Can I become a lawyer without going to university?
The short answer is YES, it is possible to become a lawyer without going to university, especially if you are looking to qualify as a solicitor in the UK. As opposed to the traditional qualification route (obtaining a degree and passing the SQE exams), there are two routes that are commonly undertaken by individuals who would like to work as a solicitor without a degree.
Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX)
CILEX is one of the largest independent, professional body regulating legal executives, paralegals and other legal practitioners, and the CILEX route allows you to ‘earn as you learn’, earning a salary while obtaining valuable work experience.
Individuals who are interested to join CILEX must have at least four GCSEs (including English) or equivalent, and will need to pass exams to qualify as a member before being recognised as a CILEX fellow. Anyone without a university degree can take the full CILEX route which includes a Level 3 qualification that is set and assessed at A-Level standard, before progressing to the Level 6 Qualification that is set and assessed at honours degree level.
Regardless of your qualification routes or backgrounds, completing legal work experience is a key part of the CILEX route. For example, in most cases, you must also complete two to three years of qualifying employment in a CILEX-approved job in law before being able to qualify as a legal executive.
In CILEX’s own words: this is a qualification route that aims to empower individuals that might not have any university degree, or have even completed any of CILEX’s programmes, but are interested to pursue a professional career in law. Individuals may qualify as a paralegal or as an advanced paralegal, or as a legal executive, another type of lawyer.
Some might even be able to be exempted from having to carry out a training contract or a period of ‘recognised training’ to qualify as a lawyer. The time you spend in legal employment as part of your legal executive qualifications could be considered as qualifying work/training by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
Even though it is often argued that the CILEX route could be a significantly longer/time-consuming qualification pathway, there are also individuals who managed to accumulate up to four years of professional legal working experience while completing their CILEX courses at the age of 21. With this in mind, CILEX might be a better option depending on personal factors such as an individual’s preference, career goals, budgets etc.
The second most common way to qualify as a lawyer without a degree would be through legal apprenticeship programmes. Even though some programmes were catered for individuals to train/work as a legal administrator and paralegal, some firms do offer ‘Solicitor Apprenticeship’ programmes. This allows apprentices to be paid while completing classroom learning, training and work experience to become a qualified solicitor.
The Solicitor Apprenticeship is a six-year Level 7 programme aimed at students post A-levels, paralegals and chartered legal executives. Most schemes cover all the content in a law degree and SQE exam prep, enabling apprentices to obtain a law degree and sometimes a Masters in Law (LLM). You would then qualify as a solicitor upon completion of your apprenticeship and passing the SQE exams.
As a solicitor apprentice, you will usually work under the supervision of a mentor, conducting practical legal work. Typical responsibilities include: case research, client interviews, maintaining effective working relationships with colleagues and clients and as well as drafting legal documents. You’ll also spend at least 20% of your time in education, but you’ll be paid for this time as well.
Such a programme is the perfect opportunity especially for school leavers, career changers, or individuals who have a clear interest in a career in law, and would like to dive into the legal world as early as possible.
Legal apprenticeships have gained a significant amount of popularity amongst law firms in the UK. Some of the top law firms that offer apprenticeships include: Addleshaw Goddard, Bevan Brittan LLP, Clyde & Co, Osborne Clarke, Pinsent Masons, Taylor Wessing and Womble Bond Dickinson.
Where there's a will, there's a way
It is clear that the legal profession is gradually shifting towards a more diverse and accessible direction.
Whilst one might still need a university degree before being able to qualify as a barrister, it is clear you do not need to have a university degree to qualify as a solicitor. In reality, there is no such thing as a ‘best route’, but only the ‘most suitable route’ for someone to pursue a career in law, and to qualify as a lawyer.