A law degree is not a prerequisite to becoming a lawyer. More and more non-law graduates are joining the profession, and virtually any degree is acceptable to nearly all firms. Some non-law degrees are regarded as particularly useful for specialist areas of the law, so if you've already decided on a particular practice area there may well be a relevant subject to complement your choice; a science background can be useful to specialist IP lawyers, for example.
The downside of not doing a law degree is that you’ll have to acquaint yourself with law via the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) - a course which squeezes into one year the seven foundations of legal knowledge that are compulsory for progressing to the vocational stage of training. Concentrating three years of study into just one means that, by most accounts, it's quite an intense experience! It is also an extra year of study, so bear in mind the extra fees and living costs that you'll fork out. On the other hand, a different first degree will increase your knowledge and depth of experience outside of the law.
As with A-levels, be canny and choose a subject that you think you'll do well in; the vast majority of firms and chambers stipulate that applicants for training contracts or pupillages must have a 2.1 or first. In the increasingly competitive legal job market your academic results are more important than ever. Although not having a 2.1 or a first doesn't put the legal profession completely out of reach, or make a job in commercial law unobtainable; it does seriously restrict the number of firms and chambers that will consider you. It is highly unlikely, for example, that you'll be considered by top-end sets or the magic circle and large City firms.
Bear in mind also the fact that in application forms for work experience and pupillages you'll be asked to include your end-of-year grades for your first and second years. Future employers are looking for evidence that your work was of a consistently high standard, and that you didn't simply cram for - and only just make - a 2.1 at the end of your third year.
If you are planning to take years out after completing the academic stage of your legal career, note that your degree becomes 'stale' after seven years have passed. If this happens, you will have to retake all of the foundation subjects by completing the entire GDL/CPE (in exceptional cases the SRA will re-validate a stale degree, but the individual would have to prove that they have kept their legal knowledge up to date).
Course contentWhether you opt for a law or non-law degree, the seven foundations of legal knowledge that must be studied (and passed!) are:
- equity and trusts;
- European Union;
- property; and
Where to studyMany institutions offer degrees in law - as either single, joint or combined honours courses. If you don't want to have to go on to complete certain parts of the GDL, you should ensure that the degree you choose covers the seven foundations mentioned above, and that the course is validated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Our Course search section provides a comprehensive list of institutions that teach qualifying law degrees, as does the SRA.
An exempting law degree integrates the academic and vocational stages of training. In 2009 the only institutions offering an exempting law degree were the University of Huddersfield, Northumbria University and the University of Westminster.
For those not intending to study law at undergraduate level, the choice is enormous. You should consult your careers adviser and as many guides to courses as you can.
How and when to applyUniversity applications are managed by UCAS in your A-level years. You should consult the website and your sixth-form/college careers adviser for details. If you are currently looking into university courses, you might like to read the UCAS Progression to Law book.