Life as a lawyer is not like the TV shows Suits or Making a Murderer. Many law graduates will never see the inside of a courtroom, and barristers and solicitors are not, in general, as rich as people often think. But it is a varied profession with a lot of career paths and opportunities for those who enjoy research, analysis and problem-solving in a fast-paced environment.
Simon McGarr is a solicitor with McGarr Solicitors, a relatively small firm specialising in litigation and data protection issues. Before he trained as a solicitor, he worked in the civil service.
“I found that, in earlier jobs, I could get bored quickly: you learn the job and you’ve done a few cycles, it gets samey. While law can move slower than other fields of business – fax machines are still a thing in solicitors’ offices – there’s no chance you could learn everything about your profession in a whole lifetime; the law is constantly changing as it reflects an ever-changing society. As society changes, the law changes too.”
Every legal practice is different, says Dr Deirdre McGowan, head of law at TU Dublin. "Our students do 18 law subjects but only one of them is criminal law. Litigation is over-egged too: most legal work is regulatory and transactional. I practiced law in Ireland for 11 years and court trips were rare, while I only did one criminal case. A lot of work is regulatory and in-house, and commercial law firms do a huge amount of transactional and regulatory work."
So what do solicitors and barristers actually do?
While a solicitor works with clients and manages the case file and administration, barristers represent and advocate for people, companies or the State in court.
“The whole world is tied up in law and the job of a lawyer is to gather the information and put it together, in a meaningful way, for the person in front of you,” says McGowan. “TV and films can give a misleading view of a lawyer’s life. A lot of the work is about managing people and information and giving advice.”
There are very different sorts of legal practices, says McGarr. “ I’ve never worked on mergers and acquisitions and I never will. If you want to work in family law, for instance, you don’t have to do tax as well. A large corporate firm with hundreds of lawyers has a very different model than a small practice, but from the outside we all carry the same title of solicitor.”
There is huge variety in the legal profession, says McGowan. “No two days are the same and you can choose from a range of paths. I know of one student who is a fashion lawyer: working in copyright, contracts, shipping and other sub-specialties. Another works in sports law, because sports is heavily regulated and they need expertise in areas like drug testing. Some solicitors are happy to run a small business and helping their community with areas like probate, wills and other legal difficulties.”
Our graduates go on to a wide range of careers. A high proportion go on to do a masters
There are pitfalls in the job too, says McGarr. “There is an astonishing amount of files and records to keep, which you don’t see until you’re responsible for it. An average piece of straightforward litigation will result in multiple paper files full of reports and correspondence and you have to stay on top of all this body of knowledge to prepare the right brief and correctly brief the counsel.”
From the outside, law seems – like architecture or medicine – to be a very vocationally oriented degree. Not so; in fact, it can be placed alongside arts, science and commerce as a broad degree that trains graduates to think and research in a certain way.
“Our graduates go on to a wide range of careers,” says McGowan. “A high proportion go on to do a masters. Around 10 per cent become barristers. Some become solicitors. We have graduates working in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the public service, banking, corporate finance and as paralegals. A lot of companies have in-house legal teams and we have graduates working in pharmaceutical, data, biotechnology, public utilities and insurance - any industry that is regulated needs lawyers. We also have some graduates who are working in self-employed property management. And some do law courses because they ultimately want to work in the Garda and it can open up promotional opportunities for them.”
TV and films can give a misleading view of a lawyer’s life, says McGowan. “With such variation in the legal profession, average salaries can become meaningless. A human rights or immigration law specialist can expect to earn less than, for instance, someone working in corporate law or on mergers and acquisitions. Solicitors running their own small firms might face a variety of fixed costs including rents and wage bills.
Contrary to expectations, most lawyers are not rich, says McGowan. “Some are. Most are not. You don’t necessarily go into it for the money, although you do make a decent living.”
“The level of income varies widely depending on the economy, business model and client base of the firm,” says McGarr. “But law is the second-oldest profession and it meets a long-standing need: a way of solving arguments between individuals or corporations, binding them to make precise agreements in the form of a contract and giving people advice when they need expert help on matters they may not be familiar with, such as a personal injury or employment problems. People will always need lawyers.”
Where to study it
There are a variety of places to study law in Ireland, and many different ways of going about it. General law degrees are available at NUI Galway, Maynooth University, TU Dublin, Trinity College, UCD, WIT, IT Carlow and Letterkenny IT. UCC's Law Pathways programme allows students to tailor their own law programme with placement and study abroad options.
DCU’s Law and Society degree explores how law influences – and is influenced by – a diverse range of social forces so, as well as learning about core legal principles, students learn to reflect critically on how they are shaped.
There are a number of popular combinations with law, including law and business, law and arts and law with a language. At Maynooth University, the law and arts degree allows students to take on law subjects alongside an arts subject such as English, business, German, critical skills or psychological studies. UL’s Law Plus degree offers similar options, with students tackling legal subjects alongside other arts electives.
Business and law – another popular combination – is available at AIT, TU Dublin, UCD, UCC, NUI Galway, IT Carlow and Dublin Business School. NUI's options include law and human rights and law and criminology with criminal justice.
Independent fee-paying colleges Griffith College Dublin and Dublin Business School also run law degrees.
WIT and IT Carlow run level six legal studies courses which can qualify students for entry into year two of the honours law degree programme.
A selection of CAO points 2019
Law Pathways (UCC): 476
Law (TU Dublin): 429
Law (Griffith College): 251
Law and French (Trinity College): 543
Business and law (UCD): 521
Law and human rights (NUI Galway): 510
Law Options (Maynooth University): 410
‘I wanted to help people in specialist areas’
Andrew Synnott, 24
“I grew up with solicitors in the family so it interested me from a young age. I was interested in being able to help people in specialist areas where they don’t have the knowledge themselves.
“I studied law at DIT for three years. Then I took my eight FE1 exams: they’re not easy and have a high fail rate, so I was glad to get through. After your FE1s, you hope a firm sponsors you for entry into Blackhall Place, where solicitors train, and I’ve been lucky enough to be sponsored by Walker’s, where I now work. Blackhall is focused on the skills and practicalities of being a solicitor.
“I’d already done a few internships before Walker’s. Going into this career, I thought I’d be interested in litigation but I figured out that I liked corporate law: I’m good at it and the demand is there. I learned that constitutional law is the most challenging aspect of the LLB degree and FE1 examinations.
“For now, my focus is getting qualified and I really enjoy the areas that my firm practices.”
‘I’ve been asked for my expertise on the Covid tracking app’
Emerald de Leeuw, 32
“Growing up, my mum always said that the tongue is mightier than the sword and, as someone who’s not tall, that always appealed to me.
"It turned out that I liked the concept of being a lawyer more than I liked being a lawyer. I got a full scholarship to Tilberg University and then went on to do a masters in tech law at UCC where, in 2012, I wrote my thesis on GDPR.
“Law doesn’t mean that you have to become a solicitor in a big firm. I started a software company with a focus on data and tech law and, in 2017, I won the Young European Innovator of the Year award which was supported by the European Commissioner for Enterprise.
“It isn’t easy to get funding for a company in Ireland as there are not many venture capitalists. I travelled the world speaking at events and had an interesting career doing that, but it came to an end because you’re a different person at 25 than at 32.
"I'm now leading the European privacy team at Logitech in Cork. I really enjoy working on privacy and data protection. Working in-house allows you more flexibility to move around. In a law firm you are a lawyer but if you join a business you might join the legal team, privacy team, or IP team, and there's room to change your mind. When I was choosing law, all I knew was based on Law & Order and Suits, but I've learned law is very different than that.
“It’s not unusual for people to learn it’s not for them – it either clicks or it doesn’t – but I found it gave me thinking, research and arguing skills. You don’t read one piece of legislation in isolation: a lot of the work is tying together various pieces of different information.
“Because I’m well known in the privacy sphere, I’ve been asked for my expertise on the Covid tracking app including how we keep it anonymous and the standards we use. On a personal level, I’m concerned that when we implement surveillance measures during an extraordinary crisis, we don’t know if they will disappear when it is over.”