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A non-law student’s guide to a career in law

updated on 12 November 2019

Not having a law degree is no barrier to becoming a lawyer – in fact, the modern legal profession is full of non-law graduates, and the skills and experiences gained studying and working in other fields can be used to your advantage.

You don't need to have a three-year law degree to become a lawyer. Non-law graduates make up a sizeable proportion of qualified solicitors and barristers, while the opportunities available across the profession - from trainee solicitor/pupil barrister level to law firm partner/Queen's Counsel - are just the same as for those with law degrees. Non-law graduates are able to convert their qualifications to law by taking the one-year Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) which, while not as academically exhaustive and broad as a three-year law degree, is just as good preparation for training and ultimately practising as a solicitor or barrister. The GDL route is in no way disadvantageous in the eyes of recruiters when applying for a training contract or pupillage - in fact, recruiters are increasingly looking for well-rounded candidates who can use their experiences to demonstrate transferable skills beyond just pure legal knowledge, so the different interests and competencies developed through a non-law degree can even be an advantage if presented in the right way.

Read on to find out more about the process of becoming a lawyer with a non-law degree, plus some encouraging examples of the diverse fields from which many currently practising lawyers have come from.

Change ahead: The Solicitors Qualifying Exam

Before we get started, you should know that the route to qualifying as a solicitor is going to change in 2021, when the LPC (explained below) is replaced with the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).

However, there is no need to worry too much, as people will be able to start the current route (described below) until as late as September 2020. Meanwhile, those who have already started a law degree, graduate law conversion or LPC when SQE comes into effect in 2021 will still be able to qualify through the 'old' pathway - there will be a transition period lasting several years to enable this. This means that if you are planning to start your conversion to law within the next year, SQE will not affect you. There is also a real possibility that SQE will be delayed further, with the result that the current route remains in place for longer.

You can learn more about SQE by reading this article.

With that in mind, let’s look at the different stages of becoming a lawyer for someone with a non-law background.

First step to qualifying: the graduate law conversion

Various universities and law schools offer graduate law conversion courses. Previously all graduate law conversions had one name – the Graduate Diploma in Law, but universities are now in the process of launching revamped conversion courses under a range of different names, in order to adjust what they teach in line with new changes to solicitor and barrister training.

But regardless of the differences between the various graduate law conversion courses out there, they all provide the same qualification – a Postgraduate Diploma in Law. This qualification enables non-law graduates to progress onto one of the vocational courses to become a solicitor or barrister. For aspiring solicitors, this remains the Legal Practice Course (LPC) until it is replaced by new, yet-to-announced courses when SQE comes into effect. Meanwhile, aspiring barristers must take a Bar course (again, the names of these barrister courses now differ from university to university).

Graduate law conversion courses do not aim to cover in one year all the material contained in a three-year law degree, which would be an impossible task. Rather, they teach the core areas of law and the skills of legal analysis and research essential to succeed on the solicitor or barrister courses and in the early years of practice. The seven core subjects that all conversion courses are required to cover are:

  • the law of contract;
  • the law of tort;
  • constitutional and administrative law;
  • the law of the European Union;
  • equity and trusts;
  • land law; and
  • criminal law.

Different courses will also offer a range of extra study options, as well as the option integrate a master’s qualification into your law conversion (making your conversion eligible for student loan funding).

Choosing the right law school at which to study is also an important decision, so be sure to read our article for more advice.

Essentials: research and work experience

The earlier you start your research into the legal profession and applying for work experience, the better. As soon as you have decided that you are interested in a career in law and to take a graduate law conversion, you should begin conducting thorough research into law firms and/or chambers. Firstly, you need to decide which branch of the profession appeals to you - working in teams at a law firm or the more solitary, academic and court-based lifestyle of a barrister? To get started, why not read The Beginner's Guide to a Career in Law?

Then think broadly about the kind of law that interests you - careers in commercial, family or crime practices are clearly going to be quite different, and you should research them broadly. However, don't set your heart on too narrow a specialism at such an early stage. The advice we hear time and again from lawyers is to keep an open mind about the area of law in which you might ultimately end up qualifying, as the reality of actually working in those areas over the course of a training contract or pupillage may be very different to any preconceived ideas you may have formed about them.

At this point it is also essential to secure as much work experience as possible. For aspiring solicitors this means applying for law firm vacation schemes (sometimes called work placement schemes), which take place in winter, spring and summer, while those wishing to join the Bar must apply for mini-pupillages, the availability of which differ in terms of time of year from chambers to chambers. You can use LCN to see upcoming vacation scheme application deadlines and search for mini-pupillages at chambers which interest you.

In addition to these formal placements, it is worth contacting local firms or chambers to ask if they might let you do a few days' informal work experience with them, or shadow a solicitor or barrister for the day. All of these forms of experience are a great way to improve your CV when applying for a training contract or pupillage, while they are also valuable in helping you to decide through first-hand experience whether a career in one of these areas is really for you.

Another valuable form of work experience is voluntary pro bono work, which allows you to help your local community at the same time as boost your CV. LCN has a list of pro bono initiatives to get you started.

Applying for a training contract or pupillage

Many law firms and barristers' chambers run, respectively, training contract and pupillage interviews at the end of each vacation scheme and mini-pupillage, and make a sizeable proportion of their offers to those candidates who complete placements with them, so the importance of these schemes is clear.

We appreciate that it can be difficult for some to find the time for work experience such as this in the face of employment commitments and caring responsibilities, and the majority of firms hire at least some of their trainees from outside the pool of vacation scheme candidates.

This is all the more reason to present the life skills you have developed through non-legal experiences, such as other jobs and the things you got involved in at university, in the best possible way when making applications - although we cannot stress enough that this is absolutely crucial for all candidates, whether or not you have done a vacation scheme or mini-pupillage. Thinking about how you would take your experiences and skills, and apply them as a trainee solicitor or pupil barrister is just as important as legal work experience.

All of the solicitors we have spoken to who qualified from non-law backgrounds agree - prior experiences and skills outside of law can be a real advantage. One commercial lawyer who studied economics at undergraduate level said: "An economics student who applies to commercial law firms can feel confident that he or she has a competitive advantage by understanding the workings of an economy, and the drivers behind corporate decisions and growth." Meanwhile, one biochemistry graduate points out that her degree has proven useful at both the application stage and in practice: "I applied to law firms that had strong IP and life sciences practices, where I could sell my scientific background on the basis that I understood life sciences business. I felt it would be an advantage to be able to discuss with clients the scientific concepts that underpin their products."

Elsewhere, another commercial solicitor claims that his degree in engineering really helped him during his training contract: "During my IP litigation seats, I worked on three patent cases at different stages and therefore experienced commencing proceedings, prior art searches and exchanging expert reports, and assisting at trial. Understanding the underlying technology helped me to appreciate information that others might not. It also helped me to consider what further information might be required from our clients and experts in order to provide comprehensive legal advice."

Arts and humanities subjects are also valuable in developing the broad life skills you will need as a lawyer. One English graduate we spoke to sees plenty of correlation between her degree subject and her day-to-day work at an international commercial firm: "I am often asked to carry out detailed research which involves producing a cohesive and thorough written analysis. I have to set out the question that I am being asked to consider, detail my findings and the resources that I used to reach these findings and form practical, commercial conclusions." Meanwhile, another corporate solicitor is quick to acknowledge the value of the skills she developed over the course of her classics degree: "The analytical skills and attention to detail that I have developed from translating ancient texts have been of great benefit. For example, I was involved in drafting a merger submission to the Office of Fair Trading. This required me to research and evaluate potential arguments as to why the merger should not be referred to the Competition Commission, demanding a high-level economic analysis of the markets of the merging entities."

LCN has plenty more in-depth advice on applying for a training contract, as well as how to approach pupillage interviews and training contract interviews.

Reality check: The LPC and Bar courses

Our advice is to apply for training contracts/pupillages before you take the LPC/Bar course. This is because the high competition for places means that securing one is by no means a certainty, so paying out in excess of £16,000 in some cases to take the LPC or Bar course without a job lined up is risky. Some firms and chambers will also reimburse your course fees once your training has started. If you do decide to go ahead and enrol on the LPC or Bar course in the hope of securing a training contract or pupillage during this final year of postgraduate study or later, think carefully about whether you can afford the course fees and what alternative careers you might explore if a training contract or pupillage doesn't materialise.

It is also important to note that some firms require their future trainees to take the LPC at a specific law school (because that school's course is designed to prepare law students for practising at that type of firm) and/or choose specific modules - check with the firms to which you are planning on applying. Meanwhile those planning to go into high street or general practice should join a law school offering electives such as family law, employment law, immigration law, wills and probate and personal injury litigation. Those intending to enter City/commercial practice should ensure that they join a school with the good connections to City firms just mentioned and which provides appropriate electives such as advanced commercial litigation, private acquisitions, equity finance and debt finance.

Josh Richman is the senior editor of LawCareers.Net.