Considering postgraduate legal study before applying to the Bar

Thinking about a masters, LLM or PhD in law? Whether you're tempted by a life of academia or you're keen to know how a further qualification can help your job-hunt, weigh up your options carefully before taking the plunge.

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To sell yourself at application stage, you must be able to justify the rationale behind your extra study and back this up with commercial awareness and practical legal work experience.

All would-be barristers must undertake a legal conversion course if their first degree is not in law, followed by the Bar course.

However, some graduates opt to take more in-depth postgraduate qualifications. Graduates can choose to specialise in a subject of interest from their undergraduate studies such as environmental or international law but may decide on a wider subject area such as criminal justice.

Why pursue postgraduate study in law?

People pursue further study for all sorts of reasons, and you need to make sure that yours are the right ones. Postgraduate study is not just a fallback option if you don’t know what else to do – it’s hard work and without commitment and interest in the subject you won’t get anywhere. In addition, the belief that doing a masters can make up for poor degree results by demonstrating that you do have academic ability is usually a false one. Most chambers look for a consistent academic record, so having an LLM will not erase the fact that you only just scraped a 2.2.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of good reasons for continuing your study. Many people study due to a burning interest in a field, and the added expertise can come in handy in your career. If there is an area of legal practice that you think you’d like to specialise in, a higher degree in this field could help you boost your legal skill set. However, it by no means guarantees you a pupillage offer.

If you’re interested in an academic career, further qualification is essential, but make sure a life of research and teaching is right for you, and be aware that it might help to have some practical experience as well.

Choosing a postgraduate legal course

Courses may be taught or research based, and last from one to four years. Options include:

  • LLMs – taught masters level degrees designed to provide specialist knowledge in one area of law. The LLM (master of law) is usually taught through a mixture of lectures and seminars with a dissertation in the final term. Courses are run for 12 months full time or 24 months part time.
  • MAs – taught or research-based masters level courses. An MA is likely to be more general than an LLM, and may examine the interaction between law and another subject. Courses tend to last one year (two years part time).
  • MPhils and PhDs – specialised research degrees, typically lasting two to four years. A PhD requires significant original contribution to the academic discipline, whereas an MPhil requires a less substantial thesis.

Teaching methods

Think about whether you would be better suited to a taught course or a research-based degree. You will have discovered your preferred methods of study during your undergraduate course so try to match them now. Are you able to motivate yourself or would it be better to have classes and set assignments? If a course is taught, you may want to consider group size and teaching methods. Find out the usual number of hours’ contact with tutors. If you are applying for a degree by research you should also consider whether your proposed supervisor is appropriate to your research interests. Contacting a potential supervisor before accepting a place may help you to gauge whether you will be able to work successfully with him or her. Be aware that the life of a research student is a solitary one: you will be supervised but the onus is on you to complete the research.

Do your research: postgraduate law study options

Start your research in good time, as you may encounter early closing dates for applications. You'll find lots of useful information on

  • Discuss further study options with your tutors and visit your careers service to pick up course directories.
  • Attend postgraduate information fairs, run from October to January by a number of universities such as the University of Manchester and the University of London.
  • Check the value of your course with potential employers (for instance at recruitment fairs) to make sure that it puts you on the right track for employment.
  • Contact the course director for details of what previous students have gone on to do and decide whether it’s the direction you want.
  • See if you can speak to somebody on the course, to get an insider’s view. Alternatively your careers service may have notes on file from alumni who went on to do the courses you’re considering.
  • Investigate a university’s reputation by looking at the Higher Education Funding Council’s (HEFC) research ratings. The grades run from 1 to 5* (with 5* being the top rating) and are used as a means to distribute grants to universities to further their research work.
  • Check out the university itself – do you like its location? How good are the facilities? Are there links with law firms or chambers?
  • Make sure you’ll be able to fund your studies.

Selling your postgraduate law qualification

Postgraduate study can develop all sorts of talents that make you a really valuable commodity. If you’re going to sell your qualification successfully to employers you need to find out what these new skills are, and give examples of how you’ve demonstrated them.

For example, the higher level of study can demonstrate your intellectual capacity while the sustained effort of working on a dissertation is a good example of self-discipline and project management. Your dissertation can also demonstrate your ability to think in a logical way and present a mass of information in a readable, concise format. Presenting papers at conferences and giving lectures will have really honed your presentation skills. A research-based degree requires an analytical mind and attention to detail, which are both valued by employers.

'Completion of a postgraduate degree clearly demonstrates your commitment to a particular legal field,' one recruiter told us. However, alone it is not enough. 'To sell yourself at application stage, you must be able to justify the rationale behind your extra study and back this up with commercial awareness and practical legal work experience,' she concluded.

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