Law conversion courses

Non-law graduates who want to work as barristers need to take a conversion course such as the postgraduate diploma in law or common professional examination. These qualifications also serve as a good grounding if you want to study the solicitors qualifying examination.

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A law conversion course is an essential first step into a career as a barrister for graduates whose first degree is not law and can provide a much-needed academic foundation for aspiring solicitors. Full conversion courses are intensive since they bring non-law graduates up to speed with law graduates in one year (two years if taken part time or as an MA). Successful completion of the course qualifies graduates for entry onto the Bar course and prepares candidates with the legal knowledge they’ll need for the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE). The recent changes to the solicitor qualification route mean that there are also a wide range of less intensive law ‘starter’ courses, designed to bring those about to study an SQE preparation course up to speed with basic academic law very quickly. Do be aware that these courses do not necessarily provide the same level of qualification as a conversion course, which could affect your options further down your career path.

Non-law graduates are in demand by the legal profession because of the fresh perspective on legal problems that they bring. Whether your background is in languages (particularly useful for organisations handling international work such as multinational commercial transactions, aviation and shipping claims), the arts, science (particularly useful for organisations handling patents and intellectual property work) or engineering, you are welcomed.

What is the difference between CPE and GDL/PGDL?

Courses recognised as conversion courses come with a variety of names such as common professional examination (CPE), graduate diploma in law (GDL) and postgraduate diploma in law (PGDL). Other titles you might come across include senior status law degree, LLB, or GDip (standing for graduate diploma). MAs are slightly different in that they tend to last for two years, full time, and as such go into greater depth. The course includes an introduction to the English legal system and basic legal research skills. There are seven foundation subjects that are compulsory:

  • Obligations (including contract law, restitution and tort)
  • Criminal law
  • Public law (including constitutional law, administrative law and human rights)
  • Property law
  • Equity and law of trusts
  • Law of the European Union.

Students pick one further area of law in which to specialise. This is usually referred to as ‘the other area of law’.

How to apply for a law conversion course

The Central Applications Board (CAB) administers an online system for processing full time applications for the GDL and PGDL.

You can apply online at www.lawcabs.ac.uk. You must sell yourself on the application form, giving convincing reasons for choosing a legal career, outlining your aspirations and offering evidence of your commitment to the profession. Applications for part-time and distance-learning courses should be made directly to the relevant institution; the closing date is usually in February. Applicants should normally expect to achieve a 2.2 at first degree level. Alternative equivalent qualifications that are considered are listed on the CAB website.

How to choose a law conversion course

  • Make sure you know what type of conversion course you need. Barristers will require a full conversion course in the form of a CPE, GDL or PGDL, but this is no longer a requirement to undertake the SQE (although it is strongly recommended). There are also courses on the market that promise to give a crash course in legal knowledge for SQE preparation, but they do not provide the same level of qualification as a ‘full’ conversion course.
  • Don't rush into anything. Conversion courses are intensive and you’ll need a lot of drive and self discipline to do well. Make sure that you are committed to a career in law and know what drove you to this path.
  • Choose carefully – look at the structure, content, teaching and assessment methods of prospective courses. Each provider has freedom to tackle these aspects in their own preferred way.
  • In recent years there has been a move towards continuous assessment and an increased focus on coursework and mooting. Mooting is the discussion of a hypothetical case as part of an academic exercise. Some providers promote specialist workshops and skills groups as a means of learning, others mention open seminars, small tutorial groups or assessment by ‘open book’ examinations.
  • Visit institutions to meet students, lecturers and view the facilities.
  • Get some legal work experience before you start the course to confirm your interest in the profession.
  • Consider part-time courses if funding is an issue. You can gain relevant work experience whilst you study part time and spread the cost of course fees. The growing use of web technology means that access to resources for part-time study or distance learning is now better than ever. For instance, electronic versions of library materials are now common, many providers also make seminars and lectures available as podcasts and virtual learning or app-based practice exams are now the norm.

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