Once upon a time, a school leaver aged 16 or even younger could embark on a five-year legal apprenticeship, without having studied for a degree. That route to qualification was often used by relatives of lawyers, and the quality of the training process was highly variable. Not only that, but legal apprentices, or Articled Clerks as they were called, were commonly not paid: on the contrary, they were often expected to pay their ‘Principal’ (or training supervisor) for the opportunity of working with them and receiving training.
Nowadays, like other aspects of the profession, the training process is highly regulated. In England and Wales, a career as a barrister or solicitor is now open only to graduates. Trainee lawyers must, as well, be paid a minimum amount set by the respective professional bodies.
One option for a prospective lawyer, on leaving secondary education, is to study Law to degree level. That route should be taken if the student’s future career direction is already decided. If, like many teenagers, the school-leaver is uncertain of their best future path, then a degree in any subject at all, to reflect the student’s interests, can also be used as the foundation of legal training.
If a degree in Law is pursued, the student can progress straight from graduation to a one year Legal Practice Course (LPC). At graduation, a decision needs to be made between qualifying as a solicitor or as a barrister; because the legal practice courses are different for the two branches of the legal profession.
There are a number of factors involved in this decision. A solicitor has more day-to-day client contact, but tends to be less specialized. A barrister is a specialist, normally instructed through a solicitor, and has rights of advocacy in the higher courts automatically, whereas solicitors have to do an additional exam in order to appear in the High Court and above. Barristers have traditionally been recruited from the higher echelons of society, because they have usually been self-employed, and so young barristers have had to be in a financial position to withstand a few years of low and uncertain earnings. This is not so much the case now, as the Bar Council is concerned to promote equality and diversity within the Bar, and pupil barristers are now paid a salary.
If a different degree subject has been chosen in order to keep options open until after graduation, the student will need, as well as a degree, to successfully complete an intensive one-year legal conversion (CPE) course, which is regarded for professional purposes as equivalent to a three year degree in law. At that point he or she will have caught up with the Law graduate and can go on to complete the LPC course.
So the non-law graduate will take five years rather than four to reach the point of starting a legal apprenticeship, at which point he or she can at least expect to start earning. There is then two years of work as a trainee solicitor, or one year as a pupil barrister, before finally qualifying as a fully-fledged barrister or solicitor.