Career Advisor: legal eagle

Photo/The Yorck Project
Photo/The Yorck Project

Law has long been a popular career choice for Oxford students, and not just due to the Law Society’s famed refreshments; it enjoys a reputation as one of the most well-paid and prestigious careers open to graduates. But how much do we actually know about getting into law? The OxStu spoke to some top lawyers to find out about the changes the field is currently undergoing, the potential impact on would-be lawyers, and how best to get started, debunking several of the most common myths.

Myth One: Law is a surefire route to financial success

First up, the bad news. Money troubles and the recession have affected national law firms in much the same way they have Comet and Woolworths on the high street, with some firms even becoming insolvent. In general, the increasing costs mean most firms have rapidly grown in size, with the result that it is now much harder to become a partner or be your own boss. In return for the high salaries of big firms, particularly in the City of London, you’ll often be expected to work much longer hours. You will most likely be driven by tight deadlines and put under a lot of pressure from clients or opponents, depending on the type of law. Fun fact: according to a recent survey assessing which occupations have the ‘highest number of psychopaths’, law came in second…

It’s not all doom and gloom however; these larger firms can offer a greater degree of job security, structured and stable career paths and exposure to interesting work – most lawyers thrive on the constant variety and excitement of the job, and the fact remains that the top positions do still offer very attractive salaries.

Myth Two: A good degree will guarantee you a job

It is a very competitive market. A good class of degree is essential – this applies to would-be barristers in particular, and the Bar Council website warns that even of those who complete the Bar Professional Training Course, fewer than one in five are successful in obtaining pupillages. But academics aren’t everything, and employers also emphasised the need for good communication skills, organisation and other qualities. Your ability to write essays means nothing if you’re a gibbering wreck when it comes to public speaking. As we all learned from Legally Blonde (in addition to the bend and snap manoeuvre), the law leaves very little room for self-doubt.

Myth Three: I like arguing so I will be a good lawyer

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re perfect for law just because you love a good argument. The solicitors we spoke to stressed the importance of other attributes, such as working well in a team, and building a good relationship with clients. “It is important for a lawyer to have confidence, though dangerous if that slips into egotism,” advised one senior partner in a national law firm. He added: “An ability to cope with lots of detail is also essential. I once asked a well known lawyer from another firm why he looked shell shocked after coming out of the tribunal –had the judge given him a hard time? Yes, he said, but then again, it was no surprise – he’d lost the client’s file…things like that can damage your career, however talented you are!”

Finally, if you do want to get started, there are some simple steps you can take now: Work experience, pupillages and research can be invaluble – but so can ordinary part-time or holiday jobs, if only to give you a wider understanding of the world. The lawyers and graduates we spoke to recommended thinking about a career plan in advance – which area of law you would specialise in, as a solicitor or a barrister, and finally the work-life balance you would like to have.