Words for Mentees (3): Choosing career and being a lawyer

Most people spend more time working than sleeping. If it’s bad to spend 8 hours to sleep in an uncomfortable bed, it’s even worse to spend more than 8 hours doing something you hate. You can only last long and excel in a career that you actually enjoy and are good at.

The legal profession is generally divided into two streams: barrister and solicitor.

Barristers are advocates at court and specialise in litigation. To become a barrister, after studying PCLL, you have to complete one year of pupilage at a chamber. Pupils do not receive salary and are only allowed limited practice after six months of pupilage. Once you complete the pupilage, you have to pay your own rent for an office space in a  chamber. Barristers are self-employed and it can be financially burdensome. To alleviate this, the Bar Association has funds to assist prospective barristers; and more sizeable chambers may offer rental discount to new joiners. Alternatively, you can join the Department of Justice as a legal trainee (barrister) who gets a monthly salary.

To become a solicitor, you have to be a trainee for two years at a law firm or the Department of Justice. The type of work and remuneration package depends very much on the law firm you join. International law firms specialising in corporate and banking law tend to recruit the best graduates and offer the highest salary. In comparison, the more common general practice law firms provide legal service such as conveyancing, divorce and litigation. The starting salary of international law firms can be 4-8 times more than general practice law firms.

The legal profession can be a long term one. As you practise longer, you specialise in certain areas and find your interest and niche. For example, there are barristers who specialise in criminal cases or judicial review, solicitors who do merger and acquisitions in China. It is not uncommon to move from barrister to solicitor and vice versa too.

For career prospect, barristers can become senior counsel. Within a law firm, the top of the ladder is to become a partner. Many experienced lawyers may become in-house counsel in banks and companies that tend to offer more work-life balance.

What it takes to be a good lawyer? There are many perceived traits of a typical lawyer – smart, quick thinker, organised, eloquent, and argumentative. I think different
types of lawyer require very different personality and skill set. However, above all, the most important is to be hardworking to succeed.

I recommend reading Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. It may help students to look farther and deeper into long term career development.

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