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GDL or SQE Preparation course? A 2021 non-law student’s guide to choosing a solicitor training route

updated on 11 February 2021

The ‘tried and tested’ route to becoming a solicitor is universally trusted by employers, which is why thousands of non-law students graduating in 2021 are choosing the GDL over new courses designed to prepare students for the SQE. This guide explains the key reasons why law firms, other employers and students value the GDL – and looks at how some new SQE-based study options are replicating that success with a focus on developing a wide set of skills.

Why choose the GDL in 2021?

If you are thinking about starting a law conversion course this year, you have a choice between taking the old and new routes into the legal profession. The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) in September 2021 will eventually phase out the current, established route to becoming a solicitor, but the popularity of this proven pathway with both employers and candidates means that respected qualifications like the GDL and LPC will remain the go-to route for many candidates for a long while yet.

Employability is at the heart of why the GDL continues to be a safe option for aspiring solicitors.  

The GDL is tried, tested and loved

“The GDL has been trusted by employers and future lawyers for over 30 years,” explains Professor Peter Goodchild from The University of Law (ULaw). “For students, there is a clear timetable on the GDL route so that you know exactly what you need to do and when, both academically and in terms of applying for the LPC and work experience. Quality GDL courses also appeal to students because of how well rounded they are – that full range of employability and academic support is vital in a profession where the competition for training contracts is so high.”

Employers continue to value the GDL, too. Some law firms are still not as familiar with the new route as they are with the GDL and LPC, which is why some employers have said they won’t adopt the SQE route immediately in September 2021. Instead, a number of firms will continue to prefer the GDL/law degree and LPC while the new SQE system takes time to become established.

Meanwhile, those employers ready to embrace the SQE on day one will still welcome candidates doing the GDL and LPC route. They want the best candidates regardless of which route they have taken and will not ignore the thousands of aspiring lawyers taking the ‘old’ route.

This means that the GDL remains marketable to the whole profession, not just the early adopters – a factor that might influence the decisions of some candidates planning to start their legal career journeys in 2021.

The GDL focuses on skills

The wider focus on skills on the GDL means that it can provide greater employability benefits than some of the new training options. Peter highlights the example of ULaw’s GDL and MA Law, which “draws out students’ skills – such as problem solving, analysis and written and oral communication – that can be applied in a variety of contexts. The O shaped lawyer is an increasingly important concept in the modern profession – law firms want well-rounded people who are also emotionally intelligent and willing to embrace new ways of working. That approach to skills development is ingrained in our GDL.”

GDL students benefit from tuition by qualified lawyers and the opportunity to complete research modules alongside exams – ULaw’s GDL includes modules on ethics and the law of organisations, while the MA Law involves a supervised research project. The transferable skills developed on the GDL bake in employability benefits for those who don’t go on to become lawyers, too.

In contrast, the variety of courses catering for the new SQE route means that there may be some differences between certain courses in terms of wider employability value, with tuition, contact time and learning options ranging from basic to more extensive. Some SQE courses are designed to be more focused on preparing students to pass the SQE assessments, which may come at the expense of focusing on training good lawyers and giving students opportunities to flourish.

Quality and cost

Law conversion courses such as ULaw’s GDL and MA Law combine practical skills development with opportunities to excel academically and add an extra, highly respected qualification to a candidate’s CV. Combining the GDL with a law Master’s is also a good choice for a student looking to develop a particular specialism.

Studying an MA Law makes the student eligible for the Postgraduate Student Loan, making it a financially viable route into law for many candidates.

I graduate later than 2021 – what about the new SQE courses?

If you are looking to convert to law later than 2021 but are concerned that you might miss out on the skills and employability benefits of the GDL because you will be taking the SQE route, don’t worry.


New courses catering for the SQE route vary in length, contact time and focus because they are designed for different types of candidate, including those who might be already practising in the legal profession. Non-law graduates coming to law for the first time will continue to access law conversion courses such as the PGDL, which combines all the focus on skills development of the old GDL with SQE preparation.

“Developing the ‘functioning legal knowledge’ for SQE1 is integral to every module of ULaw’s new PGDL, but we are emphasising those wider O shaped skills too,” explains Peter. “There will be coursework as well as exams, so there is a wider set of skills in the assessments than the SQE on its own. There will also be a specialised skills and behaviours module to enable students to reflect on this element even more. The PGDL provides a much greater depth and breadth of learning than the minimum baseline set by the SQE.”

Students on the SQE pathway will be able to combine their law conversion with a Master’s. ULaw’s MA Law (SQE1) will combine the PGDL with a choice of Master’s modules. “The MA Law (SQE1) covers the journey from starting out as a non-lawyer to SQE1 in one package,” says Peter. “And eligibility for the Postgraduate Student Loan makes this an attractive option to many non-law graduates.” 

GDL and LPC, or SQE?

Ultimately, which route you choose might be influenced by your preferred learning style, as Peter acknowledges: “Different types of assessment work better for different people. If you are good at multiple-choice exams based around ‘single best answer’ questions, you may do well on the SQE route. If you enjoy essays and solving problems, the GDL and LPC route may be right for you. The choice is yours – at ULaw, both the GDL and PGDL are delivered with a well-rounded approach that emphasises skills and looking after students, both in terms of support and employability.”