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Advice: ‘I am studying law but looking to work as a journalist’

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On Tuesday Birmingham University tweeted this plea for advice.

Having studied law and then become a journalist myself, I’ve penned a quick response…

Dear Birmingham University student,

Step one is to write some articles and get them published. The bigger name publication, the better. What subject matter you cover will depend on whether you want to keep open the possibility of becoming a lawyer.

For example, the successful attempt currently being undertaken by Cambridge law graduate Sebastian Salek to get into journalism has, at times, relied on the fact that he has no intention of practising law and so can afford to do things that would horrify members of the famously risk-adverse legal profession

While still at university, Salek developed some excellent contacts within the press by taking a photo of a memorably X-rated Cambridge law exam question and writing a blog on it — which was picked up widely by the national media.

Prior to that, Salek — who is currently an intern at CNN — got an article into The Independent partly because he was willing to stick his neck out and poke fun at law firm graduate recruiters. He explained the thinking behind his daring approach on the Legal Cheek podcast last year.

The alternative is to write about safer topics, accept that fewer people will read your articles at first, and concentrate on developing complimentary skills that are increasingly sought after in journalism — such as coding, graphic design and fluency in social media. Someone with these skills would add a lot more than a traditionally-trained journalist to one of the exciting group of online journalism start-ups that are emerging in London.

As a law student another approach you have open to you is to become a lawyer first, and then launch your journalism career. This route only really applies if you want to write about the law, although there are exceptions such as ex-Doughty Street pupil barrister Afua Hirsch who is currently The Guardian’s West Africa correspondent. But if law is your thing, your legal experience will give you a huge advantage. It’s no coincidence that the most successful legal journalists at present — David Allen Green and Adam Wagner — are both practising lawyers. Meanwhile, other big names, such as Joshua Rozenberg and Carl Gardner, have worked, respectively, as a solicitor and a barrister.

The catch to life as a hybrid journo-lawyer is that you have to be really good at law (it’s surprising how many lawyers aren’t) and love writing about it so much that you don’t mind sacrificing your free time to do so. But at least your lawyer day job will — provided it’s not in legal aid — earn you far more than you’d get from full-time journalism these days.

As a final point, the issue of money is worth considering if you plan to go into journalism. It’s not well-paid, with the situation facing new entrants to the profession reminiscent in many ways to the criminal Bar — where some old-timers are on big money, but hardly anyone else. If some of the new journalistic models that are being trialled take off, life for journalists will improve. But it may take a while.

Oh, and don’t rush into a journalism course. It’s a far less structured profession than the law, and you’ll meet as many potential employers who look on a professional qualification as a waste of time as value it.