A career as a solicitor is a highly respected one, with plenty of room for growth and the potential to earn a great salary. Traditionally, the route to becoming a solicitor was to study for a Law degree or to take a conversion course before doing a qualifying course and exam known as the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
However, as of September 2021, there is a new route to becoming a solicitor that will, over the coming years, see the LPC phased out. The Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE) has been brought in to simplify solicitor training in the UK, and it is now cheaper and thus more accessible than ever before.
However, an undergraduate Law degree will not suffice in preparing you for the SQE. Instead, prospective solicitors are advised to take courses that are designed specifically to prepare students for the SQE.
In this article, we will look at some of the ins and outs of becoming a solicitor, what qualifications you need to obtain, and what the job is really like when you finally get there.
Can I be a solicitor without a law degree?
It is perfectly possible to become a solicitor and pursue a legal career in the UK without completing a three-year Law degree. An SQE preparation course, such as Barbri’s, will help you to pass the exam and so provide you with sufficient skills and knowledge to become an effective solicitor.
All law firms will accept the SQE as a qualification and the SQE does not demand a Law degree, but you do need a degree in any subject to be eligible to sit the exam. In fact, some law firms actively encourage non-law graduates to apply for training contracts. They believe that candidates with a wide range of experiences are likely to become well-rounded and world-wise solicitors.
What current qualifications do I need to be a solicitor in the UK?
In the UK, there are a few different routes you can take to become a practising solicitor. Ultimately, you will either need an LPC qualification or an SQE certificate. For both the LPC and the SQE, you will need a university degree in any subject. However, if your university degree is not in Law and you opt for the LPC route, you must take a law conversion course known as a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
Here is what both routes entail:
- To apply for an SQE assessment you must first have a university degree in any subject. It is important to note that your degree does not have to be in Law.
- You must then pass your SQE 1.
- Once you have passed your SQE 1, you are eligible to take your SQE 2.
- After you have completed and passed both SQE assessments, you can apply for two-year training contracts with law firms or find equivalent Qualifying Work Experience.
- To apply for an LPC you must first gain either a traditional Law degree (LLB), or have a non-law degree and have completed a GDL.
- You may then apply to universities and institutions that offer LPC preparation courses. Then, you should take and pass the LPC exam.
- When you have passed your LPC exam, you are eligible to apply for two-year training contracts with law firms.
The SQE will eventually become the standard qualification needed to be a solicitor, and the only pre-requisite for SQE is a degree in any subject. However, preparatory courses such as Barbi’s are strongly recommended. This is because such courses are based on the style and format of the SQE and thus offer you rigorous preparation for this difficult exam.
Why is the SQE replacing the GDL and the LPC?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) raised concerns about the difficulty of monitoring the previous courses, such as the LPC and the GDL, and that there may be inconsistencies depending on where you study.
The SQE has been brought in as a simplified and standardised route to becoming a licensed solicitor. As there are no pre-requisite university courses and everyone takes the same exam, no route is seen as more or less prestigious or difficult than another.
The SQE is also far cheaper than the GDL and the LPC. Technically, the student only needs to pay for the SQE assessments, which are between £3,000 and £4,500. However, you should certainly take a preparatory course to ensure you are in good stead to pass these challenging exams.
Preparatory courses are significantly cheaper than any UK university degree. In fact, the total cost for both SQEs and the preparatory courses comes to less than £10,000. Whereas, the LPC alone can cost around £15,000, not to mention the near £10,000 the GDL costs if that is also required. So, overall the SQE is far cheaper for students than the GDL and the LPC.
How does the SQE differ from the LPC?
The main way the SQE differs from the LPC is that the SQE is an exam. The LPC is a course with different forms of examination in it, but SQE refers only to the exam.
Numerous universities and institutions run the LPC, and their courses can vary in the time they take and the electives that are offered as part of the course. However, with the SQE, there is only one exam and all students sit the same paper, regardless of how they have trained for it. This centralises legal examinations and ensures that all prospective lawyers are working to the same standard.
The SQE also works in conjunction with Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) in place of two-year training contracts. So, with the SQE, instead of finding a training contract at one firm, you will be able to use QWE from up to four different places. QWE includes paralegal or pro bono work, or work placements. It must total two years and be signed off by an SRA-approved supervisor to be sufficient for completing your training.
Do all law firms accept the SQE?
The GDL and the LPC will continue to be accepted by law firms until 2032. By then, the SQE will have become the standard exam required to become a solicitor.
Prior to 2032, law firms will accept the SQE when offering training contracts. As the course is still in its first year, some law firms may have a top-up course as part of their traineeship whilst they figure out the transition from the GDL and LPC to the SQE.
What are the benefits of taking a Law degree?
Pursuing a traditional Law degree is still a route that many young lawyers choose to take. In doing so there is, of course, the benefit of not having to sit and pay for a GDL qualification, but with the introduction of the SQE, the GDL is no longer required anyway. So why would any prospective lawyer choose to study Law at university now?
Well, having three years to engage with the subject of Law allows you to find areas you may find particularly interesting, as well as flagging up any fields in which you have little interest. This prepares you for when you apply for training contracts as you have a clearer idea of the type of firms you want to apply for.
Studying for a Law degree also does not definitively mean you are choosing to be a lawyer. Many people study degrees in subjects they don’t ultimately pursue and a Law degree will equip you with many transferable skills that can be applied in many walks of life.
Is being a solicitor a good career choice?
Deciding to become a solicitor is an excellent career choice. Getting there requires dedication, determination, and lots of hard work, but those who are successful are rewarded with good pay and plenty of scope for career progression.
The work is often varied and can be incredibly interesting, though there is also a fair amount of meticulous document-based work that many would find boring. Some career paths, such as immigration law, can be very rewarding by making a difference to clients who are in need of legal support. Also, if you choose to train to become a solicitor, you will gain many transferable skills along the way that are valued in other professions should you choose to change course.
There are, of course, some downsides to legal work, but most prospective solicitors are well aware of these already. All paths in law are competitive and an early career solicitor or trainee may struggle to find a good training contract or entry-level job. The working hours can also be very long, and those who earn a place at one of the five most prestigious firms in London – known as the Magic Circle – will be expected to work incredibly hard for their financial rewards.
You may also find yourself limited in what kind of law you can practice. For example, many trainee solicitors want to practice human rights law to make a difference in the world. However, the reality is that rewarding fields such as human rights law are small and it may be harder to find job opportunities. If you are unable to secure a placement at your ideal firm, then think of the ways you can bring your practice and passions to other fields. For example, knowledge of human rights is transferable to many domains, such as criminal or family law.
Anyone who is serious about becoming a lawyer probably already knows that it is a tough, competitive and demanding job, but that is what attracts many to the profession in the first place. With hard work and dedication, legal practice can offer both great job satisfaction and financial reward.
What is the starting salary for a solicitor?
Solicitors’ starting salaries vary widely depending on the field of law they practice and where their law firm is based.
Starting salaries for newly qualified solicitors working for regional firms based outside of London usually lie between £27,000 and £60,000. Starting salaries for newly qualified solicitors in large City firms usually fall between £60,000 and £90,000. Newly qualified solicitors working at a Magic Circle firm will likely earn around £100,000. And starting salaries at US firms with offices in the UK can be in excess of £150,000.
Positions in commercial and corporate law tend to pay the highest salaries, whereas those in family or personal injury law tend to pay the lowest. In all fields of law and locations around the country, solicitors can expect their salaries to rise well above the starting rate as they progress in their careers. Whilst some fields pay substantially more than others, there is the potential for financial success in every field.
It has long been possible to become a solicitor without a Law degree. Previously, students took the GDL conversion course before sitting the LPC exam. This route is still possible, though candidates will incur hefty fees. With the new SQE, the time frame is shorter and the overall costs are lower. Although the SQE does not demand any specific qualifications, other than a degree in any subject, you would be well advised to take a course such as Barbri’s to prepare you for the unique challenge of the exam.