Lawyers or attorneys are the cornerstone of the legal justice system, and their job is to use the law to protect and represent people and businesses. They do so by interpreting the laws and defending their client’s rights through the research and filing of legal documents, and by arguing their client’s position in court. If you are interested in this profession, this article provides some guidelines on what the specific career path entails, both in the UK and the US.
1. Research the Profession
Before you are ready to decide on a career, it’s always a good idea to conduct some research on the profession(s) you are interested. This way, you will gain more self-awareness and develop a clearer idea on whether you are suited to the job or if you are willing to carry out the day-to-day responsibilities that you are expected to do so in the role.
Lawyers are the professionals who represent people, businesses, and government agencies whenever there is a legal dispute, enforcing and protecting their rights. Job duties may vary depending on their area of practice, though there are some common job duties that all lawyers have in common.
Some of the tasks that lawyers need to complete in a workday are the following:
- Meeting and interviewing clients to establish the firm's suitability to provide the necessary advice and services, based on the firm's specialism and likely cost
- Taking a client's instructions
- Advising a client on the law and legal issues relating to their case
- Drafting documents, letters and contracts tailored to the client's individual needs
- Negotiating with clients and other professionals to secure agreed objectives
- Researching and analysing documents and case law to ensure the accuracy of advice and procedure
- Supervising the implementation of agreements
- Coordinating the work of all parties involved
- Corresponding with clients and opposing solicitors
- Attending meetings and negotiations with opposing parties
- Acting on behalf of clients in disputes and represent them in court, if necessary
- Instructing barristers or specialist advocates to appear in court for the client in complex disputes
- Preparing papers for court
- Working in a team, sometimes referring cases to the head of the department
- Supervising and delegating work to trainee solicitors, paralegals and legal secretaries as appropriate
- Arranging and attending further client meetings where necessary to progress with the case and finalising documentation
- Checking all documentation prior to signing and implementing
- Calculating claims for damages, compensation, maintenance, etc.
- Carrying out administrative duties, e.g. completing time sheets so that charges for work can be calculated and billing clients for work done on their behalf
- Taking referrals from other firms of solicitors when a conflict of interest arises or if they have no specialist practitioner available
- Keeping up to date with changes and developments in the law by reading journals and law reports
*Please note the differences between titles ‘lawyer’ and ‘attorney’: According to the Dictionary.com, an attorney or ‘attorney-at-law’ is a member of the legal profession who represents a client in court when pleading or defending a case. In the US, the term ‘attorney’ applies to any lawyer.
In the UK, those who practice law are divided into two career streams: you can either become a barrister (represent clients in open court and appear at the bar), or you could choose to become a solicitor (permitted to conduct litigation but not to plead cases in open court).
A barrister, (who may be called an advocate in some countries), does not deal directly with clients but does so through a solicitor. A solicitor is the UK equivalent of the US attorney-at-law. Counsel usually refers to a body of legal advisers but also pertains to a single legal adviser and is a synonym for advocate barrister, counsellor, and counsellor-at-law.
In Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and most Australian states, the legal profession is ‘fused’ for practical purposes, allowing lawyers to hold the title of ‘barrister and solicitor’ and practice as both.
Essential Skills and Qualities
Every successful lawyer needs to possess these professional skills and qualities:
- Excellent communication skills (written and oral)
- Dedication and commitment
- Commercial awareness and negotiation skills
- Problem-solving, research, and analytical thinking skills
- Accuracy and attention to detail
- Stamina and resilience
- Teamwork and interpersonal skills
- Flexibility and openness to new ideas
- Strong time management and case management skills
- Professional approach to work, integrity, and respect to confidentiality
Working Hours and Conditions
Working hours depend on the speciality you choose, but usually, lawyers are expected to work a minimum of 37 hours a week. They typically work Monday through Friday and during normal business hours. Lawyers work inside of an office environment, but may often need to travel to clients and meetings.
The stress level for attorneys is based on the type of firm they work for and the type of law they practice. Larger corporate firms tend to produce the most stress for lawyers because of a more demanding workload. This results in longer working hours than at a smaller private firm.
Long hours, hard work and pressure from clients can be hard to take in any legal profession, but with the right attitude and passion for the job, you can experience great job satisfaction, wealth, and career progression.
Law salaries may vary depending on the type of work you do and where you choose to work.
In the UK
According to National Careers Service, salaries for qualified solicitors range from £25,000 to £40,000. For more experienced professionals or those working for larger commercial firms can earn between £40,000 and £90,000. Those who are highly experienced, exercise the profession as partners or as the head person of a department they get £100,000 or more.
In the US
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for lawyers as of 2016 is at $118,160, however, figures range depending on your location. If you need more information check PayScale that provides more detailed information on popular employer salaries.
2. Get the Qualifications
Getting into the legal industry can be demanding in terms of the academic qualifications you’ll need to equip yourself and most employers will expect you to get high marks on your degree and perform well in your training.
In the UK
There are a couple of routes you can take to enter the lawyer profession. For one, there is the apprenticeship route available at all levels, the on-the-job legal training or studying towards an academic degree. At the apprenticeship level, the Trailblazer training programs can qualify you as a solicitor, legal executive or a paralegal - working and getting paid at the same time.
If you are studying towards a degree you will need to go through the following steps:
- Earning a Law degree lasting 3 or 4 years (an LLB or Bachelor of Laws)
- Completing vocational training with the Legal Practice Course (LPC) lasting usually up to one year full-time
If you have a degree in a non-law related subject, you will need to complete a one-year full-time law conversion course at the Common Professional Examination (CPE) or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and then follow the same route as law graduates to get the LPC.
With no degree, you will need to follow the chartered legal executive route for which you can get more information on the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx). If you are based in Northern Ireland or Scotland, visit the Law Society of Northern Ireland or the Law Society of Scotland as different training routes are available there. More information on how to qualify as a solicitor can be found in the Law Society of England and Wales.
In the US
If you are living or hoping to study in the US, you will need to go through the following steps:
- Earning a bachelor’s degree
- Taking the LSAT Test
- Completing 3 years of Law School
- Gaining admission to the State Bar
Becoming a lawyer in the US requires that you complete a bachelor’s degree program and that you take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). These two are necessary to enter law school. The test is offered four times a year and is 175 minutes long. It ranges from 120 to 180 with 150 being the average score. It is a rigorous test that many students study for months in preparation.
Once you are in Law School, you will study for three years and earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree upon graduation. After the first 1.5 years in your studies, which is half-time to getting your degree, you will have the opportunity to enrol in specialised courses and apply for externships that give you the chance to observe and participate in daily legal procedures.
Specialised courses cover the areas of banking, commercial, construction, employment, equity and trusts, family, human rights, intellectual property, shipping, sports and tax law. If you are interested in a specific area of law, e.g. environmental law, you might also need to study accounting or environmental science to gain wider knowledge on the industry.
Finally, as a J.D. degree holder, you will need to take and pass the bar exam for the state or U.S. region in which you are planning to work in, to obtain licensure to practice law legally. The bar exam may involve several different tests including the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) and others that test knowledge of appropriate professional conduct.
After this, every professional is instructed by the American Bar Association to have a certain amount of Continuing Learning Education credits (CLEs). This is to ensure that they are always up to date on the field of law they practice in. CLE requirements may vary by state, so make sure to check the official American Bar Association site for the required number of CLE hours for lawyers in your state.
3. Land Your First Job
Law is a very competitive industry, and it takes hard work and commitment to stand out from the crowd. Your chances of getting a job depend heavily on the size of the firm and the employer’s needs. The best way to start is sending out speculative cover letters to small or popular firms – if you are confident enough, letting them know that you are interested. Many employers may not openly advertise vacancies, so it’s worth the shot.
If you have no idea on where to start, Chamber and Partners provide a list of law firms, which you can browse according to your practice area and location criteria.
For further assistance when you are out looking for a job, visit the following sites:
4. Develop Your Career
As a lawyer, you can further your career by obtaining a master’s degree that is related to your field of law. For example, if you are an environmental attorney, you may want to pursue a master’s degree in public policy or environmental engineering. As an intellectual property attorney, you may want to pursue a master’s degree in Computer Science to further your ability to protect your client’s technical creations.
Both in UK and US, lawyers have to have a certain amount of training each year. As such, you may be sent to conventions and other workshops to help you develop essential life-long learning skills.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for lawyers are expected to grow by 10% which is the average for all others as well. While the job market is highly competitive for lawyers, there always going to be new positions for these professionals because every well-respected organisation needs one regardless the industry.
Not to mention, that many different sectors require lawyer’s services. Lawyers can work at big corporations as their in-house counsel. They can work with public policy makers, governmental organisations, and with non-profits. Every business - public or private, needs legal advice, and with a degree in law, one could carve out their own career path.
So, if it’s your dream to become a lawyer, go for it! But first, prepare yourself for a long and hard journey. Differentiating yourself from others and succeeding in this field requires undying passion and commitment. Are you up for it? Let us know in the comments section below…