What career options are available in the legal sector for postgraduates?
Graduates will usually go down one of two routes in the legal sector: either a career as a solicitor or as a barrister. However, some will undertake work as a paralegal secretary or a clerk as an alternative option or in order to gain relevant experience before securing a pupillage or training contract. The potential career routes are explained below.
Paralegals carry out the more basic aspects of legal work at solicitors’ firms and in other legal environments. Entry requirements vary from one to another but most will expect you to have at least completed a law degree or conversion course.
Paralegals may find work in the civil or criminal courts or working within law firms, corporations, professional bodies, government departments, the NHS, the uniformed services or voluntary organisations. Paralegal work requires substantial legal knowledge and may boost your chances of getting a training contract with a law firm.
A clerk works in an administrative capacity within barrister chambers, attending to much of the accounts, schedules and paperwork associated with a legal practice. They keep chamber diaries up-to-date, ensure every member is informed of their commitments, and calculate and negotiate fees for the work carried out. Typical duties include negotiating and arranging fees for cases; appropriately allocating cases to barristers; and carrying out business management activities, to name a few.
This is different to being a judicial assistant (sometimes referred to as a legal or law clerk), in that judicial assistants specifically focus upon clarifying issues and conducting research tasks concerning upcoming cases for members of the court.
A role as a clerk is not necessarily a route into a career as a barrister, but it would certainly demonstrate your commitment to the Bar and allow you to gain a greater understanding of the legal system while seeking pupillage. Not to mention, you will develop useful contacts and make money.
A solicitor is often the main source of legal advice for a client, providing legal expertise for a range of cases. Most will specialise in a particular area, but at trainee level they will gain experience across a range of practice areas. Solicitors are able to practise their trade privately, attached to local or national government, at high street firms or, in the majority of cases, at a commercial law firm.
Typical solicitor tasks include pitching to clients, meeting and advising a client on their case, sourcing appropriate barristers to represent their client in court and drafting legal documents tailored to each case. They must understand the needs of their client, whether personal or business-related, as their primary goal is to meet the client’s objectives.
Given recent changes in the sector, solicitors can now also train to represent clients in court. Once qualified, they are referred to as ‘solicitor advocates’.
Known as a barrister in England and Wales and as an advocate in Scotland, this is the person who will usually represent a client in court or in mediation between conflicting parties. The majority are self-employed but are attached to a particular set of chambers: a group of barristers’ offices specialising in certain practice areas and overseen by shared clerks (see above). 19% of barristers work at the employed Bar, usually for government institutions such as the Crown Prosecution Service or the Government Legal Service.
Barristers are hired by solicitors on behalf of the solicitor’s client and will often specialise in specific areas, such as criminal law or family law. They prepare cases and legal arguments, examine and cross-examine witnesses, represent the client in court and negotiate settlements, among other services.
‘Direct access’ to barristers is now more common than in previous years, though it cannot be considered the norm. The term means that barristers can be contacted directly by clients, rather than via a solicitor.