Advice

‘I want to be a lawyer — but not a corporate lawyer: is there hope for me?’

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The message from law fairs is that it’s City law or bust

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In the third of our new series of career conundrums, a final year law student on track to graduate with a first class degree asks Legal Cheek readers what options are out there for students that aren’t interested in corporate law.

I’m a final year student at a Russell Group university, and time is ticking for me to decide what to do next. I’ve never been interested in commercial law: I did some work experience at a big City firm when I was younger and I hated it. Even the salary doesn’t sway it for me. Instead I want to forge a career in a more ‘human’ area of law, like criminal law, but I don’t feel there’s any information out there for people like me. Law fairs and university events are a waste of my time as they are so focused on corporate law, and I can’t even find information online. How do I go about bagging a training contract in a criminal law firm?

If you have a career conundrum and are brave enough to face the Legal Cheek commenters, email us with it to careers@legalcheek.com

Previously:

Is regional experience valued by City law firms? [Legal Cheek]

Is doing a masters worth the cash? [Legal Cheek]

50 Comments

Anonymous

You need to first decide what you want to be practicing. Crime is still a big category and you should think about whether you want to focus on the privately funded or the public funded sector. Each types of firm will have a very different following and a different access route.

As an aside, it may well be worth looking at the future prospects for legal aid, particularly in criminal law. That is an area where cuts are being savage and causing serious difficulties for juniors at both the bar and the solicitor side of the profession.

If you do want to go down the road of public funded work, which would likely give you an excellent practical experience, then do some research via the Legal Aid websites. Find out the local firms. Find out the biggest firms. Approach them directly. Speak with their trainee teams. Speak with the department heads if possible. Find out about VAC days. If the firms you find don’t do VAC days, ask for work experience, ask about paralegal positions. Try to find out whether the firm has run any recruitment opportunities in the last year or so as this will give you a very good idea about how the firm views itself and its own prospects.

If you are looking at more white collar privately funded firms, and don’t know where to start, it’s a good idea to start off with the chambers. Find chambers that do this work, speak with their clerks and explain that you are trying to find details of potential firms. Ask if they are willing to let you know who they get their briefs from. Then research those firms.

Equally, large criminal firms are listed in Legal 500 and Chambers. They are a decent starting point, but take the comments with a healthy dose of salt.

Remember, getting into the profession is difficult, but changing the course of your career is almost impossible. Personally, I would be very very hesitant to go into criminal law, either at the bar or law firm.

(29)(2)

Anonymous

I should also add that a t/c is ur opportunity to try many different areas. dont pigeon hole yourself immediately. there’s a lot of other areas that aren’t commercial / corporate aside from crime

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Please do not follow the advice to “find chambers that do this work, speak with their clerks and explain that you are trying to find details of potential firms. Ask if they are willing to let you know who they get their briefs from. Then research those firms.”

1. A busy clerk is unlikely to have the time or inclination to start listing which firms they get their best work from to a person they don’t know, even if you introduce yourself as a law student.

2. Even if they did, they are unlikely to be able to give an overview of the whole sector.

Far better to do the research yourself. Look up the relevant guides to the profession. I agree they are taken with a pinch of sale, but assuming you are not going to be applying to one firm you can always target a number. Look up articles in the legal press which often refer to who is acting for defendants in big cases etc. Not a difficult exercise.

(8)(2)

Anonymous

hmm – if a clerk is that shortsighted they r no good for their chambers.

remember – this person is a potential source of business and will remember the chambers that helped

(1)(6)

Not Amused

“hmm – if a clerk is that shortsighted they r no good for their chambers.

remember – this person is a potential source of business and will remember the chambers that helped”

I’m afraid this attitude is a really bad attitude to have. This is an attitude of self entitlement. Tagging that attitude on to a vague argument that satisfying your own selfishness will be somehow ‘good’ for your victim is patronising and offensive.

I would very strongly to advise young people to not go down this way of thinking. You will, without knowing it, isolate yourself and irritate and alienate people who may well have otherwise helped you out.

(12)(1)

Anonymous

its not at all. its an attitude of reciprocation.

(0)(5)

Anonymous

If someone can’t manage to use google to find law firms that specialise in their chosen area of law, I think it would be fair to say that they are not necessarily likely to become a major source of business in the future.

(17)(0)

Anonymous

fair point

(1)(0)

Anonymous

I felt exactly the same I hate corporate I’m much more of a people person. My dream is to be a medical negligence lawyer. I’ve been working at the citizens advice Bureau for a year while studying and have been lucky enough to have been put in contact with some lawyers. I’m really struggling to get a tc as most are commercial. Also I think if you want to go into non commercial like myself the money cant be important to you. My friends are starting on 30k plus some of the firms i am applying to are 15k starting.

(3)(4)

Anon

The worst part of working in corporate law is the robots

(5)(3)

Anonymous

Clearly I’m at the wrong firm.

(6)(1)

Anonymous

Yup, no people to deal with in corporate law at all. No humans running companies, just aliens, sentient androids and dogs.

(6)(3)

Anonymous

Unless you have already done so, volunteering for AvMA is still the way to take the first steps in to clinical negligence

(0)(0)

Anonymous

ON the off chance that the question is real, I’d suggest that you create a list (using google) of all criminal firms, research them, then network (try contacts as you never know who knows who, as last resort write an email) and get some feedback from criminal solicitors. Shouldn’t take you more than say 3 weeks to get the answer you’re looking for (3 weeks allows for the responses, when really you could find all this info out in a week if not a few hours) – if it does, you’re doing it wrong.

Note to Alex: if you want this feature to be a “thing” why don’t you post questions that require a response that CANNOT be easily answered in 2 hours by the student either googling the answer, networking or speaking to their careers office.

No one who is on course for a first let alone a student at a Russell Group university, should need to ask such a simple question.

(5)(15)

Anonymous

Also giving the name and identity of the person would give it some credibility.

(1)(9)

Nathaniel

What a snobbish comment, reason why a lot of people avoid law

(3)(0)

Not Amused

No one can make life choices for you.

All you can do is try to be informed when you make your own. Publicly funded work is not viable in London of the SE. House prices and the cost of living simply mean that without private money you won’t be able to live a normal life.

If you are determined to do it then look to be based and live somewhere where house prices are more affordable. However know that it is a vocation and will never make you wealthy.

Does money matter to you?
Do you have private wealth?
What role are you likely to play in a future long-term relationship?
Will you be a primary earner or could you be happy supporting a partner who earned more?
Is owning your own house important to you?
Do you see yourself having children?
Where in the country/world do you want to live?

These are important questions to ask yourself.

(21)(3)

Anon

This is sterling advice.

(4)(2)

Anonymous

Great advice. Also one of the reasons i’m leaving London and moving up North

(5)(1)

Anonymous

I went to Lincoln for university small high street firms who deal with criminal and wills etc are very popular there. Somewhere like that you will have a normal life and do the work you want to do.

(1)(3)

Anonymous

I wouldnt say £15k is bad as a starting salary, I’ve heard a lot worse. That’s the salary of most of the jobs i’m looking at and i’ve had to fund myself through all my studies so i’ve got the loans to pay too.
Also don’t forget these days you can qualify after 4 years as a paralegal. Most TCs hire 2 years in advance so from the time you apply to qualifying, you might as well go down the paralegal route.
I have no desire to go down the commercial route with my passion being in clinical negligence and criminal defence. Yes you won’t be earning as much as those in commercial but surely job satisfaction is the reason for choosing law and not the money.

(4)(8)

Anonymous

As with most things, this is relative. On £15k you are living in relative poverty in London – waiters make more than that here. £15k in a medium sized northern town, however, will go quite a long way.

(4)(1)

Anonymous

Oh of course it’s relative. I’m lucky in that if i wanted to continue living in London i could live with parents or i can move up North in which case everything is a lot cheaper which is the course i’m taking. And it will still be a struggle having taken out loans to fund a masters and LPC but that’s the risk i chose to take so i’m not complaining. At the end of the day, I embarked on a career in law because that’s what i want to do and have the skills for, not for the money. I’m happy to taken on a bit of a struggle at the moment for the reward of job satisfaction later on. No point being in a job that pays well but that you hate.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Totally agree that’s what I meant I live in London and I can assure you 15k will not get you anything .

(0)(0)

Anonymous

That’s true. Having said that it won’t go a long way up North either (moving up soon so i’ve done my budgeting), it just gets you a bit more than you can get in London.

(0)(0)

Anon

I think 15k is a negligible salary to be offering. I’ve been in a position to take a role on 15k in law which had a direct route to qualifying but my circumstances would make it impossible to live.

Many people may say you don’t do it for the money, but you have overheads such as rent, bills and food to pay for.

I’m currently on 18k in law and am leaving because I’ve been offer a more hands-on roll in commercial role offering a decent salary with commission.

I may return to law in the future but living down South and commuting to London (commute = appox £350 a month) my monthly salary can’t cope.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I currently work in an 18k non-legal role and it’s made me realise exactly why i want to do law. Now personal reasons are taking me up North and i’m happy to settle for non-legal roles temporarily to get myself started but i could never give up on law, seems to be the only thing i enjoy and it’s definitely a job i’ve got the skills for.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

“i could never give up on law, seems to be the only thing i enjoy”

That’s the saddest thing I’ve heard in a longer while.

(4)(3)

Anonymous

Haha thanks, I may have led a sad life at least with regards to a career. Had a variety of jobs and none of them seem as enjoyable as a career in law. Would I have any luck putting that as my LinkedIn tag line? Being different supposedly gets you noticed.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

“That’s the saddest thing I’ve heard in a longer while.”

What an odd thing to say.

(9)(1)

Anon

I can’t justify working on 18k when I’m set to earn about 3-5 times more in my new role next year. I want a life that I can enjoy and money appears to be the only means of allowing that to happen at this moment in time.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Money doesn’t bring happiness. But if money is your main concern when looking for a job then yes law isn’t for you. So many people incorrectly choose to go down the law route at 18 because they think that’s where the money is. Luckily I’ve never thought that way but it has proved more difficult to get into than I expected.

(0)(0)

Laird Lyle of the Isles

It’s commercial, private client or the
Highway. legal aid is worse than dead. it requires one to act in the worst possible interests of one’s clients. And it’s administration is institutionally insane

(10)(0)

Anonymous

couldnt agree more. legal aid used to be the robin reliant service. now its worse than that. thats NOT to say the lawyers arent excellent, but they just dont have the time to help properly

(2)(0)

Incognito

As ever, Not Amused’s advice is spot-on. Personally, I seriously considered criminal law, when changing career a few years ago, but after a series of mini-pupilages, work experience with solicitors, crown court marshalling, four weeks jury service, and a few years as a magistrate, I realised that the reality was grim, and focused instead in getting in to the City. My friends who were criminal barristers have fled the sector, the most successful of whom managed to move sideways in to commercial law via a stint in Dubai.

I thought this podcast/article summed it up nicely:

https://www.legalcheek.com/2012/09/weber-shandwick-head-of-public-affairs-alex-deane-why-i-dont-miss-the-genteel-poverty-of-the-criminal-bar

Things you need to enjoy, to do this:

*”Schlepping around the country” to “grotty” courts and train stations
*Feeling like “a social worker with a wig on”
*The money (these days earnings for 4-7 year qualified criminal barristers often hover at not much more than the £20,000 mark).

Whatever you do, good luck… (If it’s criminal law, you’ll need it).

(8)(0)

Anonymous

I really want to work in Criminal Defence not as a barrister but as a solicitor having completed the LPC this year. Of course i’m aware the future’s bleak in Criminal Defence but surely you could combine practice in this area with other areas such as Clinical Negligence, Private Client etc?

(0)(1)

Anonymous

I’m very much in the same boat and the advice I’ve been given seems to be find a small criminal firm in desperate need of extra admin/paralegal staff and “volunteer” with them for a few years in the hope your loyalty will be rewarded
with a traineeship.

Most of the big Glasgow criminal firms adopt this approach. A lot of the time it’s being in the right place at the right time, however.

(2)(0)

Not Amused

“the advice I’ve been given seems to be find a small criminal firm in desperate need of extra admin/paralegal staff and “volunteer” with them for a few years in the hope your loyalty will be rewarded
with a traineeship. ”

Ok. Young people need to pause when they start thinking like this. They need to ask themselves “am I being rational?”.

In London most people have kids by 35. Outside London it is earlier, say 28. In order to support kids you need (from your job) a steady income and a place to live.

For most people inside London that means £50k+ a year and a mortgage and a place on the edge of London. For outside London I would guess £35k+ and a mortgage.

Let’s look at reality. Age 22 you undertake several years (say 3) of low paid para/admin/volunteer work. Age 25 you undertake a TC on minimum wage. Age 27 you get a job on minimum wage.

If you are outside London – congratulations you’re about to have kids – did you manage to save up that £30k deposit?

If in London, you’ve got 8 years of low pay extra in order to save the £70k deposit.

Legal aid is incredibly badly run. It is a national scandal. We urgently need a solution. But in the meantime I simply cannot watch innocent young people throwing their lives away.

Why on earth is anyone that desperate to be a lawyer? Do you not know that lots of non-lawyers enjoy their jobs too?

(15)(4)

Anonymous

This is the best advice i’ve seen. Although as a 25-year-old currently moving up North, i don’t like the idea of the fact i should be having kids in 3 years. I jest, i know you didnt mean everyone has kids at that age outside London.
But you make several very valid points. I’m not too concerned about the money at this stage but i still won’t work for less than £15k it’s simply impossible to start a future on that amount.

(0)(0)

deleted

If you can make more money doing an unskilled job, or as a temp, then it’s probably not worth it.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I was offered a job in London less than 15k in a firm, wasnt concerned with the money but came to realise the working environment wasnt great so turned down the offer. Also there are unskilled jobs and temping jobs out there offering more than 15k but that’s a sacrifice i’m willing to take right now.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Also what is your advice for people with a genuine interest in criminal defence? I do have a passion for other areas too but i would like to be able to practice some criminal defence.

(0)(1)

Anonymous

Not Amused on money/children is EXCELLENT. (for once)

(4)(0)

Anonymous

I do in-house crime.

In the regions.

Mainly Crown Court. 5 years call.

£45K+benefits.

(3)(0)

Boh Dear

In-house crime is usually called burglary.

(32)(1)

Frame it right

Work for Government. Get to work on big cases early on, help make legislation etc – lots of interesting people involved.

(3)(0)

Jade

You could consider the CPS. Keep an eye on the CPS website for trainee intakes. I am doing a training contract at the moment and really enjoying it.

(2)(0)

Legal aid criminal trainee

I was in a very similar situation to you in my final year. Although, I put the decision off for a year by doing a Masters. Having then done my LPC, I got a job as a paralegal at my current firm and after a year was offered a training contract starting immediately. My firm is a very well regarded London firm who specialise in crime, the vast majority of which is funded by legal aid.

In the current climate, it is almost impossible to get a training contract in a criminal firm, without first working as a paralegal for that firm. (HJA are the one exception that I can think of.) If you really do want to do crime, it is very likely that you are not going to secure a training contract without first having first worked as a paralegal and probably also self-funding the LPC (although definitely check out scholarships, there are a limited number out there and they are obtainable).

I don’t think there is a particularly straightforward way of finding suitable firms either, there is no quick and easy to refer to student guide to criminal law firms. However, in my experience, careers people from the LPC providers tend to be a lot more knowledgeable then undergraduate university careers services when it comes to non-commercial legal careers

As a starting point, you could try the legal rankings and then moving onto firms’ websites in order to try and get a feel for what they are like. However, do take the ratings with a pinch of salt. For example, a lot of the other Tier 1 criminal firms in London are very selective in the “criminal” work they do and do not do the full spectrum of crime. Moreover, there are also plenty of very good criminal firms who are rated lower down in the rankings or are not in them at all.

From there, you will need to put in the hard yards and get out there and talk to firms. Try and get as much work experience as possible and talk to as many people who actually practice in crime as possible. The insights this will give you cannot be replicated my any amount of reading on the internet or third hand gossip. It may also be worth going to your local magistrates court and observing what goes on, who is there regularly and the quality of their work.

Finally, don’t commit to crime unless you are completely passionate about it. Morale across the profession is awful and the money isn’t great. There are a lot of disillusioned young criminal lawyers who are struggling to move into different careers.

However, all that being said… I love what I do and derive enormous amounts of satisfaction from my job, it pays the bills and I can’t think of anything else I would rather do.

(3)(0)

shadowy figure

I did this for civil liberties but it might be the same for legal aid generally:

1. Do lots of work experience at places like CAB, advice centres, campaign groups working on civil liberties issues, women’s rights groups etc.

2. go on legal 500 or chambers UK. look at the top firms in the area of law you are interested in – family, civil liberties, crime etc. go on the website of each one and see if they have any work experience/internship opportunities. http://www.bhattmurphy.co.uk/ does an excellent one and it is paid living wage (in civil liberties).

3. there will be smaller legal aid firms near you where you will almost definitely be able to get work experience.

4. read about issues in your chosen area of legal aid law, become passionate and knowledgeable about it. you can read the guardian and decided cases in supreme court website, books relevant to that area of law etc.

5. you need good academic skills and credentials just like for any other area of law

6. once you have all this it’s time to look for a training contract. legal aid firms do not recruit years in advance like city firms do. nor do the majority of them offer training contracts straight off the bat, often you will need to work as a paralegal first. go back to the legal 500/chambers UK list of top firms, work out what jobs are going and start applying. also look at firms which are not listed there but who do work in those areas of law for jobs. this is a great page – http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org/jobs that lists lots of opportunities in legal aid law but it is not an exhaustive list. dont get put off if you dont get a training contract straight away, like i said its not the done thing in this area of law (as far as I know) and working as a paralegal for a year/few years will put you in a good position to get one. (sorry, I don’t know anything about the legal aid bar)

you also need to keep in mind that legal aid firms are EXTREMELY unlikely to be able to fund your studies in GDL/LPC. so you will need to self fund which is of course tough – GDL costs maybe £6,000, LPC more like £10,000 or more. you may want to study while working part time. also bear in mind that it is very competitive. there are few opportunities in this area of law now because of the government cuts. at the same time, you dont need to be brilliant to get in there – as long as you are reasonably smart, passionate, committed to legal aid and have a good amount of work experience you will most probably be OK.

this is a great organisation if you are thinking of going into legal aid law – http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org/ they have a mentoring scheme where you can be helped out by someone who’s already in the profession and lots of info about it.

of course this is the practical advice, you need to work out if it is really what you want to do. i cant really offer much advice in this respect because i think that our desires are often complicated and contradictory and it is hard to know if you will really like a career until you get there. no one can tell you what you want, you need to work it out for yourself. but as far as I can see it is a rewarding, exciting and intellectually challenging profession. and the only thing I would say is that it’s not something you can just fall into, unlike corporate law where as long as you have a decent Russell Group 2.i, read the economist once in a while and were on the Law Society committee you can pretty much walk into a training contract. it is hard to enter legal aid law, you will need to spend years doing unpaid work experience, self funding through the LPC/GDL, working as a paralegal before you get a training contract – and the pay is low even once you qualify. so i think you have to really want it and be determined, to get through all of that.

(10)(2)

Mr Pineapples

Ah just don’t bother

(0)(0)

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