now has family connections with the legal profession. It is no coincidence that many well-known figures have made it to the very top in government, commerce and industry after qualifying as solicitors.'

But what qualities do you need?
 
  • Have you a good memory?
  • Are you numerate?
  • Have you a good command of language?
  • Have you the ability to get to grips with a problem?
  • Have you high personal standards of integrity?
  • Have you the ability to communicate with others at all levels - and to listen to them?
  • Have you the patience to cope with routine matters?
  • Have you a cool head when the pressure is on?
  • Have you common sense?

Qualifying to be a Solicitor

The majority of newly qualified solicitors have taken a degree in law or another subject and this is the recommended route.

Law Graduates

One advantage in taking a law degree is that the total period of training will be shorter than for those taking a non-law degree.

Following your law degree you will then take a one year Finals course. Details of courses are available from College of Law, Braboeuf Manor, St Catherine's, Portsmouth Road, Guildford GU3 1HA. Courses are also offered at the following polytechnics: Birmingham, Bristol, City of London, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Wolverhampton. The course is then followed by two years as an articled clerk.

Non-law Graduates

After taking your degree - in any subject - you need to apply (well in advance) for a place on the one year Common Professional Examination (CPE) course. These courses are offered at the College of Law (above) or at one of the polytechnics (above) or at Leicester or Wales Polytechnics who also prepare students for this examination. After the CPE examination, you will then be required to take the Law Society's Final Examination. Following this examination you will then serve two years as an articled clerk.

Mature Students

Some people decide to train as a solicitor at a later stage in their careers. To do so you must be over 25 years of age to enroll with the Law Society. You will need to satisfy the Society that a minimum standard of education has been attained and that you can show exceptional ability in business, academic, professional or administrative work. Like non-law graduates the Common Professional Examination must be taken, but over a two year (not a one year) period. The Law Society's Final Examination must also be passed and then you will serve two years training as an articled clerk. (Students or others working in the legal profession may gain exemptions from some of the examinations to be taken.)

School Leavers (very few pupils decide to qualify in this way)

All school leavers must first apply to the Law Society for an enrolment certificate and they must have achieved a minimum standard of education. The requirements are:
 
  • Four GCE passes or GCSE (Grades A, B or C), including three 'A' Levels; or
  • Five GCE passes or GCSE (Grades A, B or C), including two 'A' Levels; or
  • Six GCE passes or GCSE (Grades A, B or C), including two 'A' Levels and two 'AS' Levels.

There is also a minimum points system in operation. The table below should be used to calculate the points required at 'A' Level and 'AS' Level.

'A'LEVEL 'AS'LEVEL POINTS GRADE POINTS
 
  • 10 5
  • 8 4
  • 6 3
  • 4 2
  • 2 1

The minimum points required are as follows:

14 points from two 'A' Level subjects taken at one sitting.

18 points from three 'A' Level subjects or two 'A' Level and two 'AS' Level subjects taken at one sitting.

20 points from three 'A' Level or two 'A' Level and two 'AS' Level subjects taken at not more than two sittings.

('AS' Level subjects may not be taken into account when calculating points unless a minimum of two 'A* Levels is held. Equivalent qualifications will be considered in lieu of the above.)

School leavers then take a one year course at a polytechnic in four law subjects in the first half of an examination known as the Solicitors' First Examination. (Only a limited number of places is available for this examination.)

Five years must then be spent as an articled clerk. During this time, part time study must be done for a further four law subjects, making up the second half of the Solicitors' First Examination (it is usual for two subjects to be taken after the first year and two after the second).

After completing the Solicitor's First Examination, you must attend a one year course studying for the Law Society's Final Examination, but the time you spend on the course will count as part of your training as an articled clerk. When you have completed your training in articles and you have passed the final exams, you may be admitted as a solicitor.

The following details are taken from the Law Society's booklet Solicitors - .

The Solicitors' Final Examination

All solicitors have to pass the Final Examination in order to qualify. Guildford may be the best known of the colleges, probably because the administrative head offices of the College of Law are located there. But you should note that the courses at Chester, London and in the relevant polytechnics are on an entirely equal footing with the Guildford course, and will not affect your acceptance as an articled clerk. A student at, for example, Bristol University may well find it more convenient to stay on in the same accommodation and take his or her Finals at Bristol Polytechnic. The subjects studied on the Finals Course are a mix of the theoretical and the practical, concentrating on the basic spread of work done in a solicitor's office. They are:
 
  • Accounts;
  • Business organizations and insolvency, employment law and consumer protection;
  • Conveyancing, wills, probate and administration, family law;
  • Litigation; and revenue law, which is taught within (b) and (c).

Some subjects will have been covered (possibly as an option) as part of the law degree, though inevitably with different emphasis; others will present for the first time the sharp end of decision making as a solicitor.

Articles

The time you spend 'in articles' as a trainee solicitor is your opportunity to put into practice your hard won theoretical knowledge. You will learn about the day-to-day running of the business, and how to deal with clients, whilst gradually increasing the scope and responsibility of your work.

There are many different types of articles available - in local government, magistrates' courts, industry and commerce etc - but the majority of students take articles in private practice. Finding articles is your own responsibility; vacancies are advertised widely in various publications, and you will find lists of suitable firms in ROSET (Register of Solicitors Employing Trainees), which can be purchased from the Law Society if your college does not have a copy. You can also obtain help from the Law Society's Appointments Register, from local law societies and of course from careers advisers. You might have to attend several interviews before finding the firm which is right for you. However, you will find more and more firms operating the 'milk round' by visiting universities and colleges in order to interview students.

The type of training you receive will depend very much upon the nature of the firm you join. A large commercial firm will offer a different kind of training from a small practice, and if you join a specialist firm you will inevitably receive a rather specialized training.

It is up to you to balance the pros and cons. Your period in articles is fundamental in shaping your career, so wherever you apply, try to talk to the people you may be working with during the first two years of your articles to get a 'feel' for the firm and whether you will do well there. You will have to cover at least three out of eight broad areas of law during your articles, monitoring your own progress by keeping a diary or checklist of tasks performed and topics covered. You will also have to attend a Supplementary Accounts Course during your articles - and, of course, you should go to any other seminars or courses which might be useful to you.

Ultimately, it will be up to you to make sure that your training satisfies the Law Society's requirements. Once you have successfully applied to be admitted to the Roll of Solicitors, your employers may well invite you to stay on with them -although, of course, you are not obliged to accept the offer if you prefer to go elsewhere.
 



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