How to become a criminal solicitor

20th June 2019 | Legal Insights & Resources|

Reviewed by Nick Titchener on 3rd April 2024

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

Criminal defence solicitors provide representation for people accused of crimes, from initial police interviews to court proceedings. How you qualify to become one changed in September 2021, so if you’re starting your journey in 2024, the new rules will apply.

Formal qualification usually begins with an undergraduate degree, followed by the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) and a period (usually two years) of on-the-job training. Alternatively, there is also a six-year apprenticeship route.

What does a criminal solicitor do?

There is no single job with the title ‘criminal solicitor’. It’s an umbrella term that covers a range of different legal professionals who deal specifically with criminal cases in varying ways. 

Solicitors represent and defend clients’ legal interests. A criminal defence solicitor does this when someone is accused of or charged with a crime – such as theft, murder or a driving offence.

As a solicitor specialising in criminal cases, your duties will include things such as:

  • Researching cases and laws
  • Drafting letters and legal documents
  • Liaising with clients and other professionals such as barristers
  • Representing clients in court or police station interviews 

A criminal solicitor will review any documentation associated with the crime and the case. This may include witness statements, reports made by or to the police, forensic results or medical reports. A criminal solicitor will also attend court to represent those accused of crimes, and depending on their qualifications and experience, this can involve both the lower and higher courts.

Meanwhile, a barrister working in criminal law primarily presents evidence to the court, including any information uncovered by the solicitor or team of solicitors working on the case that may have instructed them. Using evidence, they’ll attempt to persuade the jury or court to favour the version of events they put forward.

What skills does a criminal solicitor need?

Whichever branch of criminal law you decide to specialise in, a criminal solicitor will need a specific combination of skills and personality traits:

  • Academic intelligence – a successful criminal solicitor must be able to swiftly read, digest and retain large amounts of information, from transcripts of past cases to witness statements
  • Social intelligence – you’ll have to communicate, both verbally and on paper, with an extremely wide range of people, from clients to judges. The ability to empathise with people – and to understand their feelings and motivations – is vital.
  • Composure – the role of a criminal solicitor can be extremely pressurised, with long hours, a heavy workload and extremely high stakes.
  • Analytical skills – you’ll have to carefully analyse complex legal issues and scenarios, using your findings to develop effective defence strategies. Plus, you’ll need to explain complicated legal concepts to clients and juries – in plain English. 
  • Attention to detail – a keen eye is required at all times, as even the smallest oversight could negatively impact a case.
  • An open mind – you might be required to represent individuals accused of the most severe crimes. Your job is to ensure your client can have a fair trial, however serious the offence their charge.

How much can a criminal solicitor earn once qualified?

An average criminal solicitor working in London or the Home Counties with the following years of experience post-qualification could be earning:

  • Typical Starting salary: £23-26K pa.
  • 5 years experience: £26-35K pa
  • 10 years experience: £30-45K pa
  • 20 years experience: £45-70+ pa

Whilst these are typical, there are exceptions depending on whether the work that the criminal solicitor is doing is primarily legally aided or privately funded and the type of firm that they are working for.

How to become a criminal solicitor: different routes

There are several ways to become a solicitor:

  1. A university course
  2. An apprenticeship
  3. Working towards the role
  4. The traditional solicitor qualifying route (if you started before 2021)

Become a solicitor through university

  1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree or an equivalent qualification in any field
  2. Pass part 1 and 2 of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)
  3. Complete two years (or the equivalent, if part-time) of qualifying work experience
  4. Satisfy character and suitability criteria detailed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)

To get to university, you’ll need three A-levels (or equivalent qualifications). You don’t have to study law to become a solicitor, but the SQE will test your legal knowledge.

To study law, some universities require you to first pass the Law National Aptitude Test.

Become a solicitor with an apprenticeship

An apprenticeship is a blend of on and off-the-job learning. In most cases, apprentices join a firm after finishing school, rather than attending university.

However, apprenticeships are also open to post-A-level and university students. In most cases, you’ll need A-levels or at least GCSEs to secure an apprenticeship.

During your apprenticeship, you’ll receive a salary, with the cost of training being met by your employer. This route usually takes around five to six years. 

You’ll also have to pass both parts of the SQE, undertake qualifying work experience, and meet the SRA’s character and suitability criteria.

Become a solicitor by working at a legal firm

You could join a legal firm and complete on-the-job training – like Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) Level 6 Professional Diploma in Higher Law and Practice.

Following that training, you’d need to:

  1. Pass part 1 and 2 of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)
  2. Demonstrate two years (or equivalent) of qualifying work experience
  3. Meet SRA character and suitability criteria

The traditional route

If you began a qualifying law degree, graduate diploma in law (GDL) legal practice course (LPC) before 2021, the traditional route to becoming a solicitor will be available to you until 2032. Depending on how far down this route you are, you’ll need to: 

  • Complete your LPC vocational training
  • Undertake on-the-job training (usually for two years)

Pass the SRA’s Professional Skills Course

What counts as qualifying work experience?

Relevant work experience is essential in order to become a criminal solicitor.

Work experience in any area of the legal system will emphasise your commitment to a career in criminal law. The most desirable work experience backgrounds, however, include:

  • Holiday schemes – usually week-long or fortnight-long work experience placements within a criminal law firm
  • Mini-pupillages – work placements that provide a short-term version of the full pupillage. You’ll shadow a barrister or criminal solicitor for anywhere between a single day and a full working week
  • Marshalling – this is when you shadow a fully-qualified judge for anywhere up to a week
  • Pro bono work – this involves providing free legal advice to people who may not be able to secure it by any other means. Some charities require law students undertaking pro bono work to be currently studying for their LPC or BPTC, or to have a full DBS check

Other activities that encourage skills related to law, such as debating or mooting, might benefit your application for work experience.

Meet our team and discover how they started their careers in law.

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