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Postgraduate Routes to Legal Careers

The Independent

“You don’t go back to university to get a law degree unless you know what you’re getting into,” says mature student Morgan Wolfe, who’s studying to be a solicitor at the University of Law (UoL) in London. “I can’t think of a more challenging degree – perhaps nuclear physics.” Wolfe, who holds a masters in public administration, has already had a busy international career – first based in Moscow working for the United Nations assisting asylum seekers and also in Paris working in corporate communications.

“I realised I enjoyed researching and advocating for clients; I’ve got strong analytical skills and I really relished the experience of getting results both in the humanitarian and private sectors. This course seems like a natural progression.” Wolfe, who has funded studies herself, is in many ways a model law student – she’s completed various vacation placements with a wide variety of law firms, she’s comfortable dealing with senior clients and is highly motivated. But law exams – both on her law conversion course and the legal practice course (LCP) to become a solicitor, are not for the faint-hearted, she says. “I’ve loved returning to study, but it’s been challenging learning to write in a succinct way. Exams don’t get any easier and managing time requires real effort.”

Wolfe, like many graduates, selected a postgraduate route to becoming a lawyer, and she’s studying part time to fit around other commitments. Any graduate with a good degree in any subject could potentially apply for the law conversion course – known as the graduate diploma in law (GDL) which covers core areas of law such as criminal, public and property law, and brings participants to the same level as graduates with a law degree.

Good grades are essential in law; most law firms and barristers’ chambers look for a 2:1 in a traditional subject. But law firms aren’t fussy about whether you’ve converted to law or come through from undergraduate level, says Professor Scott Slorach, Vice President of Education at the University of Law, which is the largest provider of professional legal education and training in the world. “You might think history or English would be a good subject, but law firms also like the analytical skills you might get from a science degree,” he says.

A conversion course, or GDL, teaches the theory – from here students choose between becoming a barrister or solicitor, although realistically they should know their choice long before this stage – and then follows a year of vocational study. Potential solicitors go on to do a legal practice course (LPC) and would-be barristers opt for the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) – both courses last a year, or can be studied part time over two years. Last year, to much criticism from applicants and some legal figures, the Bar Standards Board introduced a mandatory bar course aptitude test in order to test applicants thinking and reasoning skills before being allowed to enrol.

Recently some legal commentators – and peeved law graduates – say that too many students are coming through law school at an unsustainable rate. Law as a career undoubtedly has a shiny reputation, enhanced by reported salaries of around £100,000 paid to newly qualified solicitors at top city law firms and hyped by TV dramas such as Silk or Suits. But, as many institutions are at pains to point out, competition for commercial law is fierce, and many lesser paid positions exist in high street law firms, government offices and charities.

Private institutions such as the University of Law and BPP University, both of which operate in major UK cities, are keen to point out how much they support their students. As well as a series of bursaries and loans, they provide solid career advice and help students apply for training contracts and pupillages – the UoL works with 92 of the top UK 100 law firms and trains more than 1,700 on the GDL each year. Some 4,700 students train as solicitors on the LCP and up to 380 students train as barristers with the UoL. Slorach points out that 97 per cent of the UoL’s full time LPC students who graduated in 2012 were in work, and 89 per cent of those secured work or positions in the legal profession. Furthermore, nearly a third of lucky LPC students who graduated in 2013 at the UoL’s Moorgate centre are set to earn a minimum of £61,500 on graduation, a UoL spokesperson says. But as of August this year, law firms will no longer be obliged to pay minimum salaries of around £18,000 on training contracts and some pay could fall to the minimum wage.

Students should choose their law school depending on where and what they want to practise, says the Solicitors Regulation Authority. In addition to compulsory subjects, the vocational courses offer a mix of electives in different areas such as criminology, employment law or medical law for example. An LPC at a London-based law school might suit those wanting to find a training contract with a City firm. Look at teaching and assessment methods as they vary, says the SRA. Some universities offer the chance to complete a full Master of Laws – an LLM.

“An LLM allows you to develop a niche for yourself in a market that’s becoming increasing difficult, competitive and global,” says Professor Spyros Maniatis, director of the Centre for Commercial Law Studies at Queen Mary University of London. Most popular specialisms are areas such as intellectual property and commercial and corporate law, he adds.

A cheaper, third route into law is becoming more widely recognised; this is to train as a chartered legal executive lawyer – a path also open to those who don’t hold a degree. Legal executives’ work is almost indistinguishable from the work of a solicitor, says the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILex), the only difference being they must be supervised by a solicitor when relevant – although this will be under review by parliament later this year. School leavers, law graduates or those with a GDL can then choose this work-based training which offers different entry points and is often funded by an employer. Law graduate William Cason, 21, chose this route after finding himself in a familiar dilemma - unable to get experience without a job, and unable to get a job without experience. He became a legal secretary and his employer urged him to complete the CILex fast track diploma. “It’s a fantastic programme. It helped me qualify (as a legal executive) while I worked and is considerably cheaper than the legal practice course.”

There’s no escaping the whopping cost of joining the legal profession, exacerbated by the rise in undergraduate university fees. Some law firms sponsor students at various stages of training, and it pays to apply early. Vacation placements with law firms – during summer, Christmas or Easter holidays are also highly competitive, with students reporting they’re as hard to come by as final solicitors’ training contracts. Would-be barristers are advised to hunt down mini-pupillages during training. All students are strongly advised to network and mingle at professional events set up by universities and institutions. As of August 2014, UoL students can apply for a new Metro Bank Professional Studies Loan worth £25,000, and the university offers more than 50 merit-based awards of £5,000 to help with fees.

Once qualified, barristers need to secure two six-month pupillages within chambers to finish off their training and solicitors must find a two-year training contract. “This is the final ladder of the qualifying process,” says Sally Laughton, associate director at DBS Andersons Solicitors. “Choose a firm that best suits your personality. Not everyone is a corporate beast and wants to work in an international city law firm. Others may be better suited to a regional firm or career in the local authority or government legal service. Those who succeed have enthusiasm, commitment, endurance, entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of humour.”

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