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The GDL – my view a year later

The GDL – my view a year later

Matthew Dow

23/05/2019

It has almost been a year since I finished the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), aka the conversion course. With this in mind, I thought that it was worth reflecting on what I would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight. This includes the lessons learned regarding the job search, as well as academically.

Accept that the GDL is hard work

I knew beforehand that the GDL would be time-consuming. This was the description that had been given to me by the guides on the campus tour, the presenters on the open day and my friends who had completed the course. Their general view was that the course was not necessarily hard work, but that you do have to work hard to succeed.

I had been working full-time for a few years prior to starting the GDL. Therefore, perhaps arrogantly, I believed that with my commitment to the 9-5, the course would be more than manageable. Yet the reality is that, personally, I needed more time than this each day to feel comfortable, especially in the first term. However, a large element of this workload can be attributed to my initial poor learning methods and working practices. My ability to prepare for workshops eventually became more efficient as the term progressed.

Nonetheless, perhaps account for the occasional Saturday consolidation day and evening to ensure that you are more than ready come the exams.

Law is detailed

The level of specific detail that is required to study law is very different to what students with a humanities academic background (ie, the majority of GDL students) are used to.

This realisation comes for most GDL students quite early – that moment when the lecturer asks about the precise section of a particular law. Unfortunately, at this point, most attendees can barely memorise the statute’s name. Alternatively, you may be asked what one judge said as an obiter comment. Meanwhile, you are struggling to remember if this case concerned selling a horse, some land or a ship.

Over time, every student understands the level of detail that is deemed necessary. Nonetheless, it will be a shock to find out that your initial, well-intentioned notes may be insufficient. Therefore, try to see guideline answers and use these as inspiration as early as possible.

Prepare in advance for the course

I attended the University of Law in Bloomsbury. For this GDL provider, your first pass/fail exam arrives pretty soon after you start the course. However, you are given the legal method resources during the summer, so it is best to start reading and making notes as early as possible as your first few weeks will be hectic.

In addition, lots of the textbook resources for the GDL are already on your personal university account prior to starting the course. If you cannot find them, it is definitely worth asking your provider.

Reading these in advance will give you a strong overview of the modules and help to prepare you for your week-by-week assignments. It will also allow you to focus on consolidating your knowledge, rather than learning from scratch during the workshops.

Read exam papers and prepare fully for mocks

Realistically, the GDL is a pretty formulaic course.

Although the law changes, the questions are relatively standard every year. Therefore, by becoming familiar with the typical exam topics, you can really improve your understanding during workshops. You will be attuned to discussions relating to areas that you may be examined on.

In addition, testing yourself through practice questions in your revision period is super important. This is the easiest way to find out what you do not know fully or to identify mind blanks that you must correct.

The University of Law’s mocks closely resembled the final exam, but they focused only on the first three workshop topics that you have studied up to that point. Preparing for these mocks meant that I felt that I had one or two guaranteed strong topics going into the exams. The core workshop topics that you study in the initial weeks will invariably feature in the final exam. Further, many subsequent workshops build on the underlying principles of these first few weeks. Therefore, you benefit considerably from preparing fully for the mocks on these early examined topics.

Consolidate

It is amazing how well you understand something when somebody else is telling you the answer. Yet when you have to explain it yourself, your mind draws a complete blank.

Units on the GDL are rarely isolated islands. The topics overlap with elements from earlier units. Therefore, investing time to fully comprehend a topic by answering the optional consolidation questions after the workshop will benefit you considerably. By spending time consolidating, you can spend your limited revision time memorising, rather than having to relearn concepts.

Also, if you already understand the topic in depth by doing the textbook exercises properly (despite the limited obligation and answers below the exercise), you will gain a lot more from the class. The key points being emphasised by the lecturer will be far more notable.

In addition, re-watching lectures or listening to the lecture podcasts can really help you to appreciate a topic. This is especially useful if it has been a few weeks since you studied it as you now have a better grasp of the earlier concepts and thus you can appreciate the details more.

Do not overuse your GDL floatnotes

Pretty early on in the course, you will discover the unofficial guides to the GDL. These crib-sheet style answers are a life saver when you are new to studying law. In contrast to textbooks – which seem like a vast expanse of unclear information – these guides sum up the answers that you need to know for exams in a clear and concise way.

However, as you gain more experience studying the units, you slowly realise that these unofficial guides contain numerous errors. Further, as they are written in early October, they do not keep up with any changes in the law during your course. Not accounting for this alteration can drastically impact your answer’s accuracy.

Also, you will find that textbooks provide a more rounded picture, outlining the history and development of the law. This will make the law easier to remember and it will improve your general understanding.

Essays

My GDL course featured two relatively short essay assessments. Yet, I distinctly remember that the essays in the GDL took me far longer than I anticipated from their word count. While research overkill is definitely a personal shortcoming, there were also other errors I made that contributed to my wastefulness.

A major feature was not starting my research early enough. The GDL essay titles are usually quite ambiguous and open to interpretation. Therefore, not researching thoroughly can lead to you adopting either a narrow view or an unfocused structure that does not allow you to score the highest marks.

In addition, legal referencing can take ages to learn and edit. You often find yourself having to amend texts for semicolons and italics after realising mistakes that you have made in your essay. Doing this properly will really help your marks, but it is not a quick process of proofreading at the end.

Further, there is a considerable amount of work to do each week for workshops. Consequently, you can easily adopt a tendency of ignoring any deadline that is months away.

However, if you know your essay title in advance you will see that some workshops are highly relevant regarding key themes and prompts, whereas other weeks’ lectures are almost entirely pointless in certain modules.

The essay submission deadlines usually come at the expense of your revision time. Therefore, finishing them sooner will provide you with valuable revision time.

Memorisation

The GDL requires a lot of pure memorisation to obtain the top marks (eg, remembering case names and statute numbers). Even with the statutory extracts in front of you during the exam, you will not have the time to use them.

Therefore, starting your consolidation early and utilising memorisation tools – such as Anki app flashcards, spider diagrams and flow charts – will help to prevent the panic of realising that you cannot recall any case names.

Further, creating pictures with flashcards will help the cards to become more memorable. This mental association will help you throughout the course, as well as during the final exam.

Think of applying as well as your studies

The time that is taken to study the GDL is considerable and I certainly struggled to also spend the necessary time on applications. However, it is quite important to do so. Many recruiters are looking to hire for two years’ time, so the earlier you apply the better.

For one, you will be more alert to the many talks, essay competitions and presentations from firms that you are interested in. These opportunities are far less accessible when you are not a student.

The networking and information gathering opportunities put on by the universities are also incredibly important events. You will be more positively received at the application form stage if you have already attended multiple events organised by the HR team.

Further, taking time off for open days and interviews is far easier when you are a student. When you are working full-time, it can be very difficult to schedule as the firms often give limited notice.

Prepare in advance for pro bono work experience

For most of us, legal experience is a necessary element for your CV to obtain a job in the legal sector. But the old adage is true: in law you need experience to get experience.

Therefore, pro bono work is possibly the easiest entry point for many aspiring lawyers. However, at most GDL providers, despite the widespread promotion, there are limited numbers of local pro bono opportunities. Moreover, there are hundreds of students wanting to take advantage of them.

I looked to apply for pro bono on my first day of the GDL, only to discover that almost all of the slots had been filled. This is presumably because people on the courses that started earlier had taken them. Therefore, it helps to be alert ahead of term starting, so research the available opportunities and know when the timetable to sign up opens.

Use the careers service regularly

The careers service at these providers are usually experts in the application process. They employ a no-nonsense approach that will save you countless hours and rejections by identifying mistakes early.

Further, they can help to manage your expectations. If your grades will instantly rule you out, then this application time can be better spent elsewhere at firms where you are a stronger candidate. Alternatively, they may be able to identify the gaps in your CV where you can consciously improve.

Further, by booking regular meetings you can keep yourself accountable and avoid always submitting your applications on the deadline day like thousands of others.

Conclusion

I loved my GDL course and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone thinking of doing it. However, it is important to remember that the GDL is a crash course – during two terms it covers content that is studied in other academic institutions across three years. Therefore, it will serve you well to prepare early and to realise that every topic you are studying is in part preparation for an exam.

Finally, the GDL is a practical course. Consequently, you must think about your career at the same time as your exam results. Please take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you. It is important to note that there will probably never be a better time to enhance your practical legal skills through pro bono work and to expand your network by attending events for your future career.