Who’s who in law: key roles and career pathways in the legal profession

Barrister Making Speech In CourtDo you know a paralegal from a QC? Is a solicitor the same as a lawyer?  This quick overview explains some of the key roles and career pathways in the legal profession.

Legal support staff
Legal support staff work in law firms, legal departments, courts, the police, and local and national government. They provide administrative and secretarial support to colleagues carrying out legal work. Entry routes and requirements vary – specialist recruitment agencies often have further details.

Paralegal
The role of a paralegal can cover a range of job titles, such as legal administrator or legal fee-earner. It describes people who carry out legal work and give advice to clients, but who are not qualified lawyers. There is no single career pathway, but paralegals usually have had classroom teaching and on-the-job training. The new Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Services aims to provide a more structured approach.

See the Institute for Paralegals for more details.

Lawyer
A lawyer is a general term that covers solicitors, chartered legal executive lawyers (sometimes called CILEx lawyers) and barristers.

Solicitor
Solicitors carry out legal business for individual and corporate clients, and present cases in lower courts. Solicitors can undertake a wide range of work – for many of life’s major milestones, such as buying your own house or making a will, you’re likely to use the services of a local or high-street solicitor, whereas solicitors employed at global law firms may deal with multi-million pound contracts and negotiations.

The key stages to becoming a solicitor are:

  • either a degree in law or any other subject followed by a one-year conversion course;
  • Legal Practice Course (LPC) – one year full time;
  • Practice-based training (training contract) incorporating the Professional Skills Course – two years full-time.

See the Law Society for more information.

Chartered legal executive lawyer
A chartered legal executive is a qualified lawyer who is trained to specialise in a particular area of law, whereas solicitors have a broader, more general legal background. Training takes place through the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) and combines working in a legal organisation with studying for recognised professional qualifications.  Entry levels and training depend on qualifications, but the starting point is a minimum of 4 GCSEs.  See Becoming a lawyer without going to university.

Barrister 
Barristers advise on legal problems submitted through solicitors and present cases in court. They are known collectively as the Bar. If you’re appearing in court accused of a serious crime, you’ll have a criminal barrister on your defence – and opposing you on the prosecution.

There are three key stages to becoming a barrister:

  • either a degree in Law or any other subject followed by a one-year conversion course;
  • The Bar Professional Training Couse – one year full time;
  • a one-year apprenticeship known as a pupillage, in a barristers’ chambers or other approved organisation.

See the Bar Council for more information.

QC: Queen’s Counsel
Senior barristers can apply to become a Queen’s Counsel, or QC, a mark of outstanding ability. Applications are considered on the basis of merit, rather than length of service. Becoming a QC is sometimes referred to as ‘taking the silk’ as QCs can wear a black silk gown in court.

Judge
Judges deal with criminal, civil and family court cases. They preside over law courts and make judgements based on the evidence presented. A judge uses their specialist knowledge and experience to ensure cases and verdicts are carried out within the limits of the law, and then passes a judgement or sentence that takes account of these considerations.

The Judiciary of England and Wales has further details.

Magistrate
Magistrates are trained, unpaid members of their local community, who work part-time and deal with less serious criminal cases, such as minor theft, criminal damage, public disorder and motoring offences. All criminal cases begin in a magistrates court and serious cases are then referred to the crown court. You don’t need formal qualifications to become a magistrate, but you need to show you have the right personal qualities and are of good character.

Further information on becoming a magistrate is available on GOV.UK

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