You don’t need to do the three-year law degree course (also known as the LLB) to become a successful lawyer in the UK. You can study any undergraduate degree, such as English or engineering, and then convert that non-law degree by studying a one-year law conversion course.
Most law firms have a balanced intake of trainee solicitors from law and non-law backgrounds, recruiting roughly 50% from non-law degrees. Let’s be clear: you are at no disadvantage having studied a non-law degree before beginning your legal training and qualifications. In fact, some law firms, such as intellectually property specialists Bristows, actively seek out those with a science or engineering background. Last year the firm told us that 80% of its trainee solicitors had a non-law degree.
‘Firms don’t tend to give preference to law students – I often find that non-law graduates end up being more rounded and better educated lawyers,’ explains Sarah Clover, a professional negligence partner at international law firm Clyde & Co. ‘I would advise any student contemplating a career in law to think carefully about not studying law at university. You end up doing law for so many years as a professional so I would advise choosing a university degree that you are genuinely interested in. I did a law degree but looking back I wish I’d studied history – a subject I loved at school. I found the academic study of law to be somewhat dry and only began to enjoy studying law in the context of actual practice where one could see the impact of it in real life.’
What is a law conversion course? Is it the same as the graduate diploma in law (or GDL course)?
Recognised law conversion courses come with a variety of names. The two most widely used are the graduate diploma in law (GDL) and the common professional examination (CPE). The ‘common’ in common professional examination stems from the fact that the course is common to both future solicitors and those wanting to train as barristers.
The law conversion course is intensive since it brings non-law graduates up to speed with law graduates in one year (two years if taken part time or as an MA). You’ll need a lot of drive and self-discipline to do well so consider your motivation for a career in law carefully before you apply. Successful completion of the course qualifies graduates for entry onto the Bar course or LPC, but this may change for solicitors with the introduction of the SQE. Some commercial law firms sponsor their future trainee solicitors through the law conversion course and the LPC.
The law conversion course includes an introduction to the English legal system and basic legal research skills. There are seven compulsory foundation subjects:
- Contract law
- Tort law
- Criminal law
- Public law (including constitutional law, administrative law and human rights)
- Land law
- Law of equity and trusts
- Law of the European Union
The introduction of the solicitors qualifying exam in 2021 and its impact on the GDL
The system is planned to change from autumn 2021, with the SRA’s introduction of the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE). Unlike the LPC, non-law graduates will not be required to complete a conversion course before completing the SQE. However, it may still be advisable, as an appropriate postgraduate conversion course will include the legal knowledge that aspiring lawyers will need to complete the two stages of the SQE. Some course providers are planning to introduce SQE-specific conversion courses, but details of these have yet to be announced. For more information on the SQE, see our SQE special report here.
The skills needed to become a successful lawyer
If you talk to law recruiters at a careers fair, you’ll see that your degree subject is rarely on their list of top ten things to look for in future trainee solicitors. Intellectual rigour, teamwork skills, resilience, ambition and motivation are all important factors that firms seek in future trainees and they can all be developed outside your degree.
‘Commercial awareness’ – an ability to understand your client’s business and an appreciation of how the City works – is something that is built up over time by reading the financial papers, keeping your ear to the ground or picking up work experience in an investment bank or City institution. Making yourself irresistible to law recruiters is often a case of demonstrating your interest in law and gaining relevant experiences.
Demand for language skills from global law firms
Linguists should note that the larger City law firms, like their counterparts in investment banking and accountancy, are global and as such have offices or associate offices all over the world. Trainees and qualified practitioners can expect to be seconded overseas if they so wish and a second language is a huge bonus.
How a science or engineering degree can boost your career in law
Legal practice involves analysing masses of information, drafting succinct and unambiguous documents, deciphering complicated legislation and explaining it in clear terms to your lay client. An ordered, logical mind is a huge advantage and, as a result, scientists, engineers and mathematicians tend to make good lawyers. A science background is particularly helpful in intellectual property work where you will be dealing with technical jargon behind new and groundbreaking inventions. Sam Lee, head of recruitment at Womble Bond Dickinson LLP, says her firm’s intellectual property team is ‘crying out for people who have science or engineering degrees’.
Other attributes developed on non-law degrees
Those with a numerical background would arguably have an edge in employment, tax or banking law where transactions involve complicated calculations. History or English degrees also develop useful research skills for legal practice: ‘Traditionally, a history degree is seen as being in sync with law because of the research skills you develop,’ says Samantha Hope, graduate recruitment manager at Shoosmiths, ‘but we don’t have a preference of degree subject.’
Show your commitment to a career in law with legal work experience
A word of warning. Whatever your background, law is a competitive profession. On top of a consistently strong academic record, communication skills and extracurricular activities, recruiters will want to see evidence of a strong commitment to law. While prior legal work experience isn’t essential in securing a place on the law conversion course, getting some before you start the course is highly recommended and will help you to confirm your interest in the legal profession.
To a point, law degree students can show that from their interest in the academic subject at university. Non-law graduates need to be a bit more creative: make sure you have legal work experience on your CV. Frankly, you’d be foolish to enter the profession without trying out life at a firm for size: it’s the best way to prove to yourself as well as recruiters that the profession is for you. ‘Work experience and open days are an invaluable opportunity to see what working in a law firm is really like,’ says the trainee recruitment assistant at Slaughter and May. ‘It is important to have all the facts and first-hand knowledge is one of the best ways to do so.’
As a non-law graduate, applying to firms’ vacation schemes, open days and insight programmes is crucial in showing you’re serious about entering this profession. Make sure you visit your careers centre to get the lowdown on legal careers and attend as many talks, presentations and open days from law firms visiting your careers service as you can. Search for vacation schemes in law firms here and mini-pupillages in barristers’ chambers here.
Alexander Flather is a trainee solicitor who, like Sarah Clover, works at international law firm Clyde & Co. He studied politics and East European studies at UCL and did the law conversion course at City, University of London. He advises: ‘My GDL course provider offered CV advice, interview coaching and plenty of networking opportunities with law firms – all of which are tailored to people studying law. Make sure you are taking full advantage of all the things your institution offers. Debates and mooting in particular are great ways of networking and honing your skills.’