Switching to a career in the legal profession will require extensive - and expensive - training but a science background can be a useful asset, says Caroline Tolond

Switching to a career in the legal profession will require extensive - and expensive - training but a science background can be a useful asset, says Caroline Tolond

Q  I’d like to change direction and develop a career within the legal field, but I’m not sure what my options are or even if it is possible. Can you offer some guidance on this course of action? If it is possible to make this change, would my scientific background be useful? 


Caroline Toland is the RSC’s careers adviser

The short answer to your question is yes, it is possible to move from a scientific career path into a legal one and yes, your background should be useful - it isn’t uncommon for experienced individuals to retrain in law. I’ve met former research scientists and PhD chemists who have taken the plunge, gone down this route and are able to draw on their non-legal experience in their new careers. 

There is a broad range of careers where an interest or knowledge of the law is useful, both in and out of the legal sector, but becoming a solicitor or barrister (known as advocates in Scotland) is what most people think about when considering a career in law. There are significant financial and time commitments required to qualify for either of these careers, so it may be worth considering what alternative options you have. I will assume at this stage that you are interested in exploring the solicitor and barrister career paths but will offer some advice on what other options could be open to you towards the end of this column. 

What is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister? Put simply, solicitors provide a wide range of legal support and advice to clients, individuals and businesses of all sizes, taking instructions and advising on necessary courses of legal action. Barristers, on the other hand, specialise in particular areas of the law, acting as advocates in court and providing written legal opinions. 

Tough training 

Both professions require extensive training. If you are interested in either but don’t have a law degree you will need to start by taking a law conversion course, known as either the common professional exam (CPE) or graduate diploma in law (GDL).  

Specialisation takes place in the second year of training. If you are heading towards a career as a solicitor you would take a legal practice course (LPC) or, if you are specialising as a barrister, the Bar professional training course (BPTC), formerly known as the Bar vocational course. After these foundation years you are able to start ’on the job’ training, with solicitors undertaking a two year training contract, mainly in private practice, and barristers taking pupillages in chambers, lasting between 12 and 18 months. 

Both training contracts and pupillages are filled by a competitive application process and there are a finite number of these available each year. Not all of those who complete the formal first two years of training will be able to secure the on-the-job training needed to qualify in their ideal profession, although many will go on to alternative careers that draw on this background. If you commit to this training route you need to be sure that you are doing it for the right personal reasons and are open to considering where else it could lead you if necessary. 

As I mentioned earlier, the training is expensive. The Bar Council estimates that the first two years of barrister training are likely to cost between ?11,000 and ?21,000, excluding living expenses, figures that are probably comparable for the first two years of training as a solicitor. 

There are a number of potential sources of funding including career development loans, scholarships from the Bar Council or Inns of Court, as well as sponsorship from law firms, which often come with training contracts, but the key is to plan and budget carefully so that you are able to manage any debt you acquire. 

If these training routes are unappealing, then you could look at alternative career options involving the law in some shape or form, such as becoming a patent attorney or trademark agent, or in careers that involve the law through regulatory activities. There will be many more alternative options so take time to explore them before making a firm commitment on your next step.