A career in law

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Law is a high-profile profession and a popular career choice. People working in law are involved with the administration of a legal system – a set of enforceable rules regulating behaviour in society. This allows them to make an impact on society and contribute towards British justice.

What is the legal system?

Every country has its own legal system with different rules and procedures. There are three different legal systems in the UK, with Northern Ireland and Scotland operating separate systems from England and Wales. In all three areas, many aspects of the law have developed over the centuries. The decisions made by courts have become a body of laws, established principles and procedures, supplemented by Acts of Parliament.

European Community (EC) law comes from EC treaties, community legislation adopted under them, and the decisions of the European Court of Justice, which has the highest authority to decide points of EC law. The Court System is administered by the Court Service, which provides the necessary support to the judiciary and the court staff. It is usual for legal practitioners to specialise in one or more branches of law.

The main branches are:

  • Contract
  • Tort (civil obligations)
  • Criminal law
  • Family law
  • Employment law
  • Constitutional and Administrative law
  • Property law
  • Company law

What sorts of people work in law?

People of all types and backgrounds work in our legal system, but they all have one thing in common – a good level of education and a command of the English language.

Those working as barristers (advocates in Scotland) and solicitors must be members of professional bodies who set stringent examinations for entry. A degree-level education is essential for these jobs.

Educational requirements for supporting jobs in the court service, such as court clerks, court reporters and ushers, are not so strict. Many support jobs outside the court service are with firms of solicitors or with barristers' chambers (barristers' offices are called 'chambers'). Jobs may be clerical or secretarial, and are open to people who can acquire these specialist skills.

Legal professionals may work in:

  • the court system itself
  • firms of solicitors
  • barristers' chambers
  • private and public companies
  • central and local government
  • many other organisations, such as charities

They fall into one of the following groups:

  • Barristers who offer specialist legal advice or represent their clients in court or at tribunals. They take instruction from solicitors and other professionals, and increasingly from legal executives. Barristers in chambers are self-employed, unlike those working for government and commercial organisations. They are supported in their role by barristers' clerks who accept work on their behalf.
  • Solicitors are usually the first point of contact for people seeking legal advice and may represent clients in the lower courts. They work in a wide range of firms, broadly representing the specialist areas they have chosen. These may be international firms, city firms predominantly based in London, national firms with offices in many major UK cities, or High Street firms working for local businesses and people. Many solicitors also work in commerce and industry, local and national government, trade unions and court services, where they may be crown prosecutors.
  • Other Professionals working within the system include legal executives, paralegals, administrative staff, legal journalists and court reporters. Specialists include licensed conveyancers, trade mark attorneys, will writers and patent agents.

What training is involved?

Legal training can be expensive, although many firms do offer some sponsorship. Some jobs, such as solicitor and barrister, involve many years of academic study followed by several further stages of vocational training and experience. It is important to consider how costly this can be and to find an employer who will support you through some of your training.

Entering support roles, such as legal secretary and court administrative officer, involves applying to firms, chambers and the courts themselves for vacancies and training that may be available. Applicants must have at least GCSEs/S grades or equivalent qualifications, including English and maths.

Legal journalists are employed by a variety of publications and organisations, and need journalistic experience coupled with general legal knowledge.

Would working in law suit you?

Some of the people in this booklet felt attracted to working in law as a change from the world of commerce, some out of a desire to assist other people, and some to satisfy ambition. Others just like working within a system that is ordered and disciplined.

Whatever your motive, working in law usually entails working in the interests of other people who will rely on your knowledge and expertise. It is worth remembering that law is a very competitive field, so you'll have to work hard to succeed.

People working in courts throughout the UK aim to deliver justice effectively and efficiently to the public. They may work in civil, family or criminal courts.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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