Industry Guide Part 2: Legal

Part 2 of our insight into the Legal profession takes a look at the qualifications and skills that employers look for in a candidate for a wide variety of roles, what makes a good legal CV, interview preperation, and what career goals you should set yourself in your new legal career.

What qualifications are important in Legal?

To be blunt you need to have a bit of nouse about you and a good deal of grey matter to work in the legal profession. The ability to form coherent, strong and convincing arguments and identify flaws in your opponents’ case, combined with the resilience to work sometimes excessive hours under pressure takes a certain type of person who is able to cope with all these things. 

As mentioned earlier, for many a legal career is a matter of choosing between being a solicitor or a barrister but, there are a number of other roles to choose from that do not demand a university degree as a pre-requisite for entry. So if you are undergoing a career change and don’t have a degree don’t think that that will be a barrier to you getting the job you want.

For instance, Legal Executives, Law Costs Draftsmen, Barrister’s Clerk/Advocate’s Clerk and Licensed Conveyancers can get in with 4 GCSEs and ‘A’ Levels with new entrants going on to specific on the job training with their respective professional association – such as the Institute of Legal Executives – where they can ‘earn while they learn’. And for those already working in- and with some vocational experience of- the legal sector but without any formal qualifications, an NVQ (Level 4) in Legal Practice is available.

The same is true for Paralegals who like Legal Executives can eventually graduate to become fully fledged Solicitors upon completion of a minimum five-year qualifying period that results in becoming a Fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives and a further two years thereafter.

Most new entrants into the profession are Solicitor and Barristers. With both roles a university degree (2:1 or above) – preferably in Law – is a must, although Fellows of the Institute of Legal Executives do not necessarily require a degree as mentioned above. If your degree isn’t in law then you will need to take the postgraduate Diploma in Law or the Common Professional Examination (CPE).

As with all professions any experience you have gained which is related to your area of interest will stand you in good stand when it comes to the job application process, whether that be in the form of a work placement whilst at university or approaching local employers directly to volunteer your services – this will give you an insight into what its like working in a legal setting and who knows, your employer may be impressed enough to offer you a job.

What skills are important in Legal?

Having the right qualifications is one thing but, employers in the legal profession don’t just look for the brightest candidates with the most impressive academic credentials to their name. Of equal- some might say greater- importance are the personal qualities and skills that an individual must be able to demonstrate before any employer will open the door to your legal career.

Although the nature of a Barrister’s work will be different than that of a Paralegal in much the same way as a Solicitor’s will vary to a Court Clerk, for example, there is a core set of skills that employers look for that are common to across all roles of the legal spectrum. 

  • organisational skills
  • a good command of written and spoken English
  • genuine interest and broad knowledge of the law
  • logical thinker and problem solving ability
  • sensitivity and integrity yet assertive at the same time
  • attention to detail
  • articulate
  • discretion and trustworthiness
  • meticulous attention  to detail
  • evidence of teamworking ability
  • good interpersonal skills and the ability to relate with people at all levels

To be a barrister, the ability to interpret complex legal documentation into clear and basic English combined with a high degree of technical understanding in order to be able to cross-examine an expert witness in court, for example, will be highly desirable skills in this role. As will your public speaking ability, debating skills and – dare we say – showmanship so that you can put on a good performance in a self-confident and assured manner in the court room.

Just because you have no experience of ever dealing with ‘complex legal documentation’ and have never been called upon to cross examine anyone before, for instance, remember that employers are looking for evidence of your ‘potential’ to do these things and not necessarily your proven ability to display these skills in a legal environment – employers are aware that you are probably a newly qualified graduate or career changer with little or no previous work experience within the legal profession.

Therefore, the way you ‘sell’ your potential is to think of instances when you have used some of these skills in your old career, during your work placement or even non-work related activities. So don’t get hung up on the specifics.

What makes a good Legal CV?

OK, so you’ve got the qualifications and skills that employers are looking for, now all you need to do is convince a potential employer that you are the best candidate for the job on the two pieces of paper that have the power to kick-start your new legal career – your CV.

With the legal profession being one of the most popular career destinations for graduates, competition for entry level places is high. And employers, especially those with a large intake of new recruits, will take as little as half a minute scanning your CV. So you need to make sure that yours stands out from the crowd.

Your CV has just one purpose in life – to get you an interview, which means that the information contained within it needs to be tailored to the job you are applying for and hits all the right notes that turn an employer on. As its unlikely that you will have any direct work experience within the legal profession you will need to use a skills-based CV that uses the basic building blocks of the more traditional chronological CV( which you will be using as your career progresses), but places more emphasis on the work-related skills you have developed and can demonstrate.

If you have just graduated from university and this is the first ‘proper’ job you’ve applied for, make your Education the centre piece of your CV. Include relevant coursework that has relevance to the job you are applying for, awards, publications, qualifications and grades. You should also include information on any work placement you have done during the course of your studies and the skills you have acquired during the course of your university career.

In the previous section we look at the key skills and attributes employers look for, some of which will be stated in the job advert itself. But if the advert states that the employer is looking for ‘Demonstrable technical ability’ or ‘Good analytical skills’, for example, don’t fall into the trap of simply listing these skills on your CV, demonstrate how you have used them in a practical setting regardless of whether you have any legal work experience or not. Perhaps you wrote a key research paper on employment law, or worked alongside a legal executive in the preparation of a case.

But don’t forget who your audience is. Your CV is likely to be vetted first by someone in the company’s human resources department who may be unfamiliar with some of the legal jargon used in this profession. So avoid getting too technical in your choice of language and make your CV clear, concise and easy to read.

What should I expect during the interview process?

Although the legal systems of Northern Ireland, Scotland and England & Wales are different from one another with variances in some job roles (Barristers are called Advocates in Scotland whereas Legal Executives don’t exist north of the border) the application process is largely the same throughout the UK.

The very fact that you have been invited for interview means that your CV has done its job and impressed an employer just enough for them to ask you along and see if you can actually do all the things that you claim you can do.

Interviews can – and sometimes are – a scary experience, especially if you have never done one before now. But as long as you are prepared for what is to come, the rest will take of itself. With the high volume of applicants coming through their door, large-scale employers recruiting for entry-level positions will use assessment centres as one of their main methods of screening which candidates they consider to be the strongest and warrant a formal interview at a later date.

These assessment centres will typically take place at the company’s head office where you will be pitted against your fellow candidates under the watchful eyes of representatives from human resources and the department where you are hoping to eventually work in. During the day you will be put through a series of exercises that are designed to test your practical problem solving skills, teamworking ability, creativity and various other skills along with a number of individual challenges such as psychometric test and presentations.

Small-scale employers will mostly cut out the assessment centre process altogether and go straight to interview where you will be given the opportunity to convince the employer that you are the best person for the job.

Having broken the ice with a few gentle niceties (“What did you enjoy most about your law degree?/Tell us about your current job”), the questions will gradually start to become tougher as the interviewer probes more and more into your background (“What achievements are you most proud of?“), your motivations for applying for the job (“What should we hire you?), and your degree of self-awareness (“What are your strengths and weaknesses?“).  So make sure you have some answers already prepared to avoid being caught off-guard.

And when the job offer comes through your door don’t be tempted to snap their hands off just yet. Make sure you weigh up all the pros and cons of the offer – can the company offer you what you want in terms of training provision, salary, career progression, location…you get the point. Ultimately, go with your gut instincts – they’re rarely wrong.

What career goals should I set myself?

In a sector which employs around 700,000 people and is a magnate for quite literally thousands of hopeful applicants every year, it is pretty safe to assume that you may not walk straight into the job of your dreams but, you can still land the job you really want, with a little patience. 

 Increasingly graduates and career changers are taking on jobs that were done by non-graduates just a few years ago and are using this as an opportunity to get their foot in the door and work their way up from there.  Like any career you need to learn the ropes first and develop your all-round skills and understanding of the law before you can even begin to smell the cigar smoke and taste the cognac as Partner, Barrister or QC.

Solicitors, for instance, can expect to undertake an ‘apprenticeship’ prior to becoming qualified and can realistically become a Partner after six years post-qualification. But in smaller firms there are usually fewer steps to take and career progression could happen sooner rather than later. In the meantime many solicitors choose to specialise in certain areas of the law, such as corporate, family, employment, tax…the list goes on.

After completing their pupillage, Barristers will look to be taken on as tenants within chambers (a term used to describe a collective of barristers) where they will, after time, work on a self-employed basis or as part of a larger legal team within a private company or public sector organisation. While Legal Executives can choose between one of two distinct career paths – the senior executive-to-manager route or take the further professional study and become a qualified solicitor route. 

But as with most things in life we often take a see things with rose tinted spectacles when we are looking at them from the outside in, the reality is sometimes very different. There may be aspects of your work that are exactly how you imagined before you started your legal career, some that are not as good as you hoped and others that are just about on the money. Providing your ambitions, interests and skills can be fulfilled in the law then you can rest assured you are probably doing the right career for you.

Next articles in the Legal series will be: 

What can my next career move be?

What achievement should I add to my CV?

What are the important skills to develop?

How can I get my boss to recognise my efforts?

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About yourcareermatters
CareerMatters was founded as part of MacKenzie-Cummins Communications in 2006 by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins MICG (Member Institute of Careers Guidance), regarded as one of the UK's leading career's advice and guidance writers and specialist PR consultant for the UK recruitment industry. Since 2006 Paul has been the leading advice writer for Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com - the two biggest careers website in the world -tackling all aspects of workplace and management issues, job seeking, career change and hiring trends. In 2006, 2007 and 2008 his writing contributed to Monster winning the Best Employment Advice on the Internet Award for an unprecedented three times beating the likes of The Guardian, Learn Direct and Personnel Today on each occasion. And his work was a runner-up for the same award in 2009. In 2009 Paul was a nominee in the prestigious HR Journalist of the Year Award and Recruitment, Retention & Motivation Journalist of the Year Award. Paul has been commissioned to write more than 500 careers advice and guidance articles for a number of lpublications, from regional and national newspapers to industry publications and various career-specific websites in the UK and USA. Recently, Paul was the Technical Editor for career psychologist Dr Rob Yeung's Job Hunting & Career Change for Dummies (John Wiley & Son, 2007). Dr Yeung is better known as the TV psychologist for Channel 4's Big Brother and the BBC's Who Would Hire You? series. Clients include: Monster.com CareerBuilder.com MSN Careers (Europe) TheLadders TotalJobs SalesTarget.co.uk IntaPeople Recruitment Lifetracks/YouthNET MediaSalesJobs The Press Gazette

One Response to Industry Guide Part 2: Legal

  1. dugg lowe says:

    I’d add one more thing to this, without a doubt, perfect aticle:
    don’t allow yourself any informal language. I’ve seen numerous CVs where applicants exercise some inappropriate wit or/and humour.

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