PLEASE NOTE: These FAQs concern my general observations about law school and legal careers. I am not a career consultant, nor am I able to offer any legal advice through my personal blog, as per the Solicitors Regulatory Authority rules.
If you have any specific matters or questions which require legal advice, please contact me through my law firm.
Due to the volume of questions I receive about law school and pursuing legal careers abroad, I regret that I cannot always answer messages individually. Although these answers are simply based on my personal experience and research, I hope they are helpful! Just click on a question to read the drop-down answer.
What these FAQs cover
Moving abroad to practice law
Becoming a lawyer in England
Becoming a lawyer in the United States
Study guides and advice for the bar exam
Why did you move to England?
I’ve written about my decision to move to London in my post, “On taking the ‘scenic route’ to becoming a lawyer.”
What qualifications do you have?
I have a BA and a MSc. I also completed the GDL and LPC. A more comprehensive list of the degrees I’ve earned and places where I’ve studied and worked is set out here, on my timeline page.
I want to live and work abroad as a lawyer. Will having this degree / qualification help me?
Simply having a degree or experience is not enough to secure the right to live and work in a foreign country. Speaking from personal experience, before I could even land an internship (known as a “vacation scheme” in the UK) I needed to demonstrate that I had the appropriate visa. Generally speaking, you are not permitted to work whilst on a student visa. Instead, you will likely need a “longer term” work visas (see the Home Office guidance, here). In my situation, I had a partnership visa because I was in a relationship with a British citizen, who later became my husband. I was then on a spouse visa for several years before securing indefinite leave to remain.
Given how fiercely competitive training contracts are (more on that below) law firms are not often minded to sponsor work visas for individuals, as doing so is a very costly endeavour for the company. You generally need to have a visa first, before you will be considered for a job. Alternatively, you may consider working for a large multinational company or firm which may transfer you to one of their foreign offices.
That having been said, in light of on-going Brexit negotiations and immigration reform, this situation is highly volatile and is subject to change at short notice.
What is a solicitor and what is a barrister? Which one wears the wigs?
Barristers are the self-employed advocates who wear the wigs and represent their clients in court. Solicitors will perform the majority of their legal work in a law firm. About 95% of lawyers in England are solicitors, with the remaining 5% being barristers.
A popular analogy is that of a general practitioner (GP) versus a surgeon, but I don’t like this analogy. I feel it’s too simplistic and may imply that the surgeon (the barrister) is somehow more skilled, specialised or learned: this simply isn’t the case. But the comparison has some merits: not everyone who visits the doctor needs surgery. Likewise, most (if not all) of a client’s legal work can be handled entirely by a solicitor.
For most non-contentious work, solicitors will run the deal from start to finish. When the deal becomes tricky or some sort of nuanced issue arises, we sometimes instruct barristers for provide legal opinions. Even for disputes and criminal matters that end up before a judge, a litigant (or defendant) will have their first contact be with a solicitor.
Why do you say “English law” and “English lawyer” instead of “UK law”?
The United Kingdom is one nation – a constitutional monarchy – comprised of four separate countries: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. England and Wales share the same system, whereas Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own distinct systems. I studied and practice English law (as do the majority of lawyers in the UK), and my formal title is “Solicitor of England and Wales.”
These separate systems are not to be confused with the legislation itself. Some legislation and acts apply throughout the whole of the UK, whereas others apply to one, two, or three of the specific countries. This is similar to “federal” versus “state” law in the United States.
Fun fact: As of August 2018 there are just under 144,000 solicitors in England and Wales. By contrast, there are 168,746 lawyers in California alone!
How do you become a lawyer in England?
The most straight-forward route to becoming a solicitor is to study law as an undergraduate. If another subject is studied, the prospective lawyer must undertake a conversion course (Graduate Diploma in Law, or “GDL“) which crams the three year undergraduate law degree into one intensive year.
After undergraduate studies (or undregrad plus the conversion course) a law student must decide if they want to become a barrister or a solicitor. Future solicitors undergo a year of practical vocational studies known as the Legal Practice Course (“LPC“). Following completion of the LPC, graduates join a law firm as a “trainee solicitor,” during which time they will complete rotations in various departments. Being a trainee is very similar to being a paralegal for your first few months, but you gradually exercise more autonomy and even handle your own matters and cases as time progresses.
Securing a training contract is notoriously difficult (see below) and most firms look to recruit trainees two years in advance. A trainee solicitor becomes a “qualified solicitor” after they successfully complete the training contract.
I’m already a lawyer in the United States / Canada / another country. How do I become a foreign-qualified lawyer in England?
If you’re already a lawyer and wish to become an English solicitor, passing the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) is one option. Alternatively, if you are a lawyer from a common law jurisdiction – including much of the Caribbean, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong or even the United States – you may be able to practice in England provided that you don’t hold yourself out as being a “solicitor.” I know several lawyers from commonwealth countries who work in London: their email signatures and business cards simply state associate (qualified in Country) rather than solicitor. The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) also offers paths for legal executives and paralegals who wish to become solicitors.
England and the United States are both “common law” jurisdictions. What does that mean and why does it matter?
Most legal systems are based on either Civil Code or Common Law. The system in which a lawyer practices can tell you a lot about their approach to their job, or legal philosophy more generally.
In Civil Law jurisdictions, which are also known as “Napoleonic” or “Roman” systems, the core principles are codified into a written collection of laws and procedures set out in the civil code. Lawyers are inquisitorial rather than adversarial, and it is the judge (or judges), who ask questions and demand evidence. In a civil law system, lawyers present arguments based on the evidence the court finds. The judge’s role is to establish the facts of the case and to apply the provisions of the applicable code.
Common Law, by contrast, puts great weight on court decisions, which are considered “law” with the same force of law as statutes. As such, common law courts have the authority to make law where no legislative statute exists, and statutes mean simply what courts interpret them to mean. In most scenarios, the two sides of a dispute argue before a neutral judge, who then makes a decision.
The United States, like most Commonwealth countries and former colonies, is an heir to the common law legal tradition of English law. Of course, certain practices traditionally allowed under English common law have been expressly outlawed by the American Constitution, such as bills of attainder and general search warrants. Practically speaking however, most Americans and Brits will have the same understanding of the roles of lawyers, trials, contracts, and much more.
Fun Fact: “Common law” derives its name from being common to all the King’s courts across England following the Norman Conquest of 1066.
How do I get a training contract?
In any given year, there are some 25,000 first-year undergraduate law students in the United Kingdom. However, with fewer than 6,000 training contract spots available, this means that only about one in five students will become a trainee. Chambers is a good resource for the statistics.
Many well-regarded law firms in London routinely receive several thousand applications for only 50 or 60 training slots. You will typically need to have a 2.1 (similar to a 3.5GPA) or above, as well as practical legal experience such as a vacation scheme or other internship. Most law firms have applications deadlines in the summer, for placements beginning two years later. For example, I applied before July 2014 for a training contract which began in September 2016.
I don’t have a training contract. Should I still do the LPC?
I understand that the LPC is being replaced soon with the “Solicitiors Qualification Exam” or “super exam”, also called the SQE. The Law Society is in continual consultation with law firms and law schools on this subject. In that respect, you may wish to hold out on the LPC until the situation is more settled.
Will doing another masters degree or working as a paralegal help me get a training contract?
The route to qualification (in any jurisdiction, let alone two) is expensive and time-consuming. If your goal is to work in a law firm in England but you are struggling to secure a training contract, I would strongly advise that you try to secure a position first as a paralegal, and then see how your options open after there. However, due to the fierce competition, it may be difficult to find a paralegal role (in London at least) without first completing the LPC.
That having been said, I often see that those who simply add on degree after degree do not fare as well as those who dive into legal practice and work as paralegals for a few years (unless you wish to go into academia, in which case, the degrees are of course the best route!).
How do you become a lawyer in California / New York / another American State?
American lawyers may study whatever they wish at undergraduate level, which typically is a four-year degree in the United States. Remember the film, Legally Blonde? Elle Woods studied fashion merchandising! Following their undergraduate studies, a prospective lawyer will need to obtain a satisfactory mark on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and successfully complete law school. Law school in America usually takes three years and culminates with the awarding of the Juris Doctor (JD).
After law school, a lawyer requires “admission to the bar” in order to practice. Admission is usually granted after passing a particular state’s bar exam, together with the legal ethics exam called the MPRE. You must also submit various applications including background checks and meet certain eligibility criteria, which may include a character application. Each of the 50 American states has a separate exam, although some aspects are the same and may overlap. As explained by the American Bar Association, because state-specific information is so important (and so variable) in the lawyer-licensing process, law students must contact the board of bar examiners in the state(s) in which they are most likely to practice law. A lawyer who is admitted in one state is not automatically allowed to practice in any other.
If you have to take a bar exam in the USA, does that mean all lawyers in America are “barristers”?
Nope! Unlike most common law jurisdictions, the United States legal system does not distinguish between lawyers who plead in court and those who do not. Lawyers in the USA are often called “attorneys” or “counselors,” although the latter term is usually reserved for court appearance or in-house lawyers.
Does having an LLM in the USA after a GDL programme enable me to sit the bar in New York?
Obtaining an LLM at an accredited law school in the United States is considered to be a “cure” for the educational deficiency. As explained on their Foreign Legal Education page, Section 520.6 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law (22 NYCRR 520.6) contains the eligibility requirements.
Do you have any study guides or advice on how to pass the bar?
Yes. I’ve written about my experience sitting the MPRE (the legal ethics exam) and I’ve also written a general overview of what studying for the California bar exam entails. I personally sat the California bar exam in Los Angeles in July 2019. I did not use Barbri or Kaplan, or any other commercial study programmes: instead, I used podcasts from BarMax, and created my own schedule and organised study plan. Screenshots of my study programme are here.
You can purchase my spreadsheet for $25 USD via paypal. I can send it to you via excel or Google docs (sheets), and usually within one day of receiving payment. The spreadsheet also contains comments and instructions on how to use it. If you’d like to purchase the spread sheet, just contact me.
Why do you charge $25 for your study spreadsheet?
Screenshots of my study programme spreadsheet for the California Bar Exam are here. If you do purchase a copy, I kindly ask that you respect my intellectual property. If you know someone who would like a copy, please direct them to my blog so they can make a purchase. This small fee of $25 goes to the maintenance of my website here at kelseyfarish.com, so that I can continue to write advert-free blog posts!
Can you read / edit my covering letter to a law firm or training contract applications?
Yes. I’ve been helping people with their applications to UK law firms for several years, with good success in landing interviews. But for that I do have to charge for my time. I typically ask for £20 / $25 via paypal for which I will do a comprehensive mark-up of an application or covering letter. This includes a redline together with comments on how you can improve the strength of your application.
What should I do?
I can’t tell you that. However, I think the best place to start is to really consider how you want to spend your days at work. What sorts of problems do you like to solve? What are your strengths and weaknesses? I think people often forget that working in private practice involves a lot of administrative tasks (billing, recording hours, setting up files, attending meetings) as well as business development (marketing, events) in addition to “legal work”.
What is your end objective? Do you really wish to practice law, or do you enjoy studying the law from a more theoretical perspective? Do you want to work in a firm in a particular location, or do you want to work on a consultancy basis, perhaps remotely? You need to understand what you want, before you can chase after it.