Think outside the box
Have you ever considered that you can become a high-flying professional without a degree? In a new series, we consider some ways of doing just that. First stop: legal eagles. Mary Phelan reports.
Two of the most sought-after careers in Ireland are that of solicitor and barrister. A barrister attempts to persuade a jury to decide a case in their client's favour at court, while solicitors are generally based in the office. They draft legal documents, give legal advice, and arrange for a barrister to represent the client in court if necessary. Solicitors can represent you in court, but only in the lower courts.
The first thing you need to know is that you don't need a law degree to become a solicitor. In fact, you don't need a degree at all. The Final Examination: First Part (FE-1s) determines entry into solicitor-training college Blackhall Place. Those with a degree are automatically entitled to sit the FE-1s. Those with a law degree are of course at an advantage, but those with an unrelated degree often take FE-1 ''crash courses'' to prepare them for the exams.
Those without a degree have to jump through another hoop before being eligible to sit the FE-1s: the Preliminary Examination. This takes place every spring and those interested in sitting it must be at least 21 years old.
The examination consists of three papers: English, Irish Government and politics, and general knowledge. Fundamentally, the exam determines if the candidate is of a similar academic standard as someone who has a third-level degree. On the general knowledge paper, candidates will answer short questions on aspects of current affairs and politics, the arts, sports and general knowledge. Some questions will encompass events within the previous 12 months, as reported in the media. There is no prescribed syllabus and no recommended text. The pass mark is 50% and all three papers must be passed at one sitting. Candidates are allowed a maximum of three attempts.
There are preparatory courses available to help prepare applicants for the Preliminary Examination but the Law Society doesn't accredit any of them.
Law clerks and legal executives can apply for exemptions from the Preliminary Examination if they have at least five years' experience and hold a Diploma in Legal Studies (or an equivalent qualification), or have in excess of 10 years' experience. Law clerks and legal executives carry out a variety of tasks of a legal nature in a solicitor's office, under the supervision of a qualified solicitor. It is possible to get such a job straight from Leaving Cert.
Once you have passed the Preliminary Examination you can sit the FE-1s. These eight exams hone in on eight areas of law: contract, constitutional, land, tort, criminal, EU, equity and company. The FE-1s takes place in October and April, and generally students sit four at a time, meaning they can be completed within a year if you pass them on your first sitting. For those with no legal background or knowledge, an FE-1 ''crash course'' is probably a good idea.
From the date students receive notification that they have passed all eight of their FE-1s, they have five years to obtain a training contract with a legal firm. Once you have your training contract, you have to apply to the Law Society of Ireland to sit the PPC I and PPC II exams in Blackhall Place. Once you finish your PPC I, your 24 - month training contract commences. Eleven months are spent with the firm initially before returning to Blackhall Place to complete the PPC II (a three-month-long course). You then return to the office to finish the final 10 months of your training contract. Once completed, you are a qualified solicitor.
Holders of other qualifications may apply to the Education Committee for exemption from the Preliminary Exam.
To become a barrister, candidates must sit the entrance exam at King's Inns, but to be eligible to sit the entrance exam, they must have an approved law degree.
However, for those who don't have an approved law degree or are over 23 and don't have a degree at all, there is another option - the King's Inns Diploma in Legal Studies which is studied part-time over two years. Applicants for this course are judged based on any completed academic qualifications or professional development as well as occupation and previous work experience. An interview may be required to finally decide. Applicants often include individuals from the media, An Garda Síochána and members of the civil service, particularly from the Department of Justice and Department of Defence, as well as other organisations and professions.
With the diploma completed, candidates are now on a par with those who have an approved law degree and can sit the entrance exam. Upon passing the entrance exam, they enter the barrister-at-law degree course at King's Inns which can be studied over one or two years. The next step is being admitted to the degree of barrister-at-law (this means you've finished the degree) and being called to the bar. Candidates are admitted to practice by the Chief Justice of Ireland and can now become members of the Law Library.
However, before being allowed to practise on their own, candidates must spend an unpaid year ''devilling'' with an approved Dublin-based practitioner. The pupil must carry out their master's instructions and learn about the nature of professional practice. When the year's devilling is completed, candidates are free to take up work in their own right.