The legal profession encompasses many different roles. What are the options? What qualifications will I need? How long will it take? The links to descriptions of the job roles below aim to answer these questions and showcase different opportunities working in law.

What is a solicitor in private practice?

Around two thirds of Scottish solicitors work in private practice. Firms can vary significantly in size and scope, ranging from small high street firms with one partner, to large cross-border firms with a large number of partners and support staff.

Firms operating in private practice are instructed by clients on a range of issues, but individuals usually specialise in certain areas of law. Clients could be members of the public, who instruct solicitors in relation to personal matters such as crime, employment or buying a property. Commercial conveyancing, dispute resolution, intellectual property and compliance are just some of the areas that business clients might instruct solicitors to work in.

Special qualifications

You need to qualify as a solicitor and have a valid practising certificate with the Law Society of Scotland to work in private practice. You are eligible to work in any area of private practice once you have qualified.

All solicitors must attend courses as part of continuing professional development (CPD). Keeping up to date with the legal profession by reading journals and articles is also essential.

Typical areas of work

Some common examples of private practise work are:

  • Receiving requests for legal advice from current and potential clients and deciding on the most appropriate responses
  • Working out what needs to be done to solve a client's problems
  • Offering advice on the law, legal procedures and a wide range of associated issues
  • Drawing up contracts, leases, wills and other legal documents
  • Researching documents and case history to ensure accuracy of advice and procedures
  • Dealing with the sale and purchase (conveyancing) of land, houses and commercial premises and with the registration of such transactions
  • Checking all documentation thoroughly before signing and implementing
  • Representing clients in tribunals and in District and Sheriff Courts
  • Instructing advocates to provide legal opinions and to represent clients in courts at any level
  • Keeping up to date with changes in the law
  • Supervising more junior members of the team, depending on level of seniority
  • Coordinating and supervising the work of other staff
  • Attracting additional business from new and existing clients
  • Maintaining high standards of professional conduct while generating adequate practice income and ensuring that the fees earned exceed total costs and expenses incurred
What is an in-house solicitor?

Almost a third of the Scottish legal profession don't work for a private practice law firm and instead work for other organisations and businesses. These are known as in-house solicitors and they are employed within government, local authorities, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, commerce, industry and many other organisations.

Instead of working for external clients, in-house solicitors provide advice on any internal issues affecting the businesses in which they work. However, they must follow the same basic rules and meet the same high standards as all other Scottish solicitors.

Special qualifications

You need to qualify as a solicitor and have a valid practising certificate with the Law Society of Scotland to work as an in-house solicitor.

All solicitors must attend courses as part of continuing professional development (CPD). Keeping up to date with the legal profession by reading journals and articles is also essential.

You do not need to have had an in-house traineeship to work in-house. In fact, only around 11% of traineeships are in house, yet 32% of the profession work in-house. The majority of people working in-house move into the role after they have qualified, sometimes at a later stage in their career. Solicitors often move between working in private practice and in-house.

Typical areas of work

The type of work you carry out as an in-house lawyer will depend on the kind of organisation you work for. But you will probably have different responsibilities and a greater variety of work than colleagues in private practice. Often, you are expected to act as more than just a legal adviser, giving professional advice on a range of matters.

Career paths for in-house solicitors are varied. For example, a solicitor employed by an oil and gas company might specialise in drawing up commercial contracts while a procurator fiscal would be involved in the prosecution of crime.

There is a broad range of in-house employers, a few examples of which are shown below.

  • Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service
  • Royal Bank of Scotland plc
  • Glasgow City Council
  • National Health Service Scotland
  • Scottish Government

Some areas of law may be more suited to in-house roles, others to private practice. You can find out more about the work of in-house lawyers on the Society’s website here.

Secondments

Some solicitors working in private practice can gain experience of working in-house through a secondment organised by their firm. For example, a trainee working in banking law may be given the opportunity to work in a bank, usually for a period of around six months. Likewise, many in-house traineeships involve a secondment to a law firm. Secondments give trainees and solicitors the opportunity to develop new skills and better understand client needs.

What is an Accredited Paralegal?

A paralegal is a professional who, by virtue of their education, training or work experience, is employed to undertake legal work, but is not a qualified solicitor.

Accredited Paralegals have undertaken a specific qualification with the Law Society of Scotland, which helps further their professional development and gives them a specific qualification that is recognised by employers.

Special qualifications

There are two routes to become a Law Society of Scotland Accredited Paralegal; the trainee route and the waiver route. You can apply at any time.

Find out more about both of these routes.

Typical areas of work

There are currently 12 areas of work which paralegals can register in:

  • civil litigation: debt recovery
  • civil litigation: family law
  • civil litigation: reparation law
  • commercial conveyancing
  • company secretarial
  • criminal litigation
  • domestic conveyancing
  • employment law
  • liquor licensing
  • repossession litigation
  • remortgage
  • wills and executries
What is an advocate?

The legal profession in Scotland is divided into two branches – advocates and solicitors. Advocates are specialists in the art of advocacy, which is the expert presentation of a case in court and also involves advising clients on every aspect of litigation. The work of an advocate is, however, not confined to court cases. Advocates are often asked to provide opinions on a wide range of legal problems which do not involve a court dispute. Solicitors on the other hand usually carry out more general types of legal practice than advocates. They normally practise in partnership with other solicitors. Advocates are sole practitioners who all work independently of each other.

When a member of the public needs legal advice, they can approach a solicitor directly.  However, if the specific skills of an advocate are required, the solicitor will then approach and engage the advocate.  An advocate receives their work from solicitors who instruct him and who are responsible for payment of his or her fees.

Advocates offer the public a distinct and independent service which complements the services provided by the solicitor branch of the legal profession. Advocates offer specialist legal representation and advice to clients of solicitors and of members of certain other professional bodies. Thus practitioners in Scotland, in the cities and in rural areas alike, are able to serve their clients by drawing on a pool of independent lawyers who are skilled court pleaders and also advisers on a wide range of legal problems, both general and specialist.

Collectively, advocates offer an unrivalled range of skilled, independent, objective legal services. The fact that they have no contractual relationship with clients helps them to maintain a valuable extra degree of detachment relative to all of the services which they provide.

Special qualifications

An advocate starts their qualifications journey in the same way as a solicitor and all aspiring advocates must pass the LLB and Diploma in Professional Legal Practice. There are certain subjects which they must have studied.

Before pupillage commences and subject to any exemption, a period of training in a solicitor’s office of the length specified in the regulations must be completed,

All aspiring advocates must undertake a period of pupillage (or “devilling”), a course of training which includes taught elements, skills training and periods of training with an experienced advocate (a “devilmaster”).

More information about becoming an advocate can be found on the Faculty of Advocates' website.

Typical areas of work

Advocacy is the most important aspect of an advocate’s work. The good advocate will spend a considerable amount of time preparing cases for presentation in court. In civil cases the advocate will have to prepare written pleadings, which are the foundation of a client’s case: a task which requires a special skill.

An advocate has a right of audience before the UK Supreme Court and the supreme courts of Scotland – the Court of Session (civil cases) and the High Court of Justiciary (criminal cases). Certain solicitors with extended rights of audience may also appear in these Courts. Advocates have, jointly with all solicitors, a right of audience before the lower courts – the Sheriff Courts (civil and criminal cases) and the Justice of the Peace Courts (less serious criminal cases). Advocates may also appear before a host of other decision making bodies, such as Employment Tribunals, the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland, planning inquiries, professional discipline tribunals and arbitrations.

The nature of an advocate’s business will involve long hours of work, including evenings and weekends. Frequently an advocate will be required to prepare for a case or write an opinion at short notice.

In the early years of practice it is unusual for an advocate to specialise in only one or two areas of the law. The Scottish Bar is proud of the tradition that its members are able to advise on an extensive range of subjects and to present cases in court which raise diverse legal problems. Over the years many advocates build up expertise in one or more particular fields, but because of their early experience as junior counsel dealing with all types of cases they remain able to act in any case which they are asked to handle.

There are openings for advocates in other fields. An advocate may join the public sector; they may join the procurator-fiscal service or the legal section of a Government department, such as the Scottish Government Legal Directorate and the Office of the Solicitor to the Advocate General, or may work as a parliamentary draftsman in, for example, the Office of the Scottish Parliamentary Counsel. In the procurator-fiscal service they will be engaged in the preparation of all criminal cases, and the prosecution of criminal cases in the Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Courts (as part of the public prosecution system which exists in Scotland). There are also opportunities within industry, commerce and in higher education. There are strong links in Scotland between the Bar and the universities.

What is a solicitor advocate?

A solicitor advocate is a solicitor who has had extra training, so he or she can appear on behalf of their clients in all the courts in Scotland. Most solicitors can only appear in some of the courts in Scotland.

Solicitor advocates are regulated and trained by the Law Society of Scotland. The technical description is that solicitor advocates are solicitors who have been granted extended rights of audience before the superior courts in Scotland: the Court of Session in civil cases; the High Court of Justiciary in criminal cases; and the Supreme Court and Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.

This means that they can represent clients in the higher courts in the United Kingdom, alongside barristers and advocates.

Special qualifications

You must be a qualified solicitor in order to train as a solicitor advocate. Depending on the area you want to work in, you must undertake and pass either the Civil or Criminal Rights of Audience training in order to qualify, In order to be eligible to apply, you would usually need five years of relevant court work experience as an admitted solicitor prior to making an application.

Find out more about solicitor advocate courses. 

Typical areas of work

Solicitor advocates are solicitors first and foremost, which means they have a general initial training in all areas of law and in dealing with clients, before deciding to specialise in court work. After gaining experience in court, solicitors can then take extra advocacy training and sit more exams. If successful the solicitors' rights of audience are extended, allowing them to represent clients in the highest courts in Scotland and the UK.

What is a sheriff?

Sheriffs deal with the majority of civil and criminal court cases in Scotland. The main role of a sheriff is to sit as a trial judge.

Special qualifications

To qualify for appointment as sheriff a person must be and have been an advocate or solicitor for at least 10 years. Because of the nature of the office, those appointed should be practitioners of standing, whether Queen’s Counsel, advocates or solicitors with considerable court experience. Before appointment, the person would in many cases have had some experience of the shrieval bench as a temporary or part-time sheriff.

Initially, before sitting alone, a sheriff will normally undergo five days of specific training plus five days sitting alongside an experienced sheriff.

As the jurisdiction of the sheriff is vast, they must have a grasp of every aspect of law, both civil and criminal, as well as mastery of the rules of evidence. Each sheriff needs to devote considerable time to maintaining an up-to-date knowledge and awareness of the relevant law, rules of evidence and procedure. Each sheriff needs to read a substantial number of law reports and other relevant publications in order to keep abreast of the many changes that occur in the law. Sheriffs meed to be aware of the legislation of both the UK and Scottish parliaments as well as the decided case law and jurisprudence of the Scottish courts and the European Court of Human Rights.

Typical areas of work

Sheriffs need to be versatile and able to deal with whatever type of case is put before him or her at short notice and to maintain a sound judicial temperament at all times. Many sheriffs will be required to deal with different types of business during the course of each working day, whether in court or in chambers.

The criminal jurisdiction of sheriffs is both summary (less serious matters where the sheriff sits alone) and solemn (more serious offences where the sheriff sits with a jury of 15 people). In summary cases, sheriffs may impose a maximum prison sentence of 12 months or a fine of up to £10,000. In solemn cases, sheriffs can deal with any crimes except murder, rape and treason. The maximum penalty a sheriff may impose in solemn proceedings is five years’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine. Sheriffs also have a range of alternative penalties at their disposal, including community service and probation.

In civil cases, the sheriff court has jurisdiction for all claims under £5,000. Otherwise, the jurisdiction of the court is almost the same as the Court of Session. There is no financial upper limit in the sheriff court. Sheriffs deal with many complex and difficult civil cases, including cases involving debt, claims for compensation, contract disputes, bankruptcy, company liquidation, eviction and anti-social behaviour. They hear almost all family actions – including divorce, child welfare and adoptions – and have important functions in relation to children’s hearings.

What is a Senator?

Senators of the College of Justice are judges who sit in the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary. There are currently 35 Senators.

Special qualifications

People are formally eligible for appointment as a Senator if they are:

  • Advocates of five years’ standing
  • Writers to the Signet of ten years’ standing who have passed the examination in civil law two years before taking up their seat on the Bench
  • Sheriffs Principal and Sheriffs who have exercised their respective functions continuously for a period of at least five years
  • Solicitors who have had rights of audience before either the Court of Session or the High Court of Justiciary or both continuously for a period of not less than five years.

Persons who are appointed Senators have to demonstrate a degree of competence as a lawyer that marks them out from their peers.  This competence needs to be demonstrated not only in the practical application of a branch or branches of the law to the highest standard, but also in a facility to work equally effectively, in any branch of the law that they may have to consider in the course of their judicial duties, including new or emerging areas of the law.

A Senator must now retire on or before their seventieth birthday.

Typical areas of work

Sitting in the Court of Session, they deal with a wide range of civil matters, particularly complex and high value cases based on contractual disputes, judicial review, delict (a civil wrong) and the law relating to property, revenue, commerce, companies and intellectual property. Cases of constitutional importance have become more frequent.

In the High Court of Justiciary, the judges deal with the most serious crimes, such as murder, rape, culpable homicide and armed robbery. Here, they are technically referred to as Lords Commissioner of Justiciary.

Judges’ primary functions are to hear and determine cases but increasingly they have responsibility for case management and administration. As a result, some judges have specialist duties, for instance, to ensure the efficient administration of the courts and tribunals, organise training, hear certain cases or represent Scotland on international bodies.