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

updated on 17 November 2020

You don’t need a law degree to become 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 are assets that make you a stronger candidate.

Non-law graduates can take a law conversion course such as the one-year Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).

Recruiters see the law conversion route as completely equal in value to a law degree. They also recognise and value transferable skills gained 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, plus some encouraging examples of the diverse fields from which many currently practising lawyers have come from.

Change ahead: The Solicitors Qualifying Exam

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). The SQE is a new assessment that all prospective solicitors must pass at the point of qualifying. 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. This means that law conversion courses such as the GDL will continue to be part of many candidates’ routes into the legal profession. Find out more about the SQE in LawCareers.Net’s SQE section.

First step to qualifying: graduate law conversion courses

Various universities and law schools offer graduate law conversion courses. Previously all graduate law conversions had one name – the GDL, 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 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 is the Legal Practice Course (LPC) until it is replaced by the SQE from 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, so be sure to read our article for more advice.

Career research and work experience

As soon as you have decided that you are interested in a career in law, you should begin researching the legal profession. 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, read The Beginner's Guide to a Career in Law 2021.

Think about the kind 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 early stage. The reality of actually working in those areas over the course of 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. You can use LCN to see upcoming vacation scheme application deadlines and search for mini-pupillages at chambers which interest you.

As well as 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 these types 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 economics graduate, now a solicitor, 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."

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."

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 editorial manager of LawCareers.Net.