This article is written by Nidhi Bajaj from Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab. The article aims at elucidating the process of becoming a lawyer in the UK and the US.
Law is a highly competitive and challenging profession. But it is very rewarding as well. Indian lawyers often dream of practising in the States and countries like London. But is that dream too far-fetched? Well, this article will help you to find that out, so keep reading till the end. In this article, I will take you through the journey of becoming a lawyer in the US and the UK including how an Indian lawyer/foreign-trained lawyer or a student with an Indian/ overseas degree can fulfill his dream of practising in the US or the UK.
Becoming a lawyer in the UK is a tough row to hoe. It involves a bunch of steps from completing a university degree to undergoing years of training. The UK includes four countries i.e. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own separate procedures and legal systems. In this article, I will be primarily focusing on England and Wales as they have shared legal jurisdiction and courts.
Solicitors and barristers
The legal profession in the UK is divided into two branches, solicitors and barristers.
Solicitors are lawyers who give legal advice to a client outside of court. In addition to giving legal advice, their work also includes preparing case bundles, legal documents, contracts and research etc.
Whereas a barrister is a lawyer specialising in advocacy and litigation who represents, defends and advocates for a client in court. They are usually hired by solicitors to represent a client in court. A significant portion of the barristers in the UK are self-employed while others work in government departments or agencies including the Government Legal Service (GLS) and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Becoming a solicitor in the UK : University route
Qualifying as a lawyer in the UK through the university route involves the following steps:
- Step I- Getting a law degree (LLB).
- Step II- Taking an SQE preparation course (This is only for those who have studied an unrelated subject at the undergraduate level).
- Step III- Sitting the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
- Step IV- Completing 2 years of qualifying legal experience which can include a training contract.
- Step V- Passing the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) character and suitability requirements.
What is Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SEQ)
For qualifying as a solicitor, it is mandatory to pass the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination) irrespective of the route you choose (university route or apprenticeship route) or whether you have completed your law degree from the UK itself or have an overseas law degree or are a lawyer from overseas aiming to practise in the UK. SQE has replaced the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) with effect from September 2021.
Before September 2021, becoming a solicitor in the UK involved the following stages:
- Qualifying a Law degree or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL);
- Legal Practice Course (LPC);
- Professional Skills Course;
- Training Contract;
- Satisfactory Character and suitability.
Now, with the introduction of SQE, the whole system is about to undergo a major change as both GDL and LPC have been done away with. Greater uniformity and consistency is expected with the introduction of this standardised exam for qualifying as a solicitor.
Steps to qualify as a solicitor through the SQE route
- The very first step is completing your law degree or an equivalent qualification, or gaining equivalent experience.
- You must have the requisite legal knowledge to pass the SQE (this can be achieved by taking an LLB or an SQE Preparation Course).
- The next step is passing SQE stage 1 and stage 2.
- This stage involves getting practical legal work experience. You need to have at least two years of qualifying legal work experience.
- And the last step is applying for admission to the roll of solicitors.
What does the SQE exam involve
The SQE Exam is divided into two parts:
Part I involves a series of computer-based examinations aimed at testing a candidate’s ability to use and apply legal knowledge. You get three attempts (taken within six years) to pass the exam. Proposed exam topics for SQE 1 include topics such as professional conduct, property law and practice, public and administrative law, legal systems of England and Wales, criminal law and practice, commercial and corporate law and practice, wills and the administration of estates and trusts.
Between SQE 1 and SQE 2, there is one more stage called work-based learning. Candidates are required to undergo a period of ‘work-based learning’ in a law firm or SRA approved organisation. It may include working as a paralegal or in a student law clinic etc. The training goes on for 24 months, and at the end of the training, candidates are required to sit part two of the SQE.
Part II of SQE includes a series of assessments to test the core legal skills of the candidates including client interviewing, case analysis, advocacy, legal research, written advice and drafting. It takes place after the completion of work-based learning. A candidate can sit in SQE 2 only after passing stage 1.
Becoming a Solicitor in the UK : apprenticeship route
Another way to enter the UK Bar is through legal apprenticeship. Legal apprenticeship involves working and studying concurrently. There are three types of legal apprenticeships, namely, solicitor apprenticeship, paralegal apprenticeship and chartered legal executive apprenticeship.
Solicitor Apprenticeship is a six-year program that targets A-level graduates, chartered legal executives and paralegals. It is pertinent to mention that progression from one apprenticeship onto the next is also possible. For example, those undergoing a paralegal apprenticeship could progress onto the chartered legal executive or solicitor apprenticeship. The solicitor apprenticeship scheme covers all the contents of a law degree and enables the apprentices to get a law degree and an LLM. Along with completing the apprenticeship, you have to pass the SQE as well for qualifying as a solicitor. The SQE assessment will include two parts, stage 1 (on-programme assessment) and stage 2 (end-point assessment), which must be taken during the last six months of your apprenticeship.
What happens in a legal apprenticeship
A legal apprenticeship program involves a blend of:
- Work-based learning (Around 80%);
- Theoretical learning, online or offline (Around 20%).
Most of the time the apprentices work at the law firms and develop their legal skills and gain varied knowledge in different areas of law. This practical learning is often combined with theoretical learning, as every once a week, the apprentices are sent to an educational institution (that has partnered with the sponsoring firm) to learn the theoretical aspects of the law. The various tasks of an apprentice include drafting correspondence to clients, attending client meetings, negotiating and drafting contracts and other legal documents, researching, preparing for and attending court proceedings and proofreading legal documents etc.
The candidate is required to maintain an up to date portfolio of the tasks undertaken in the apprenticeship that will serve as evidence of his work experience.
Eligibility for applying for a legal apprenticeship
The requirements for applying for a legal apprenticeship may vary according to the route you take or the firm providing apprenticeship but most firms expect applicants to have:
- At least five GCSEs at grade A-C / 7-4 (including Maths and English);
- Three A-levels at grade C and above, some firms expect as much as ABB etc.
Becoming a barrister in the UK
To become a barrister in the UK, you have to complete three stages of training:
- The academic component i.e. completion of law degree.
- Vocational component i.e. a Bar course, traditionally the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). BPTC is now replaced by the Vocational Component of Bar Training.
- Pupillage, also known as the work-based learning component.
On completion of all the training components, you can apply for tenancy as a self-employed barrister in chambers or choose to practice as an employed barrister.
The academic component
It is expected that the barristers have good knowledge of the legal system and law in England and Wales. The academic component of training includes completion of a law degree or a non-law degree and the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). Your degree needs to be a minimum of a 2:2. It is essential that your law degree covers the seven foundations of legal knowledge including Criminal Law, Law of the European Union, Equity and Trusts, Contract, Tort, Property Law and Public Law (Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and Human Rights Law).
The vocational component of Bar training
The vocational Component of Bar training is a postgraduate course aimed at preparing the candidate for pupillage and barrister practice. It is mandatory to pass this course for commencing pupillage or beginning tenancy in chambers. The course will teach you important subjects such as advocacy, criminal and civil litigation, sentencing, evidence and professional ethics. In addition to the core modules, you can choose to specialise in a particular area by opting for an elective module such as Company Law, Advanced Criminal Litigation, Family Law, Commercial Law, Employment Law etc.
Eligibility for applying for the vocational component of Bar training
One can apply for the vocational component of Bar training:
- If you have graduated with a qualifying law degree; or
- You have graduated with a non-law degree and completed the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)
- Passing the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) which tests your aptitude for critical thinking and reasoning
- Joining one of the four Inns of Court is essential before starting the vocational component. The Inns of Court are the professional associations for barristers in England and Wales. Your Inn will “Call” you to the Bar after you have successfully passed a Bar training course and completed ten “qualifying sessions” at your Inn.
- Being fluent in English.
What is pupillage
Pupillage refers to work-based practical training that a person has to undergo under the supervision of an experienced barrister, in order to be authorised to practice as a barrister. Those who are undergoing pupillage are called ‘pupils’. Pupillage is divided into two parts, a non-practising period, usually of six months, and a practising period, usually of six months. Pupils earn a minimum amount as fixed by the rules during the period of pupillage. For successful completion of the work-based learning, it is required that the supervising barrister confirms that the pupil has met the required standard, after which the candidate can apply for the first Practising Certificate.
How to become a lawyer in the UK : for those having an overseas law degree
Did you know that overseas law degrees are not recognised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority as qualifying law degrees? However, the traditional practice followed until now was that students having a full-time overseas degree in any subject including law were allowed entry in the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or equivalent law conversion course after which they could either go for LPC ( for becoming a solicitor) or the vocational component of bar training( for becoming a barrister). However, from September 2021 GDL has been replaced by the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination).
How to become a lawyer in the UK : for those already practising in their home countries
Until September 2021, a person who is practising law in his home country could qualify for practising in the UK under the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS). But now the QLTS has been replaced by SQE and an Indian lawyer who wishes to practice in the UK has to pass the Solicitors Qualifying Examination.
How long does it take to become a lawyer in the UK
Qualifying as a solicitor in the UK can take up to 5 or 6 years if you study full time. This includes a 3-year law degree, SQE and 2 years of legal experience. Becoming a barrister in the UK takes five years, including three years for your law degree, one year for a Bar course and a one-year pupillage in chambers.
However, qualifying as a lawyer in the UK may take a longer period in case you have a non-law degree and you have to take an SQE Prep Course before sitting the exams.
Skills needed to become a good lawyer in the UK
- Verbal and written reasoning skills;
- Ability to interpret complex material and information;
- Inductive and deductive reasoning abilities;
- Ability to analyse information and draw conclusions.
Becoming a lawyer in the US requires years of strenuous efforts and payment of hefty law school fees. But before getting into the question of how one can become a lawyer in the US, let us first know about the key skills that you must have to become a good lawyer in the US. These skills are given as follows:
- How to apply the law to the facts of each case;
- Good vocabulary;
- Ability to understand complex written material;
- Ability to write clearly and concisely;
- Sound reasoning skills;
- Good memory;
- Good listening skills;
- Good communication skills;
- Good analytical skills;
- Research and problem-solving abilities.
Becoming a lawyer in the US
The common route to becoming a lawyer in the US involves the following stages:
Step 1: Completing a Bachelor’s degree
If you want to get into a good law school, performing well in your undergrad degree is very important. You may choose to major in any subject that will help you prepare for law school. There is no requirement of taking a specific subject in college but taking a subject you enjoy will surely work in your favour in the long run.
Step 2: Appearing for LSAT
The next step is taking the LSATs i.e. Law School Admission Test. It is the exam that will get you into law school. The test is offered 4 times a year and will assess your reading and verbal reasoning skills. Your LSAT score along with certain other considerations determines the fate of your law school application.
Step 3: Getting into law school
The next step is earning a Juris Doctor (JD) degree (usually of 3 years) from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. Keep in mind that you will be shortlisted based not only on your GPAs and LSAT scores but also on your personal statement, recommendation letters and resume.
General requirements for application:
- A bachelor’s degree or it’s equivalent (4-year university degree) in any subject;
- Registering for the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS);
- Submitting LSAT scores;
- TOEFL scores if English is not your native language;
- Financial documents showing proof of funds.
Step 4: Sitting the Bar Exam
The last and the most difficult step is passing the bar exam. Most states in the US have their own bar exam. However, some states might have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam. Also, some states such as Arizona, Oregon allow law students to sit the bar exams before their graduation, while in some states such as Kentucky you cannot give the bar exam before completing your law degree. So, it is very important to check the rules and other procedural details of the State where you want to practise. To help you with your preparation, you can also enrol in a bar prep or bar review course.
Becoming a lawyer in the USA : Indian students or Indian lawyers/Foreign-trained lawyers
An Indian lawyer practising in the US seems like a long shot, but with hard work, dedication and a pinch of smartness it is not impossible to achieve this.
The Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law state that the lawyers qualifying from a common law country and having more than 2 years of experience can submit their law degree for analysis and review. If it is successful, then they are not required to sit the bar exam.
Another way of practising in the US for an Indian student is through the LLM route. You can pursue an LLM degree before being eligible to take the bar exam. If you pass the bar exam, you will be allowed to practise in the US.
However, the requirements of each state in the US may vary for sitting the bar exam. Most states do require a JD to sit the bar exam but some states will allow you to give the bar exam without earning a JD degree. Let us analyse the position in some of the US states:
In California, a foreign-trained lawyer who has been admitted to practise outside the US is eligible to give the Bar exam without any additional requirements. And a foreign-trained lawyer who has not been admitted to practice outside the US can become eligible for taking the bar exam after completion of an LLM in the US. The program must cover four separate subjects that are tested on the California Bar Exam including the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Professional Responsibility course that covers the California Business and Professions Code and leading relevant federal and state case law. There is also a provision for an additional 1 year of schooling in a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. The year shall be focused on the subject material of bar examination.
A foreign-trained lawyer who has completed a 3-year program focused on English common law is allowed to sit the New York bar exam after receiving an Advance Evaluation of Eligibility from the Board. All other foreign-trained lawyers have to complete an LLM program that should meet certain qualifications before they can give the bar exam.
There are 34 other jurisdictions where there is scope for a foreign-trained lawyer to enter a state’s bar. However, all these states have varying rules. In most cases, your foreign law degree has to be reviewed and approved by the American Bar Association. This process can take about 1 year or even more than that. Also, you need to fulfill the requirements of the state whose bar exam you want to give.
In Washington, the law school that you choose for your LLM degree has to be approved by the Board of Governors. The LLM degree must include at least 12,000 minutes on the principles of U.S. domestic law and 18,200 minutes of instruction.
This state allows foreign-trained students having LLM degrees to give the bar exam. This degree must include at least 700 minutes of instruction per semester credit hour. The degree must be completed in a minimum of two 13-week semesters.
Vermont is the only state that has given recognition to foreign law degrees with some sort of regularity. The state has an apprenticeship program in place to assist foreign-trained attorneys in preparing for its bar exam.
Apart from the above-mentioned requirements, there are certain other state-specific requirements to be fulfilled by a foreign-trained lawyer to qualify as an attorney in the US such as taking the MPRE (Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination) and passing the fitness and character requirements for the state’s bar exam. Thus, you are advised to duly check the various requirements and other details on the state-specific bar exam website.
In addition to good academic grades, what makes you stand out as a lawyer is your practical legal experience and your abilities. Thus, your law firm internships, research experience or experience gained while working in a legal aid clinic also plays an important role in your journey to being a good lawyer. If you want to become a lawyer in the UK, you should know that the earlier framework of GDL and LPC has been replaced by the Solicitors Qualifying Examination and it is mandatory to pass this exam in order to qualify as a lawyer in the UK. However, there is a transition period allowed for those already undertaking a law degree or already enrolled in either the GDL or LPC to continue to completion. Whereas, if you are aiming to practice in the USA, you have to be very particular about the state in which you wish to practice and do proper research as to the favourable aspects and difficulties that the state-specific requirements may pose for you.
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