Waterlow Legal Guide to the legal profession

There are many different ways of being part of the legal profession. In addition to the challenging and rewarding roles of qualified solicitors and barristers, there are increasing opportunities for talented managers, marketeers and administrators to enjoy a career with legal professionals. Whatever your educational background, this dynamic and engaging profession has great career prospects provided you make the appropriate education, training and work experience choices.  The main opportunities in the profession are as follows:


Regulated by the Law Society, solicitors are the first port of call for the public when they need help on legal matters or legal representation. The majority of solicitors work together in private practice, either as sole practitioners or as partners in law firms. The larger law firms offer roles as salaried solicitors, and a typical career path is one of ‘assistant solicitor’ progressing to partner, at which point an individual ceases to be an employee of the firm but shares in the firm’s income on a self-employed basis. At this point the solicitor is responsible for their own tax and personal insurance schemes such as critical health cover and it is useful to appoint an accountant and a financial services consultant.  Their practice varies from ‘general practitioner’ work, such as Property and Family to specialist commercial work such as Mergers and Acquisitions (solicitors play a key part in the negotiations for purchase and sale of companies and are not just providers of the legal documentation). You will also find solicitors in the public sector, such as local authorities and government departments (The Crown Prosecution Service are significant employers of solicitors), as well as in commercial organisations.


Regulated by the Bar Standards Board, barristers operate as self-employed specialists within sets of ‘Chambers’ and represent clients in court. Until recently, barristers could only be instructed by practising solicitors (or other recognised professionals), but it is now possible for members of the public, commercial and non-commercial organisations to instruct a barrister directly. However the vast majority of barrister briefings still come from solicitors. A limited number of barristers are appointed as Queens Council (QCs) to reflect exceptional experience and ability. These individuals normally handle only very complex cases. Some QCs go on to become judges. Barristers are paid fees for court appearances and written legal ‘opinions’ which are collected on their behalf by their Barristers Clerks. Barristers are able to work as in-house lawyers (in-house ‘counsel’) and do not need to convert to the solicitors profession to do so.

Legal Executives

These are qualified lawyers, working alongside solicitors and barristers and offer an excellent opportunity for a career in the law. Legal executives specialise in a particular area of law and their day to day work is similar to that of a solicitor. The Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX), is the professional body representing legal executives and also provides the training and education to qualify. You don’t need a university degree to become a legal executive and it is possible to continue your legal education to become a solicitor with a legal executive qualification.

Licensed Conveyancers

Licensed conveyancers are specialist property lawyers qualified in all aspects of property law in England and Wales. A licensed conveyancer is also a Commissioner of Oaths and an increasing number may offer additional services including probate. Licensed conveyancers work in a wide variety of organisations, from legal practices and the private property sector through to local authorities and housing associations. The Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) offer a distance learning qualification, allowing students to combine fast-paced learning with practical training. On successful completion of the CLC qualification, applicants can apply for a first Licence, enabling them to offer Conveyancing services as an employed person. Thereafter, they may apply for a Manager Licence, which permits licensed conveyancers to offer services directly to the public as the sole principal, partner in a licensed conveyancing practice or as the Director of a recognised body. Further information is available at www.clc-uk.org

Barristers Clerks

This is another opportunity to work in the legal profession straight from ‘A’ level and a degree is not required. The work of a barrister’s clerk is varied and involves organising and performing the administration of a Barristers Chambers. This will involve taking the instructions from solicitors and other clients, managing the barrister’s diary and workload, collecting fees and managing information sources. Senior clerks make decisions about which barrister to give the work to, how to bring more work into the chambers, what fees to charge and the overall business direction of the chambers (in liaison with the Head of Chambers - the most senior barrister).

Law firm management

The larger (typically the top 100) law firms have a variety of roles for non-lawyers who wish to deploy their business skills and experience within law firms. You can obtain more information on these roles by looking at www.mpmagazine.com, the website of Managing Partner Magazine, published by the Ark Group. These can include marketing and communications, business development, human resources, knowledge management and information systems management and financial management. It is usually necessary to have a degree and a relevant business qualification to follow this career path. Smaller firms will have roles for practice managers, who do not necessarily have to have degrees but need to be proven business managers.

Legal administration

Despite the availability of bespoke software packages and document management systems, lawyers still generate enough work to keep legal secretaries working around the clock. Good legal secretaries and personal assistants are in great demand. Training was historically ‘on the job’ once basic typing and shorthand skills were mastered, but the specialist qualification administered by the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs is increasingly required by the larger law firms.

Becoming a solicitor or barrister >>