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

updated on 14 November 2023

You don’t need a law degree to become a lawyer – in fact, the modern legal profession is full of non-law graduates. The skills and experiences you gain from studying and working in other fields are assets that can make you a stronger candidate.

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In the past, non-law graduates have taken a law conversion course such as the one-year Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before embarking on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar course.

While the route to qualifying as a barrister remains the same, a non-law graduate’s route to qualifying as a solicitor changed in September 2021 following the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).

Visit LawCareers.Net’s SQE hub for more information on the changes.

Recruiters recognise and value the transferable skills that non-law graduates bring to the table from studying other subjects and working in different fields.

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

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam

The route to qualifying as a solicitor changed in September 2021, when the LPC was replaced with the new SQE. The SQE is a new assessment that all prospective solicitors must pass to qualify.

Under the new rules on which qualifications are required, it’ll only be compulsory to have a university degree (or equivalent) in any subject (law or non-law) to be eligible to take the SQE. However, most non-law graduates will want to complete a preparation course to give themselves the best chance of passing the SQE, and some firms will require their non-law trainees to complete some sort of law conversion before embarking on SQE preparation. So, as always, do your research into your shortlisted firms to find out what they require.

Find out more about non-law students, the SQE and conversion courses in this Oracle.

To qualify as a solicitor under the SQE, candidates must also complete two years of qualifying work experience (QWE), which can be undertaken before, during and/or after completing SQE1 and 2. QWE can be completed in up to four different organisations and must be signed off by a solicitor at the organisation, compliance officer for legal practice, or another solicitor outside the organisation who had direct experience of the candidate’s work.

Find out what counts as QWE and how you can get your experience accredited via The Oracle. Plus, we’ve put together a list of QWE-related FAQs in collaboration with The University of Law.

That said, many firms will continue to offer two-year training contracts and won’t be required to shorten this period of training if a candidate has already acquired some relevant QWE – as ever, check with your shortlisted firms to see what their preferences are.

A transition period will run until 2032 to enable candidates who are already enrolled on the GDL or LPC to qualify as solicitors via this route. So, if you had already started your GDL or LPC before the SQE was introduced, you can choose which route to take to qualify.

First step to qualifying: graduate law conversion/SQE prep courses

Various universities and law schools offer graduate law conversion courses. Although these are technically now optional, non-law students should undertake additional training before attempting SQE1 and SQE2. If you’ve accepted a training contract offer with a specific firm, it might be that the firm will require you to complete a law conversion course with a specific education provider before starting additional SQE prep, completing the assessments with them.

Previously all graduate law conversions had one name – the GDL, but universities are now launching revamped conversion courses under a range of different names to adjust what they teach in line with the SQE.  

You can use LawCareers.Net’s guide to SQE preparation courses to compare these new options.

The GDL will remain mandatory for non-law graduates who wish to train as a barrister.

To become a barrister, you must complete a Bar course after your law conversion, which will then make you eligible for pupillage (the final stage of barrister training).

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

LawCareers.Net shares more SQE funding options via The Oracle.

Choosing the right law school at which to study is also an important decision.

Career research and work experience

As soon as you decide that you’re interested in a career in law, you should begin researching the legal profession. First, you must 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, read The Beginner's Guide to a Career in Law.

Think about the type of law that interests you – careers in commercial, family or crime practices are very different. However, it’s best to keep an open mind about what your ultimate specialism will be at this stage. The reality of working in those areas during a training contract or pupillage is often different from studying it at university.

You can read LCN’s Solicitors’ Practice Area Profiles for a window into what it’s really like to work within various areas of law from those in the know! Interested in becoming a barrister? Read LCN’s Barristers’ Practice Area Profiles instead. 

It’s important to secure some legal work experience. For aspiring solicitors, this means applying for law firm vacation schemes (sometimes called work placement schemes), which take place in winter, spring and summer. Those wishing to join the Bar must apply for mini-pupillages, the availability of which differ in terms of the time of year from chambers to chambers.

You can use LCN to see upcoming vacation scheme application deadlines and search for pupillages at chambers that interest you.

For more information on vacation schemes, what they are and when you apply, read this Oracle.

As well as formal placements, it’s worth contacting local firms or chambers to ask whether they might let you do a few days' informal work experience, or shadow a solicitor or barrister for the day.

All these types of experience are great ways to improve your CV when applying for a training contract or pupillage, while also being incredibly valuable in helping you to decide through first-hand experience whether a career in one of these areas is right for you.

Read 'Five things you can do to get ahead as a non-law student’ for some more ideas.

Another valuable form of work experience is voluntary pro bono work, which involves helping your local community while boosting your CV.

LCN has a list of pro bono initiatives to get you started. You can also read this LCN Says, which sets out the steps you need to take to find the right pro bono scheme for you.

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 most 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’ve developed through non-legal experiences, such as other jobs and the extracurricular activities you got involved in at university for example, in the best possible way when making applications. That said, we can’t stress enough that this is absolutely crucial for all non-law candidates, regardless of whether you’ve done a vacation scheme or mini-pupillage.

Thinking about how you’d 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’ve spoken to who qualified from non-law backgrounds agree – prior experiences and skills outside of law can be a real advantage. One economics graduate, now a solicitor, says: "An economics student who applies to commercial law firms can feel confident that they have a competitive advantage by understanding the workings of an economy, and the drivers behind corporate decisions and growth."

A 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’d be an advantage to be able to discuss with clients the scientific concepts that underpin their products."

Another commercial lawyer explains how 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." Similarly, an associate in patent litigation explained that his background in physics has been beneficial to his law career as he “picks up work broadly within the technology sector. That stretches from mobile phones to fibre optic cables and from wind turbines to oil drilling machines”.

Arts and humanities subjects are also valuable in developing the broad life skills you’ll 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’m often asked to carry out detailed research that involves producing a cohesive and thorough written analysis. I have to set out the question that I’m being asked to consider, detail my findings and the resources that I used to reach these findings and form practical, commercial conclusions." Another lawyer from a philosophy background notes that his degree “developed skills of analysis and critical thinking that I was keen to put into practice. Plus, I’ve always been interested in talking to clients, and building and developing a relationship with them”.

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’ve 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: LPC, SQE and Bar courses

The road to qualification isn’t cheap. Undergraduate fees cost up to £9,250 per year, plus postgraduate study in 2023/24 can cost up to £19,500 for the LPC and between £13,000 to £18,350 for the Bar course. Meanwhile, the cost for the SQE is split up into prep courses and exams. The fee for taking the exams is exams cost £4,564, with prices for the SQE preparation courses varying depending on the provider and the course content. For example, The University of Law’s LLM Legal Practice (SQE1&2) costs up to £16,950 while BARBRI’s SQE1 Prep and SQE2 prep cost £2,999 and £3,499, respectively. In addition, some firms at the smaller end of the market may pay trainees no more than the national minimum wage. Your ability to afford the courses and a potentially low starting wage must be a factor in deciding whether to pursue law as a career. That said, there are options to complete the new SQE for around £10,000 in total depending on the SQE preparation course provider.

On this note, we’d recommend that candidates either secure a training contract with a firm through which the course fees are paid, or are confident that they can fund the SQE themselves and will secure a job in the profession following completion of the SQE.

Aspiring lawyers should check what their shortlisted firms are doing in this regard in order to make the best decision for their future career. If you’re not sure what’s right for you, speak to your careers adviser.

Some firms and chambers will reimburse your course fees once your training has started. If you do decide to enrol on the LPC/SQE 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.

LCN has created a guide to SQE preparation courses, which includes the costs and course content on offer at different law schools and universities.

Again, the various optional SQE preparation courses being developed by different law schools will also include the option to combine with a master’s, making them eligible for the postgraduate loan in the same way as the GDL and LPC.

Check out LCN’s alternative careers sections for some options.

It’s also important to note that some firms require their future trainees to take the LPC/SQE 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’re 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 good connections to City firms just mentioned and which provides appropriate electives such as advanced commercial litigation, private acquisitions, equity finance and debt finance.

To find out more about the SQE and how it could impact your route to qualification, head to LCN’s dedicated SQE hub for the latest information.

Good luck!

Ellie Nicholl (she/her) is the content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.