Changes to qualifying as a lawyer

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If you're considering a career in law you should be aware that how you qualify as a solicitor or barrister is changing. This will affect what and how you study at university, and the choices you make afterwards

The view of regulators like the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors' Regulation Authority is that training lawyers is not just about knowledge acquisition. Young lawyers need a toolkit of skills to go with the theory that they learn. The universities' quality regulator, the Quality Assurance Agency, agrees, 'A law graduate is far more than a sum of their knowledge and understanding, and is a well skilled graduate with considerable transferable…and subject-specific knowledge, skills and attributes,' (Law Benchmark Statement 2015).

Change is coming soon

The chances are if you enter university to study law in 2016, you will graduate in 2019 facing new national exams testing your legal knowledge as well as application and skills tests. Most law courses do not yet have that balanced focus. Knowledge (or 'black letter law') is still king.

Certainly in the near future law students will be expected to articulate how they have developed their writing, research and oral communication skills, on top of reciting what legal topics they have studied. Law firms and barristers' chambers will want concrete examples of how students have learned and developed their professional skills, hence this should be a major focus in choosing your law course. Students will not be expected to have mastered those skills while at university, but to show some talent and awareness of their importance and their role in the practice of law.

Learn law as it's practised

Under the new regime, the law you study cannot be taught in a vacuum. It must be seen in the context in which law is practised in the wider world. These teaching methods must also highlight the skills you need as a lawyer. Search for universities, such as Roehampton, that adopt this approach and can give examples. Look for degree programmes at universities that:

  • have a healthy relationship with local law firms and regularly introduce you to different practitioners;
  • provide support for you to work in a law clinic or with agencies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau;
  • have skills training integrated in the syllabus and not just an 'add on' module.

When you go to open days, be sure to ask about these important issues.

Embracing change

Many firms have put in place competency frameworks for their graduate recruits that measure development and provide a framework for appraisals and promotion. You should expect law firms to be interested, therefore, in the skills development you have undergone on your degree programme.

Many employers welcome the new emphasis on skills. Firms value good academic students but also want articulate and confident staff who can speak to clients, understand them and produce what they want. The quality of training on offer from employers therefore is crucial to your development. Universities that emphasise work placements or employment-related presentations give you the opportunity to understand what an employer could offer you.

Ask the right questions

Look at how many graduates employers keep on after qualification, ask for details and examples of young lawyer training programmes, understand who looks after your training within the firm and enquire if there are mentoring or 'buddy systems' in place. Ask for specifics - it's your future you are putting in their hands, so don't settle for glossy bribes such as placements in overseas offices as a substitute for a clear commitment to your development.

Alternative routes to qualification

The changes to the qualifying requirements should create alternative routes to qualification besides the 'graduate entry' route. Solicitors' firms are setting up apprenticeship-style programmes that take school and college leavers straight into work and develop them. Check such programmes do take you all the way to qualification as a solicitor. Some employers may only envisage entrants to these programmes qualifying as paralegals with legal training in specific areas, but not qualified to advise the public and not with the same training as a university law graduate.

If you are a graduate in a non-law subject, check out Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) courses that allow you to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary in an intensive year long course, preparing you to join law graduates on training schemes.