updated on 16 November 2021
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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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).
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.
Change ahead: 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 will only be compulsory to have a university degree in any subject (law or non-law) to be eligible to take the SQE. However, most non-law graduates will want to complete a preparatory course to give themselves the best chance of passing the SQE.
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 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.
That said, many firms will continue to offer two-year training contracts and will not be required to shorten this period of training if a candidate has already acquired some relevant QWE – check with your shortlisted firms to see what their preferences are.
A transition period will run from 2021 to 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.
Find out more about the SQE via LawCareers.Net’s SQE hub.
First step to qualifying: graduate law conversion courses
Various universities and law schools offer graduate law conversion courses. Following the introduction of the SQE, these are now optional. However, non-law students should undertake additional training before taking the SQE. If you have accepted a training contract offer with a specific firm, it might be that they will require you to complete a law conversion course with a specific education provider before starting the SQE 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.
The GDL will also remain mandatory for non-law graduates who wish to train as a barrister.
Regardless of the differences between law conversion courses, they all provide the same qualification – a Postgraduate Diploma in Law. A law conversion enables a non-law graduate to progress onto a vocational course to become a solicitor or barrister. For aspiring solicitors, this was the LPC until it was replaced by the SQE in September 2021.
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).
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 are 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 2022.
Think about the type of law that interests you – careers in commercial, family or crime practices are very different. However, it is 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 to studying it at university.
It is 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, while 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.
For more information on vacation schemes, what they are and when you apply, read this Oracle.
As well as formal placements, it is 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 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 involves helping your local community while boosting 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 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 have developed through non-legal experiences, such as other jobs and the extracurricular activities 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 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 would 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."
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."
Reality check: LPC, SQE and Bar courses
The road to qualification is not cheap. With undergraduate fees costing up to £9,250 per year, plus postgraduate study in 2020-21 costing up to £17,500 for the LPC and £18,500 for the Bar course.
Some firms and chambers will reimburse your course fees once your training has started. If you do decide to enrol on the LPC/SQE (check the SRA’s transitional arrangements for the 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.
Check out LCN’s alternative careers sections for some options .
It is 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 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.
That said, the new SQE can cost around £10,000 in total (at the cheaper end). The costs of SQE1 and SQE2 amount to £3,980, which is broken down into £1,558 and £2,422, respectively.
These figures do not include the cost of SQE preparation courses. On this note, we would 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.
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.
Otherwise, candidates can self-fund the SQE or use a pre-paid voucher from their training provider where eligible.
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.
Olivia Partridge (she/her) is the content producer at LawCareers.Net.