A brief overview to a career as a solicitor
Once a trainee has completed their training contract (or two-year period of qualifying work experience), and “provided they meet the regulator’s professional standards and regulations”, they will be admitted to the roll and become a qualified solicitor in England and Wales.
The majority of newly qualified (NQ) solicitors remain at the firm they trained at. Law firms aim to retain all their trainees, given the considerable investment they put into their respective training programmes, however retention rates do vary significantly between firms due a range of factors including financial performance, career progression opportunities, and competition around practice areas to qualify into. For a complete rundown of firm retention rates, see Legal Cheek’s Firms Most List and select ‘Most retained trainees’ as the criteria.
Which practice area should I qualify into?
It is important to carefully consider which area of law you want to practice as an NQ as this will set you on the pathway for the rest of your legal career.
Things to consider include:
● Is it an area you are likely to excel in?
● Do you find the work rewarding?
● Does this area offer good opportunities for career progression?
● Do you enjoy the team you would be joining?
When to apply for NQ positions
When a trainee should apply for an NQ position will inevitably vary from firm to firm, however the general rule is to apply as soon as the vacancies are announced internally. Trainees should aim to know whether or not they will be retained around three to six months before qualifying, so they can plan ahead and, if required, look to secure an NQ position at another firm.
What should I expect as a NQ solicitor?
The main difference from trainee to NQ level is that the expectations placed on you shift. As a NQ solicitor, you will be expected to take on more responsibility for your own clients with less supervision and oversight. Another notable difference is that NQs are usually required to meet higher billable hours targets — the set number of hours that solicitors are required to bill to clients each year in order to bring in income to the firm.
Pay also increases significantly upon qualification, with many firms offering nearly twice the salary from trainee to NQ level. For a complete comparison of law firms’ target hours and salaries, see our Firms Most List.
The years after qualification are formally graded based on what is known as ‘post-qualification experience’ (PQE). For example, a lawyer who qualified two years ago would be often described as a ‘two PQE associate’. Like with the transition from trainee to NQ, pay between PQE levels increases too.
At one to three years PQE the attrition rate is relatively high, making it a prime time for lateral hires (associates moving from one firm to another). The motivations behind these moves vary based on individual circumstances. However, common reasons include the desire to work at a different law firm, to become more specialist, or to move in-house. Moving in-house is particularly popular as this kind of work tends to be less time pressured and often brings with it a better work/life balance.
For many junior lawyers, partnership will be the ultimate long-term career goal. The routes to partnership vary according to the corporate structure of a particular law firm. Although, generally, firms present partnership opportunities at around ten year’s PQE. In addition, some law firms also have an intermediary stage, whereby senior associates have the chance to become what is known as ‘salaried partners’, or ‘of counsel’. Salaried partners/of counsel is a hybrid role, taken prior to becoming an equity partner. Salaried partners can therefore expect to earn less compared to those with full equity status.
Where the financial rewards really increase is at equity partner level. All equity partners gain a stake in the business and become part of the LLPs corporate structure. In turn, under the LLP structure, partners will share the LLPs profits and losses, and incur limited liability up to the amount they put into the partnership. On the contrary, a minority of law firms still operate under the old limited partnership (LP) corporate structure. Under these partnership structures, some partners will enjoy limited liability whilst other general partners will have unlimited personal liability.
The income of equity partners averages at around £750,000 a year, although this hefty sum can fluctuate dramatically depending on the firm and seniority of the equity partner. For example, an equity partner at a top US firm can expect to earn northwards of £3 million. You can find a comprehensive comparison of partner remuneration on our Firms Most List.