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GDL and SQE: what’s going on with conversion courses?

updated on 01 August 2023

With the rolling out of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) from September 2021, the route for non-law students to qualify as a solicitor has changed. Confused? In this Feature we’ll run through what your options are as a non-law student pursuing a career as a solicitor, and the different kinds of law conversion course that are available.

This article has been produced in collaboration with The University of Law.

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Conversion course no longer required

The main reason why things are changing for non-law graduates is that non-law students qualifying via the SQE route are no longer required to complete a law conversion course (like the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)) to take the SQE.

If you’re a non-law student who hasn’t accepted a place on the  GDL or secured a training contract offer, you’ll have to qualify via the SQE route.

Under the new rules, there are four things you need to qualify as a solicitor. You must:

  • have a university degree or equivalent in any subject (law or non-law);
  • pass the character and suitability assessment set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority;
  • pass SQE stages one and two (SQE1 and SQE2); and
  • have two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE).

With the only academic requirements for the SQE being a university degree (or equivalent), it’s therefore entirely possible under the new system to rock up to the SQE assessments without having even studied law or undertaken a preparation course. Possible? Yes. Advisable? Definitely not! In fact, research conducted by The University of Law in collaboration with Legal Cheek found that 98% of law firms surveyed will require non-law graduates to take some form of conversion course before undertaking SQE preparation.

So, to give yourself the best chance of passing the SQE, it’s recommended you take one of the many SQE preparation courses that’ve been developed by legal education providers and universities in recent years.

As a non-law student, you’ll have the choice between taking a separate law conversion course, and then moving onto an SQE course; or completing a conversion course that incorporates elements of SQE preparation to get the ball rolling on passing your SQE assessments.

For more on the importance of studying a conversion course, listen to this podcast episode by The University of Law, in which two future lawyers discuss their experiences undertaking the GDL (now PGDL).

Conversion courses: the GDL and PGDL

The GDL has been the tried and tested route for thousands of non-law graduates. The course formed the basis for non-law graduate entry into both the solicitors’ and barristers’ professions and is equivalent to a law degree. Non-law graduates would take this year-long course after finishing their undergraduate degree, before embarking on the Legal Practice Course.

The GDL route is familiar to many converting to law. The good news? The concept of the GDL isn’t completely disappearing. The University of Law’s Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL) is a conversion course that helps graduates from a non-law background learn to think like a lawyer and develop practical legal skills. This course replaces The University of Law’s GDL course to become the pathway into practice for non-law students looking to qualify as a solicitor or barrister.

The PGDL is the next step for non-law graduates between their undergraduate degree and the SQE. It teaches the essentials of the key foundation areas of the law that align to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s specification of Functioning Legal Knowledge – what’s tested in the SQE.

The course focuses on:

  • English legal system and constitutional law;
  • Tort taw;
  • contract law;
  • criminal law;
  • administrative law and human rights;
  • land law;
  • trusts;
  • law of organisations; and
  • skills and behaviours.

“The PGDL is a cutting-edge postgraduate law conversion course giving students the chance to develop the academic legal knowledge and skills necessary to become a lawyer in England and Wales. It’s laser-focused on preparing learners for modern professional legal examinations such as the SQE and centralised Bar assessments,” says Peter Goodchild, associate professor at The University of Law.

Interested in the PGDL? Discover more via The University of Law.

Master the law with a conversion course

For those interested in gaining a general legal qualification at master’s level, The University of Law’s MA Law (conversion) course is an option worth considering. The qualification includes a pre-course programme to be completed online to get you up to speed in legal method before you begin the master’s.

The course is delivered by qualified lawyers who are subject matter experts, with face-to-face or online learning options. It focuses on legal practice and not just theory and is aimed at non-law students who’d like to keep their legal career options open.

Find out more about The University of Law’s MA Law (conversion) course.

“The MA Law (conversion) is a fantastic postgraduate law conversion course giving students the academic legal knowledge and skills necessary to become a lawyer. While preparing learners for modern professional legal examinations, such as the SQE and centralised Bar assessments, it also allows students to demonstrate deeper understanding of developing legal issues in a dissertation module,” explains Peter Goodchild.

Alternatively, there’s also the option to complete the MA Law (SQE1) course – a law conversion course including SQE1 preparation. This course is designed for non-law graduates who want to qualify as a solicitor and gain a legal qualification at master’s level. The course prepares students for the SQE1 assessments. Once completed, you’ll be ready to progress onto an SQE2 preparation course.

Find out more about The University of Law’s MA Law (SQE1) course.

Don’t forget that one of the benefits of taking a conversion course that includes a master’s is that you’ll be eligible to receive the government’s postgraduate loan. There’s more about funding your studies on LawCareers.Net’s ‘Finances’ page and in this Oracle: ‘Funding the SQE’.

Just the essentials: SQE Law Essentials Online

If you’re keen to get onto an SQE course as quickly as possible, The University of Law’s SQE Law Essentials Online course teaches you the fundamentals of law so you can progress onto SQE1. This short online course is designed for non-law students who need to learn the essentials of legal knowledge. After completing this 10-week course over two semesters (there’s also a part-time option that involves completing this course in 16 weeks over three semesters), students can move directly onto SQE preparation courses such as the SQE1 Preparation Course or LLM Legal Practice (SQE1&2).

The SQE Law Essentials Online course is especially suitable for those who’ve:

  • studied or partly studied law some time ago;
  • studied law in a different jurisdiction; or
  • have professional experience in law and need a refresher.

Find out more about The University of Law’s SQE Law Essentials Online course.

Law firms

Although the above provides you with a range of conversion course options, it’s important to note that you might not have a choice in which course you take. If you secure a training contract (or QWE) with a law firm, they’ll likely decide which route you go down – or work with an education provider to develop a bespoke training programme for the firm’s trainees.

For example, last year independent law firm Mishcon de Reya LLP announced its exclusive partnership with The University of Law to deliver training and development to the firm’s future trainees to prepare them for the SQE. Mishcon’s trainees will study The University of Law’s focused SQE1 and SQE2 preparation courses as well as receive additional training on key practice areas and innovation, technology and legal project management. Similarly, Muckle LLP has appointed The University of Law to put its future legal talent through the SQE LLM programme before starting work at the firm. Other firms that have secured partnerships with The University of Law to deliver postgraduate courses and SQE training include White & Case LLP, Farrer & Co LLP and Clifford Chance.

Before pursuing a specific route, we recommend checking what your shortlisted firms are doing in terms of the SQE and conversion courses. Another benefit of securing a training contract before commencing postgraduate study is that the law firm will likely finance your studies. Doing thorough research into law firms and having an awareness of what sort of law firm you’re looking to go into will help to make your decision between conversion courses easier from the outset.

Choosing the right conversion and SQE preparation course for you is crucial and as you can see, there are now more options than ever to become a solicitor. Whether you want to convert via the new PGDL, or do an MA conversion course to gain a master’s qualification alongside your course, the introduction of the SQE has opened up the gateway for students to decide. Do your research, speak to your university careers adviser and check what your potential future firms are doing in regards to conversion courses. This knowledge will equip you to make the right decision for your future legal career.

Interested in studying at The University of Law? Find out whether there’s an open day coming up!

Find out more about the Solicitors Qualifying Exam with our SQE hub, sponsored by The University of Law.

Bethany Wren is head of content & events at LawCareers.Net.