What Is the Cheapest Way to Get Into the Legal Profession?

By | May 11, 2017

“What is the Cheapest way to get into law?”

Entering the legal profession is without doubt one of the most expensive career options apart from becoming an airline pilot. It involves investing thousands of pounds in education that may or may not lead to a position at the end of the road.

Unfortunately there is no simple answer to which is the cheapest way to get in because there are all sorts of implications as to the different paths you choose to go down.

The Legal Executive route is the cheapest option. Quite a few people go down this particular route following on from an undergraduate degree, whether law or otherwise, or straight out of school. The Legal Executive route in terms of monetary cost is considerably cheaper than the Graduate Diploma in Law/LLB degree and the Legal Practice Course (the solicitor route).

We did a bit of research and the current cost in 2013 to complete both parts of the Legal Executive training (Part 3 and Part 6) is about £6,500 (course fees, exam fees etc..) The current cost of the Legal Practice Course at the University of Law is £11,000-£13,000. If you combine the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Court (LPC) the overall cost is about £18,000-£20,000.

If you combine the Legal Practice Course with the cost of completing a law degree then the usual overall price is around £25,000 to £30,000, which is gradually creeping up to around the £40,000 mark as law schools start to capitalise on the willingness and ability of potential lawyers to pay.

In the past people have been down the vocational course route or alternatively the New York Attorney route, but these are options that are now in the past because, as we understand it, the Law Society still require you to complete the LPC and a training contract or training contract equivalent, which makes it senseless to plan to do either of these two in order to become a lawyer.

So if you look at the different options, the cheapest one by far is the route through the Institute of Legal Executives and becoming a chartered legal executive before then either moving on to being a solicitor simply remaining a legal executive.

The various borders between all the different types of lawyer (legal executive, paralegal, solicitor and Barrister) are becoming distinctly blurred. Solicitors can now do work that was exclusively reserved for barristers. Barristers can see clients directly. Legal executives can gain the Rights of Audience that solicitors and barristers previously exclusively enjoyed. Legal Executives can now become partners of law firms and so can barristers. Solicitors can practice as Advocates without ever needing to take instructions from clients themselves.

However one thing remains very clear and that is that in the minds of lawyers themselves there is still a hierarchy in terms of both fee income and status.

At the bottom of the pile is a paralegal and this is very unlikely to change for a good few years yet simply because paralegals have no rights at all in terms of advocacy, and similarly cannot practice on their own without another type of lawyer being with them.

Second in the pile are Legal Executives who are starting to enjoy more status in recent times but similarly hold lesser standing in the legal profession as a whole than solicitors and barristers. It is partly because of the old-fashioned view that most people who have become legal executives are former secretaries trying to work their way up. this is still very much the case for some people and perfectly understandable as a very easy way in.

After all, being a solicitor requires you to do quite a bit of academic study at some point or other whereas becoming a legal executive is mostly something you can do on the job with a few evenings a week at night school or weekends at doing distance learning spread over a considerable length of time.

Second from the top are solicitors. Make no mistake, in the legal professional solicitors are definitely considered second rate by just about everyone including themselves, even when they are commercial lawyers earning considerable sums of money and more than the Barristers they instruct. Solicitors are seen more as wheeler-dealers and go-getters than actual lawyers, and the profession itself over time has determined effectively that solicitors are the monkeys to barristers’ organ grinders.

At the top of the pile are the barristers. The vast majority of barristers I suspect would class themselves as upper class. They are often very sharp, extremely intelligent, usually residing in exclusive villages or streets reserved for premier league footballers, doctors and senior businessmen and with cars to match.

Barristers see solicitors as a necessary evil as traditionally the solicitors obtain clients for the barristers and the barristers did their best for them even though they usually have not met the client before the date of their first hearing and have absolutely no interest at all in their welfare or personal situation.

Barristers are pure law at the end of the day and are not interested (quite understandably) in their clients’ welfare or wellbeing.

These are traditional views on the legal profession and the way it is structured. How you choose to interpret the above article is a matter for yourself, but it is based on my own experiences in law, whether as a lay person undertaking cases myself or as a qualified solicitor working with barristers and other solicitors.

The reason I put this level of detail into this article is to show you that if you decide to go in the cheapest way into the legal profession there is always a catch, and at the moment the catch is that your status for the remainder of your time in the profession will be diminished by the decision you have made now.

Once a legal executive always a legal executive. The lawyers recruiting you at the moment are usually “pure” solicitors. They will hold your status as a legal executive against you and probably for the remainder of your career. Your salary will often be affected as solicitors traditionally believe that legal executives are worth less money than qualified solicitors. I would estimate that over the time of your career remaining you will lose around £5,000 to £10,000 per year at the very least through your decision to go down the Legal Executives route, at least up until you have been in a solicitors job for 5 years min.

Furthermore, certain doors will be shut to you from then start. If you qualify as a legal executive you very often have to qualify into an area where legal executives are used and practice. This invariably means debt recovery, some types of employment – usually contentious, crime, family, conveyancing, wills and probate and sometimes commercial property. Whilst some of these are not known to be too bad in the long term – commercial property and wills and probate are not too badly paid at the moment – it does mean that the majority of commercial law for example is going to be outside your remit.

It is very difficult to move from one field to another once you have specialised in one particular area of law. So for example if you qualify as a legal executive undertaking crime work and have 5 years’ experience you cannot then use your legal executive status (or indeed your solicitor status) to move across and practice in corporate finance.

If you are an able student or graduate with excellent grades then you should almost always make an effort to go down the solicitor or barrister route. Going down the solicitor route is not as expensive as people think it is.

For example you do not need to pay the College of Law or BPP to do the Legal Practice Course or the Graduate Diploma in Law. There are far cheaper alternatives and regardless of what the more elite institutions tell you, the vast majority of law firms don’t care two hoots where you do your LPC because most qualified lawyers view these courses as burning hoops to jump through in order to qualify than any sign of your ability.

Employers are always interested in your undergraduate degree. For the rest of your career. Forever!

They are also interested in your A level grades. Forever!

This plus your A- Level grades will determine whether you are a student or graduate with excellent academics. If you have straight A’s at A Level or AAB or possibly ABB then you will be an excellent student to come into law.

If you have a 2:1 Degree in anything other than pop music or country dancing (my first degree was pop music), then you stand a very good chance of training and becoming a qualified solicitor.

If you have less than this then your life as a lawyer will be considerably harder to start out with. The Legal profession do not view 2:2 degrees as being something that entitles you to practice as a lawyer. It will go against you for the remainder of your career and there is no way round it. I suspect that if you are sat there reading this with a 2:2 degree you have been badly misinformed by anyone who has told you to go into the legal profession. It is not impossible – I have trained and coached many students and graduates who have 2:2 degrees (sometimes even a 3rd) and they have gone onto enjoy rewarding careers as lawyers in some capacity. However, their road into law has been considerably harder as a result of their inability to obtain a 2:1 degree.

So getting back to my statement that if you have excellent academics you should always consider becoming a solicitor so as not to damage your career in the long term by going down the Legal Executive route.

If you do not have excellent academics then you should always consider alternative options and one of these will be to go down the legal executive route.

However I would not recommend paying to undertake a legal executive course until you have legal work experience, you are able to use in the longer term to secure yourself a good legal career.

By this I mean that if you are a student or graduate you should definitely not go straight along to the Institute of Legal Executives and sign up for any legal executive course. If you are going down a non-conventional route into law then academic study once you have completed an undergraduate degree or your A-Levels is completely immaterial. Experience is what matters and nothing else will do. Legal work experience is the key to gaining a successful start into law.

You cannot skip this, circumvent or navigate round it as so many people try every year.

This is why academic institutions have been bought out by overseas companies looking to make a quick buck.

There are a lot of people out there undertaking postgraduate and undergraduate courses with no hope at all of ever finding a job in the profession they are going into.

Furthermore, there are lots of people out there who have the academic qualifications but lack any work experience or activities or interests who similarly are very unlikely to ever get ahead in law or get through the easy way.

No careers adviser will give you this advice, but the main thing to do to get into law is to get experience, more experience and even more experience. This may cost money in itself, and you may say that I have my fees to pay and I have to live. This gets me to my point that if you want to invest in your career then spending money on academic qualifications is not the way to go. Getting experience is and this in itself will cost you money.

To give you a quick example, as I write this a vacancy has come in from one of our central London law firms. They are looking for a fee earner to go and assist for a month or two with a load of admin work. They will pay well for this, and it is a job probably most suited for an LPC graduate.

I have one in mind.

It is not an LPC graduate with a 2:1 law degree or good A levels. It is not an LPC graduate with an LLM from a good university or some sort of summer school academic qualification. It is an LPC graduate with similar experience to that the firm are seeking.

The firm will not give two hoots what the LPC graduate has in terms of additional qualifications but they will study the LPC graduate’s work experience to date to decide whether or not to take them on for this particular role.

It is so important to understand this that when somebody says what is the cheapest way into law that there is no easy answer. You cannot just take a decision now that will affect the rest of your career simply on the basis that it may cost one or two thousand pounds more to go one way into the legal profession rather than another.

You will notice that so far I have not mentioned anything about barristers. This is because in my experience training to be a barrister is almost always a complete waste of your money and time. You would probably be shocked to hear this and perhaps put it down to my natural bias against barristers having been a solicitor myself. I would grudgingly accept that probably I am a little biased against barristers having run around courts for them, I’ve dealt with some pretty awful ones over the years (as well as some absolutely fantastic ones) but the barristers’ strand of the profession is pretty much tied up and it is very important to understand this.

The word nepotism could almost have been invented for this part of the profession. Let me give you an example.

Back many years ago when I had just qualified as a solicitor our practice used a local chambers which had a very good reputation in the area and was probably the top set of barristers by a considerable distance. I cannot remember any of their barristers being unsuited or incompetent and most being incredibly talented advocates.

At some stage in my first year after training I remember that they advertised for two pupil barristers to join them. There were a considerable number of applications, as you would expect because this was a top quality set of chambers, outstanding reputation with quality work coming in, in an area where there are not many barristers’ chambers.

I do not know how the recruitment process occurred but I do know that the two pupils selected were children of one of the senior barristers in chambers and one of the more junior barristers. I am afraid that the barristers’ profession can talk about diversity and equal opportunity to their hearts content but when recruitment like this occurs in a chambers of that size it is completely irrelevant.

It is always going to be the case that if chambers at that level recruit their own then anyone else will either have to set up rival chambers or alternatively work for a lesser standard of chambers.

It may be that the two children of the barristers already in practice were the best suited for the role, and I am sure they went on to be absolutely outstanding barristers but the point is these two people gained their pupillages with chambers to which they were already affiliated through their parents.

Without any sort or recruitment process that eliminates this (and after all why should it – I would have done exactly the same myself as a barrister if my children wanted to practice as barristers!) then this is not a strand of the profession to go into unless you have family or extremely good friends who are able to assist you in your search or pupillage.

The vast majority of people who complete the Bar Professional Training Course do not end up as barristers. They end up working as paralegals or non-qualified lawyers with a views to taking the Legal Practice Course at a future point in their career, costing even more money.

This is a false economy because the cost of completing the Bar Professional Training Course and the Legal Practice Course is verging on the ridiculous for the returns that you will get at a later stage in your career.

So in summary I recommend anyone coming into the profession to do one of two things.

1. If you have excellent academics and the ability to add legal work experience to your CV to bolster this then go and try and qualify as a solicitor. Do not go down any other route.

2. If you do not have excellent academics do not go down the route of qualifying to be a solicitor. You can go and get work experience and prove me wrong (and I hope you do) but you would be better suited to a life as a legal executive with a view to cross-qualifying at a later stage by competing the Legal Practice Course or simply being happy doing what you are doing as a legal executive.