As UK Law Firms Enjoy the Boom Times, How Can You Become a Lawyer in the UK?

The Brexit vote has led to a surge in law firm revenue and hiring, driving up the popularity of UK law schools. But LL.M. programs typically do not qualify one to practice law in the UK. Here’s what you need to do to qualify

These are the boom times for UK law firms as a messy exit from the European Union drives up demand for professional advice. The top UK law firms are cashing in, as the country wades through one of the biggest and most complicated divorces in economic history: Brexit. 

The legal press is peppered with stories of surging demand for lawyers clued up on regulatory, restructuring, intellectual property rights and employment law, with sometimes a three-fold increase in firms’ clients seeking advice as the prospect of a “no-deal Brexit” looms large. 

What’s more, the boom times could be even rosier since hundreds of thousands of contracts of all manner will need to be rewritten post-Brexit. 

In some ways, the numbers tell a happy tale. Last year the top 100 law firms in the UK raked in £24bn in revenue — some £8bn more in inflation-adjusted terms than before the financial crisis kicked off in 2007. Over this period, those firms have added 21,000 lawyers to their roster, and entry level lawyers are enjoying dizzying pay increases as law firm profits have risen each year since the Brexit vote. 

The “Magic Circle” UK law firms Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, and Linklaters all recently raised their pay for newly qualified lawyers to £100,000, as they seek to compete with the even bigger pay packages in the US. 

It is easy to see why prospective lawyers are drawn to UK law schools and their LL.M. programs each year. However, LL.M.s are regarded as an academic qualification; they do not qualify one to practice law in the UK, says Valerie Wong, a careers consultant at Queen Mary University of London. 

“They are not meant to be a route to practice,” she says. “They are sometimes described as [being] for ‘enhancing CVs’ or ‘research in an area of interest’.” 

The LPC, the GDL, and other routes to practicing law in the UK

However, even despite this, some LL.M.s can be a good stepping stone to practicing law in the UK. For example, Wong says that some UK law schools offer LL.M. Legal Practice courses, which incorporate a vocational training program that is a requirement to become a solicitor in the UK. 

The vocational training is called the Legal Practice Course (LPC), and it’s offered as part of an LL.M. degree at the City Law School in London, says Peter Hungerford-Welch, associate dean there.  

But from September 2021, the route to qualifying as a solicitor will be replaced by the Solicitors’ Qualifying Exam (SQE), says Hungerford-Welch. This is a two-part exam that tests both legal knowledge and practical skills, some of which is covered in an LPC. 

Beyond 2021, a good option for aspiring lawyers in the UK is the Solicitor Apprenticeship route. This is a six-year program aimed at school leavers, paralegals and chartered legal executives. The scheme covers all the content in a law degree, as well as an LPC, says Hungerford-Welch. The City Law School offers such an apprenticeship, in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. 

Different training for prospective solicitors and barristers

The type of training required to practice law depends on whether one wants to become a solicitor or barrister. A qualifying law degree (LLB) sets students up for both, as well as providing a pathway to an LL.M. course. Students can also pursue another subject at the undergraduate level and take a one-year Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), a conversion course.  

Those wishing to become barristers then have to take the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), which enables one to be called to the Bar of England and Wales, a unique legal profession of specialist advocates and advisers (aka barristers) who can practice independently of a law firm. 

Some law schools offer LL.M.s that include the BPTC, including Northumbria University in Newcastle, and UWE Bristol. However, from September 2020 the Bar course will be shorter because of changes brought about by the Bar Standards Board, says the City Law School’s Hungerford-Welch. So the LL.M.s may need to be restructured in order to still qualify for the BPTC. 

Following the BPTC is 12 months of pupillage — essentially an apprenticeship for budding barristers. They usually spend six months shadowing an experienced barrister in their chambers, and on the final stretch they work on their own cases. 

Potential risks for international students

The process is the same for international students as it is for UK residents, says Hungerford-Welch. However, foreign students need to secure sponsorship from a UK employer to work in the UK on graduation, and the supply of sponsorships is capped each year, so access to work placements is by no means guaranteed.  

Another risk is Brexit itself. There are concerns around the ability to practice as a lawyer in the EU, continued labor mobility and the need for legal certainty. Since the Brexit referendum, more than 2,000 UK lawyers have joined the Irish Roll of Solicitors as a hedge against a no-deal Brexit, so they can continue to practice in European Union courts. 

But Hungerford-Welch points out that regardless of this, LL.M.s are a good bet for working in the UK because they increase one’s knowledge in specialist areas of law and so can enhance students’ CV considerably. With the UK legal sector going through the boom times, now may be as good a time as any to get onto a program that puts one on a path to practicing law in the UK. 

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