How to become a criminal solicitor: an overview of the role

Criminal offences are collectively defined as offences that involve immoral behaviour. The offences that constitute criminal law in the UK vary widely – incorporating criminal acts as severe as murder and rape to arson, fraud and theft.

There is no single job with the title ‘criminal solicitor’; rather, it is an umbrella term that covers a range of different legal roles who deal specifically with criminal cases in varying ways.

The role of a criminal defence solicitor involves providing representation from the police station stage of a criminal investigation by the police, right through to representation at court. A criminal solicitor may be required to visit prisons and police stations in order to uncover the necessary information to assist in  case preparation.

A criminal solicitor will review any documentation associated with the crime and the case, from witness statements to reports made by police, witnesses, forensic results or medical reports.

A barrister working in criminal law presents evidence to the court, including any information uncovered by the solicitor or team of solicitors working on the case and attempts to persuade the jury to favour their point of view (based on the evidence) in the court case.

How to become a criminal solicitor: key skills required

The career of a criminal solicitor can be extremely demanding, whichever branch of criminal law you choose to specialise in. A career in criminal law does not suit everyone, as the role necessitates a specific combination of skills and personality traits.

Traits a good criminal solicitor possesses include:

  1. High 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. Excellent attention to detail is required at all times, as even the smallest oversight could negatively impact a case
  2. High social intelligence – in the role of a criminal solicitor you will have to communicate both verbally and on paper with an extremely wide range of people. The ability to empathise with them and to understand their feelings and motivations is vital in order to succeed
  3. The ability to thrive under pressure – the role of a criminal solicitor can be extremely pressurised, with long hours, a heavy workload and much at stake. You need to be able to manage these demands
  4. An open mind – the role of a criminal defence solicitor may require you to represent individuals who have been accused of the most severe crimes. Your job is to assist an individual so they can have a fair trial, however serious the offence they are accused of. You must be able to do so without feeling morally compromised

How to become a criminal solicitor: qualifying for the role

The qualifications for the role of criminal solicitor depends on what specific position you are training for.

Both criminal law solicitors and barristers begin their legal training in the same way. They must first complete an undergraduate degree in law, or another degree followed by a year-long conversion course known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).

In order to qualify as a criminal solicitor you will need to complete:

  1. A year-long Legal Practice Course (LPC) – a period of vocational training
  2. A period of on the job training (usually for 2 years), overseen by one or more mentors, which culminates in the Professional Skills Course (PSC) which must be passed

In order to qualify as a criminal law barrister, you will need to complete:

  1. The year-long Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) – a period of vocational training
  2. A period of on the job training known as a pupillage. The pupillage is divided into two sections of six months each:
  • During the First Six, the candidate must complete an advocacy training course, shadow their supervisor in court, research legal documents and read and draft legal paperwork
  • During the Second Six, the candidate must complete a practice management course. Once they have passed they spend the rest of the section actively practicing as a barrister under the supervision of their mentor

How to become a criminal solicitor: necessary work experience

Relevant work experience is essential in order to become a criminal solicitor. It is very rare for a legal chamber to offer work experience of any kind to criminal law trainees who have not completed an undergraduate law degree or the Graduate Diploma in Law, so you are advised to apply for work experience after you have graduated.

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

  1. Holiday schemes – typically taking the form of week-long or fortnight-long work experience placements within a criminal law firm
  2. Mini-pupillages – work placements that provide a short-term version of the full pupillage. The candidate will shadow a barrister or criminal solicitor for anywhere between a single day and a full working week
  3. Marshalling – this is a type of work placement in which the trainee shadows a fully qualified judge for anywhere between a day and a full working week
  4. 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 cultivate skills related to law, such as debating or mooting, may also enhance a trainee criminal solicitor’s application for work experience.

How to become a criminal solicitor: the legal apprenticeship route

A new route into legal practice now exists – a legal apprenticeship. Two options exist in the apprenticeship.

The first option is a 6 year programme, with the apprentice working for a firm of solicitors for 4 days of the week and attending university on day release for the other day.

The apprentice will be required to pass exams over the course of the 6 year programme, but upon successful completion of the course and work based learning they will be qualified as a solicitor.

The other route is a two year route for those with a degree. The degree doesn’t have to be a law degree or require that the apprentice has passed the GDL. This option again involves a mix of work based learning for 4 days per week and one day per week is spent at university to prepare for the final solicitors’ exams.

The apprenticeship route is not intended to replace the current route to qualification, but as an alternative.  A number of institutions have begun to offer this option, with others likely to join them in the not too distant future.

It should also be noted that as of autumn 2021, a new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is to be introduced in a bid to ensure higher standards across the profession. This will test both legal knowledge and practical skills, and offers a more flexible approach for those looking to learn whilst already employed. Whilst the specific details of this are yet to be definitively settled upon, further information surronding the SQE can be found here.