Mary Ashley: Decisions, Decisions…

No comments, posted on October 7, 2011

In a guest article for the Law Student, recent Oxford University graduate Mary Ashley considers the decisions you have to make on the path to becoming a lawyer.

As a First Year at University, the last thing you want to be thinking about is what you will be doing once you graduate. But if you want to compete in the intense competition for jobs, you don’t really have much of a choice. The sooner you think about it, the more likely you are to be successful.

I wish I had been told this in my first year, but as with most people, the thought of what I would be doing past twenty-one had never crossed my mind. I was too excited about starting University to be thinking about the future, but if I could do it again, I would have at least started considering it in more detail in my first and second year. With this in mind, what should you be doing to be gearing yourself up for the future?

First things first

As First Years, make sure you study hard for your first year exams because whether you want to be a barrister or a solicitor, they matter. Whilst they may not count towards your degree, they are the only indicators a firm or chambers will have for how your finals will go. So, at the very least, you will want to get a 2:1 so that firms will be confident that come finals, you will be likely to achieve a 2:1.

So that’s the basics, but in today’s job market, you need a lot more than impressive First Year results to get a job. So you next have to ask yourself, what do I want to be – a barrister, a solicitor, or something else.

Barristers vs Solicitors

The first thing you will need to understand is the difference between barristers and solicitors. As an American, when I first arrived, I had no idea that there were two types of lawyers in the UK. So what are the key differences?

  • The first major difference is the environment in which they work. A solicitor will generally work as a member of a team in a firm or as part of a legal team in a large company. A barrister, however, will generally work alone, or in a small team with other barristers where the case is large enough, as a self-employed individual.
  • The second major difference is the rights of audience. This means a lawyer can appear in court and conduct proceedings. A barrister has the right to appear in any level of court from County Courts to the Supreme Court. Solicitors generally have far less rights, unless they become solicitor advocates, but that is a whole different issue! So as a basic distinction, barristers can appear in any courts, solicitors can appear in selected lower courts.
  • The third major difference is the actual work practiced. If you enjoy business / commercial issues with a legal edge, then you will more likely enjoy the work of a solicitor. However, if you thrive on problem questions / contentious legal issues, then you will more likely want to be a barrister.

So with this in mind, what should you do to make the decision clear for you or to make either happen. The best answer to this is work experience.

Choosing a Vacation Scheme

The best way to establish whether you prefer the business / commercial side of the law is to do a vacation scheme. Firms offer many of these and you will want to apply during Christmas break of the second year of your law degree.

So what should you consider when applying for a vacation scheme? First, what area of the law are you interested in. There is a vast difference between the work of a commercial solicitor and a private client solicitor. Top commercial firms will be dealing with the mergers, acquisitions, and corporate financing of some of the top companies in the world whilst family solicitors will be dealing with wills, trusts, and divorce. Criminal solicitors do completely different work and probably spend a lot of time in the police station or a Magistrate’s Court. So you really have to ask yourself what type of law interests you.

If you can figure that out, then you are half way there, but you still have to ask yourself a number of questions.

  • What size of firm would you like to work for? These can vary hugely and will make a massive difference to your working life so you have to consider this carefully.
  • Where would you like to work, and would you like the opportunity for international secondments?
  • How large of an intake would you like to be part of?
  • How many seats would you like to do? Firms have different policies about how many seats you have to do / how they structure them.
  • You will also want to consider the atmosphere of the firm. Every firm has a reputation for a different atmosphere, and you will want to consider this to see if you fit in and actually enjoy working there.

Applying for a Vacation Scheme

After considering all of these issues, you will then want to apply for a vacation scheme. The best advice I can give you for that is to apply early! Also, ensure that you have checked your application for spelling errors / grammar mistakes because with the amount of applications firms receive, any small error can get your application thrown out immediately. Make sure you answer the question in front of you, not the question you want to be in front of you. And do not copy and paste your applications!

Choosing a Mini-pupillage

So if the above does not seem for you, then perhaps you should consider a career as a barrister. The work a barrister tends to engage in is the more contentious work. Or, where there is a particularly difficult point of law, then a solicitor may look to a barrister for an Opinion for confirmation.

  • First, as with a solicitor, you have to consider the type of law you are interested in. There are various different bars (i.e. the commercial bar, the family bar, the revenue bar, the criminal bar, etc…) and the differences between them are vast.
  • Second, you have to consider how much advocacy you want to do. As a tax barrister, you may see the inside of a court once a year, but as a criminal barrister, you will probably forget what your office looks like. So you have to ask yourself if you can handle the pressure of appearing in court everyday because this will greatly affect which area of the bar you want to go to, or even if you want to go to the bar at all.
  • Third, you will have to ask yourself how much client contact you would like. Generally barristers are instructed by solicitors rather than private individuals / companies, so you will not have much client contact which can be a good or bad thing.
  • Fourth, you will have to consider where you want to work. This ties into the type of work you want to do because generally the major commercial deals will be done in London, so if that’s what you want to do, then your location is very limited. However, if you want to do family law, there are sets all around the country so you have the opportunity to practice wherever you want.

Applying for a Mini-Pupillage

So if this seems more along the lines of what you would like to do, then you need to apply for mini-pupillages. My best advice for this is to read different websites for chambers as they all tend to require slightly different applications. Some want CV and covering letter and others want you to fill out their online form. They also all have different closing dates for different times in the year, so make sure you take this into account. As with above, make sure there are no spelling errors or grammar mistakes and that you do not simply mail merge all your applications – this can end in disaster.

As you can see, choosing whether or not to become a barrister or a solicitor is not the end of the journey. The differences between different types of solicitors and barristers are almost as great as the difference between solicitors and barristers. So the best advice I can give for you to make a decision is to at the very least choose the area of law you may be interested in, and then do work experience. There is nothing like first hand experience to show you what it is really like to do either of these professions.

Mary Ashley