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GDL and SQE: what’s going on with conversion courses?

updated on 10 June 2022

With the rolling out of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) from September 2021, the route for non-law students to qualify as a solicitor has changed. Confused? In this Feature we’ll run through what your options are as a non-law student pursuing a career as a solicitor, and the different kinds of law conversion course that are currently available.

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Conversion course no longer required

The main reason why things are changing for non-law graduates is that non-law students qualifying via the SQE route are no longer required to complete a law conversion course (like the GDL) to take the SQE.

If you’re a non-law student who hasn’t accepted a place on the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or secured a training contract offer, you will have to qualify via the SQE route.

Under the new rules, there are four things you need to qualify as a solicitor. You must:

  • have a university degree or equivalent in any subject (law or non-law);
  • pass the character and suitability assessment set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority;
  • pass SQE stages one and two (SQE1 and SQE2); and
  • have two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE).

With the only academic requirements for the SQE being a university degree (or equivalent), it is therefore possible under the new system to rock up to the SQE assessments without having even studied law or undertaken a preparation course. Possible? Yes. Advisable? Definitely not!

To give yourself the best chance of passing the SQE, it’s recommended you take one of the many SQE courses that have been developed by legal education providers and universities in recent years.

As a non-law student, you will have the choice of taking a separate law conversion course, and then moving onto an SQE course. Or you can do a conversion course that incorporates elements of SQE preparation to get the ball rolling on passing your SQE assessments.

Conversion courses: the GDL and PGDL

The GDL has been the tried and tested route for thousands of non-law graduates. The course formed the basis for non-law graduate entry into both the solicitors’ and barristers’ professions and is equivalent to a law degree. Non-law graduates would take this year-long course after finishing their undergraduate degree, before embarking on the LPC which is still the most popular way to qualify as a solicitor.

The GDL route is familiar to many converting to law. The good news? The concept of the GDL is not completely disappearing. The University of Law’s Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL) is a newly-designed conversion course that helps graduates from a non-law background learn to think like a lawyer and develop practical legal skills. This course will replace ULaw’s GDL course to become the pathway into practice for non-law students looking to qualify as a solicitor or barrister.

The PGDL is the next step for non-law graduates between their undergraduate degree and the SQE. It teaches the essentials of the key foundation areas of the law that align to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s specification of Functioning Legal Knowledge – what is tested in the SQE.

The course focuses on:

  • English legal system and constitutional law;
  • Tort taw;
  • contract law;
  • criminal law;
  • administrative law and human rights;
  • land law;
  • trusts;
  • law of organisations; and
  • skills and behaviours.

“The PGDL is a cutting-edge postgraduate law conversion course giving students the chance to develop the academic legal knowledge and skills necessary to become a lawyer in England & Wales. It is laser-focused on preparing learners for modern professional legal examinations such as the SQE and centralised Bar assessments,” says Peter Goodchild, associate professor at ULaw.

Interested in the PGDL? Discover more via The University of Law.

Master the law with a conversion course

For those interested in gaining a general legal qualification at Master’s level, ULaw’s MA Law (conversion) course is an option to consider. The qualification includes a pre-course programme to be completed online in order to get you up to speed in legal method before you begin the Master’s.

The course is delivered by qualified lawyers who are subject matter experts, with face-to-face or online learning options. It focuses on legal practice and not just theory and is aimed at non-law students who would like to keep their legal career options open.

Find out more about ULaw’s MA Law (conversion) course.

Alternatively, there is also the option to take the MA Law (SQE1) course which is a law conversion course including SQE1 preparation. This course is designed for non-law graduates who want to qualify as a solicitor and gain a legal qualification at Master’s level. The course prepares students for the SQE1 assessments. Once completed, you will be ready to progress onto an SQE2 preparation course.

“The MA Law (conversion) is a fantastic postgraduate law conversion course giving students the academic legal knowledge and skills necessary to become a lawyer. Whilst preparing learners for modern professional legal examinations such as the SQE and centralised Bar assessments, it also allows students to demonstrate deeper understanding of developing legal issues in a Dissertation Module,” explains Peter Goodchild.

Don’t forget that one of the benefits of taking a conversion course which includes a Master’s is that you will be eligible to receive the government’s postgraduate loan. There’s more about funding your studies on LawCareers.Net’s ‘Finances’ page and this Oracle: ‘Funding the SQE’.

Find out more about ULaw’s MA Law (SQE1) course.

Just the essentials: SQE Law Essentials Online

If you’re keen to get onto an SQE course as quickly as possible, ULaw’s SQE Law Essentials Online course will teach you the fundamentals of law in order to progress onto SQE1. This short online course is designed for non-law students who need to learn the essentials of legal knowledge. After completing this 10-week course over two semesters (there is also a part-time option of completing this course in 16 weeks over three semesters), students can move directly onto SQE preparation courses such as the SQE1 Preparation Course or LLM Legal Practice (SQE1&2). The SQE Law Essentials Online course might suit those currently working or someone looking for the flexibility of online learning.

Find out more about ULaw’s SQE Law Essentials Online course.

Law firms

Although the above provides you with a range of conversion course options, it’s important to note that you might not have a choice in which course you take. If you secure a training contract (or QWE) with a law firm, they will likely decide which route you go down – or work with an education provider to develop a bespoke training programme for the firm’s trainees.

For example, US firm White & Case LLP recently announced an exclusive partnership with ULaw to deliver training and development to the firm’s future trainees to prepare them for the SQE. The contract requires ULaw to prepare the firm’s law and non-law graduates for the SQE via a programme that will focus on excellent technical skills and enhancing commercial and personal skills and behaviours required for success in the profession. Similarly, Farrer & Co LLP, Clifford Chance and Taylor Wessing have all secured partnerships with ULaw to deliver postgraduate courses and SQE training.

Before pursuing a specific route, we recommend checking what your shortlisted firms are doing in terms of the SQE and conversion courses. Another benefit of securing a training contract before commencing postgraduate study is that the law firm will likely finance your studies. Doing thorough research into law firms and having an awareness of what sort of law firm you are looking to go into will help to make your decision between conversion courses easier from the outset.

Choosing the right conversion and SQE preparation course for you is crucial and as you can see, there are now more options than ever to become a solicitor. Whether you want to convert via the new PGDL, or do a MA conversion course to gain a Master’s qualification alongside your course, the introduction of the SQE has opened up the gateway for students to decide. Do your research, speak to your university careers adviser and make sure to check what your potential future firms are doing in regards to conversion courses. That will equip you to make the right decision for your future legal career.

Interested in studying at ULaw? Find out whether they have an open day coming up!

Find out more about the Solicitors Qualifying Exam with our SQE hub, sponsored by The University of Law.

Bethany Wren is content and events manager at LawCareers.Net.