How do you become a lawyer if you're an international student?

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Recently, Student Guide editor Antony Cooke was interviewed by the website about how you become a lawyer if you're an overseas student.


On the basis of this interview and other research, produced a feature on How you become a lawyer in the UK which you can read on its website, along with reviews of student accommodation.

It's unusual for the Student Guide to be in the ones in the interview hot seat, so we thought you might be interested in reading the full Q&A. How does the process of becoming a lawyer differ for international students?

Chambers Student Guide: Whether you’re an international candidate or not, all wannabe lawyers jump through three hoops to qualify: a bachelor’s degree in law (or equivalent via a conversion course); then a vocational qualification; then a period as a trainee in legal practice.

Strangely, if you’ve never studied law it’s simple – except the bit where you have to study law – because you just do the same courses here that a British student would. It might be expensive, but the qualification process is quicker than in a lot of European countries (eight years in Germany, for example), and perhaps better geared towards foreign students. Around 10,000 overseas students are accepted onto law undergrad degrees every year.

Where many European countries expect you to take a full three, four or five-year undergrad law degree awarded in that country, the England and Wales system offers the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL): a natty one-year law conversion course. This is handy for overseas non-law graduates, who can quickly move on to the year of vocational study: the Legal Practice Course (LPC) for solicitors or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) for barristers.

If you already have a law degree from overseas, you’ll have to apply to the SRA to see if they recognise your degree. If they do, you can skip stage one and go straight to the LPC or BPTC. And if you’re already a qualified lawyer abroad, you’ll have to take the QLTS assessment (Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme). Are there any particular degrees that lend themselves well to a career in law?

Chambers Student Guide: The top law firms aren’t too fussed whether your degree was in law or not: most City firms go for around 50/50 law and non-law graduates. Firms like the variety of experience that non-law grads bring, mainly because it makes life less dull for clients. But law firms are much less flexible on what your degree says about you: it has to imply intellectual ability and that you’re ready to do some hard work. So you won't be shocked to learn that the more traditional and competitive universities have an excellent employment record in the legal profession.

Some specialist law firms, such as intellectual property lawyers, will expect some of their trainees to have a technical degree in subjects like engineering, IT or biochemistry.  This is because the patenting and licensing work they do can get technical and clients need to have confidence in their lawyer’s abilities. But unless you have your heart set on IP or another specialist area, I would never advise choosing a degree purely for employability: studying a subject because you love it and because you’re good at it should always come first. A degree that doesn’t inspire you will end in poor results and three years of misery. When should you start thinking about pursuing a career in law – when do firms start looking?

Chambers Student GuideIt’s never too early. Remember that there are freakish child-lawyers up and down the country whose lawyer parents (and parents’ parents…) have prepped them to network like a lawyer since they were in nappies. I exaggerate mildly, but still expect these people to be your competition. No chambers hands out a pupillage to someone who decided last week that they quite fancy being a barrister, so some planning and sound decision-making should take place. You should start dipping your toes in during your first year of undergrad and generally immerse yourself further throughout your degree.

If you’ve graduated and haven’t done any of this, don’t worry. You can join the law at any age – employers will just need to see evidence of you doing something impressive that makes you employable. What’s the importance of vacation schemes and what do prospective lawyers get out of them?

Chambers Student GuideAt their simplest, vac schemes are a holiday job with a law firm, usually lasting between one and three weeks. But they are a lot more hardcore than that: for most law firms they’re an invaluable recruitment tool because they get to see what an applicant is like at work. Many law firms recruit heavily from their vac schemes, following an interview at the end of the scheme. For this reason, competition and assessment to get on a vac scheme in the first place is very serious and should be treated like a training contract application.

Although they’re often a necessary part of the recruitment process, students should still use them as a way to understand the various types of law firms – to see them from the inside and work out if they’d fit in. Few people get the match right first time, and going on a few vac schemes is a useful way to clarify what you want from an employer. Nothing can match the benefit of this insider experience when you get to interview: you can speak with authority about real-life scenarios, rather than flimsy hypotheticals. What would you say are the main qualities that recruiters look for? How can you make yourself stand out?

Chambers Student GuideThe obvious ones – like being clever and willing to work hard – are common to all law firms and barristers’ chambers. All will expect you to get on easily with people, too, because good networkers bring in new clients. Beyond that, there are qualities like decisiveness, leadership, judgement skills, teamwork, independence and dedication that most firms assess at application to varying degrees. Each firm has its own culture, type of client to pander to, and future strategy for the business; all of which dictate the type of candidate they’re looking for and the personal qualities they view as a priority. It’s definitely worth doing your research, because firms expect you to buy into their culture – it helps if your personality doesn’t clash horribly with the firm’s. Do you think being an international student would benefit you if you want to pursue a career in law?

Chambers Student GuideThere are massive advantages to having an international background and they should be exploited and not concealed. Consider the business skills an overseas student might have: learning a language to a fluent level shows dedication; figuring out how to get on with people from different cultures is a life skill; keeping your cool when you’re outside your comfort zone comes more naturally to international types because they’ve done it daily. It’s likely they’ve had to do some very demanding things operating in a foreign language and have seen more of the world than the average Brit. All this makes international students very capable, worldly people – and desirable candidates in a globalised legal market.

Most large employers have overseas offices and the majority of big firms will have international work flowing through their doors every week. Even if they don’t have an office in a country where you speak the language, many do have, for example, emerging markets teams in London crying out for linguists or people who can handle the unfamiliar competently.


Student.comHow can you best prepare yourself for applying for a training contract?

Chambers Student Guide: Do your research and know yourself. There’s no more vital step than understanding what makes you tick and what you can and can’t handle. Forget the prestige of the organisation and the giant salaries just for a second, and figure out first if the firm is a place where you’ll thrive. Law firms give jobs to the candidates whose enthusiasm sounds the most genuine. The Student Guide's law firm reviews as told by the trainees should give enough insight for both shortlisting firms and preparing for applications. What’s the difference between becoming a barrister and a solicitor? Is one profession easier to get into than the other? Does the process differ?

Chambers Student Guide: Above I mentioned the post-grad vocational qualifications: the LPC for solicitors and BPTC for barristers. Future solicitors then do a two-year training contract with a law firm before they can turn fully-fledged, while barristers must complete a year’s pupillage with a barristers’ chambers before getting tenancy.

The LPC and BPTC are both expensive, but the Bar route more so. It helps to have these courses sponsored by law firms, chambers, or the Inns of Court but not everyone is that lucky. Both routes are very competitive, but the Bar presents an almost absurd level of difficulty, where the final stage is as much about luck as it is preparation. This is partly because there are only around 400 pupillage places going each year and all sets recruit in very low numbers. But that’s just the beginning: chambers are vocal about their need for the cleverest students, and then when these megabrains turn up to interview they’re expected to be impeccable communicators and persuasive orators. What can someone expect during a training contract?

Chambers Student Guide: The trainee experience differs from firm to firm, but they all involve doing proper legal work for clients. You’ll be doing the lower-level work because you’re the cheapest person on the client’s bill. There’s a certain trade-off between prestige and valuable, front-line experience. At huge firms the trainee’s work can be a little abstract, menial or administrative, while the smaller the team or the smaller the firm, the more exposure you get to stimulating legal work and dealing with clients face-to-face. This correlation isn’t clear-cut, and there are plenty of top firms that like to put their trainees to the test. The hours will be similar to those of a qualified lawyer, since you’ll be working with them on every client – and those hours can be long. Any other advice for someone looking to become a lawyer in the UK?

Chambers Student GuideIt can be an expensive business, so also consider the cost of living over here, especially in London. Consider whether the long-term benefits of qualifying in the UK outweigh the fees and living expenses? And balance this with the risk of not getting a job: how confident are you in your abilities?

That’s the main caveat, but otherwise I’d say qualifying here opens up a huge array of opportunities and has tremendous value on your CV. If you do it, commit yourself to it completely, pursue your career with passion, knowing you’re doing it for the right reasons.


This feature was first published in April 2016