updated on 23 July 2020
There are a range of providers out there, but what they offer varies considerably. What factors should you consider when choosing your law conversion course?
Location of law school
Remaining in your university city
If you have a strong yearning to settle in your university city, then remaining there for your PGDL/GDL makes sense. However, if you feel a long-term ‘pull’ towards London, why study anywhere else? How would it work if you are sitting in a class in Sheffield when there is a recruitment opportunity starting an hour later 170 miles away?
To be fair, the pandemic has temporarily diluted the significance of this factor with online delivery being the only option for the time being. However, when most of us return to a real classroom, it will be much easier to absorb yourself in the local legal community than if you choose to study in the ‘wrong’ city.
Don’t just have a one-year plan
Three universities in three years can be a clunky experience, so many non-law students choose to stay at their PGDL/GDL provider for their LPC, SQE or Bar course. Consequently, you need to be researching those courses at the institution where you think you want to study your law conversion course as well.
When are you thinking of starting? If you are contemplating a gap year, you may also wish to suspend it for 12 or 24 months because of the likely pandemic-related travel restrictions.
If you wish to qualify as a solicitor, consider starting your course before September 2021, because if you do, you will be able to choose either the LPC or SQE qualification pathway. However, if you take a gap year and start your course in September 2021, the SQE will be your only option. Why might this be important? Like all new examinations, the new, untried SQE regime has a lot of uncertainty surrounding it in terms of cost, quality, level of difficulty and whether it will be as smooth a ride in its first few years as the LPC.
Fees and funding/value for money
The fees of the two leading providers, BPP University Law School and The University of Law are only a few hundred pounds apart, ranging from a little over £9,000 to around £11,600 depending on your location. Both institutions have large scholarship pots, so there are opportunities to bring them closer to – and in some case below – those of other providers whose fees can be as low as around £6,500 -£7,000 (eg, De Montfort and Leeds Beckett), but most are between £9,000 and £12,000. Check whether materials are included as some providers charge for these on top of their headline fees.
If you are able, living with family is one way to significantly reduce your overheads, but you need to weigh up financial benefit against what you may be losing out on if you wish to train and practice in another city or region.
One way to fund your law conversion course is to take it as a master’s, which may mean you are eligible for a postgraduate loan of up to £11,222 from the Student Loans Company. The PGDL/GDL on its own does not qualify for the funding, whereas BPP’s LLM Law and Legal Practice and ULaw’s MA Law are eligible. The former incorporates the whole of BPP’s new PGDL and students then have the option to undertake a professional project (for those going onto the LPC) or the first part of either the SQE or Bar programme. While ULaw’s MA Law is a little cheaper (at around £11,000-£13,000), BPP’s LLM could be better value for money overall, particularly for those who choose the SQE or Bar route, who would only then have to complete part 2 of the SQE or Bar exams.
Paid work/part-time study
Working while studying for your PGDL/GDL is one way to fund your course, but you do need to be organised if you are working full time to manage around 20 hours a week of study as well. Equally, be careful about over-committing to paid work alongside the full-time course (which is a 35+ hours a week commitment). One day’s paid work alongside any full time PGDL/GDL is as much as I would recommend.
Course delivery, structure and reputation
All PGDL/GDL courses include the seven foundation subjects which make up the core of what used to be called a ‘qualifying law degree’. With some courses, there will be an opportunity of studying an extra in-curriculum subject (eg, company law at BPP) or a project/short dissertation (at several other providers).
Programmes which are usually delivered face to face will start online in September 2020, but some providers will go to great lengths to replicate the face-to-face classroom experience. However, don’t assume that the student experience of all online teaching will be the same: some online offerings will feel like you are teaching yourself, whereas others will provide much more hands-on support and interaction.
The reason why many universities deliver the GDL but comparatively few also offer the LPC or Bar exams is that much of the content of their law conversion courses are clones of their LLB programmes. This creates efficiencies, but does mean that much of the course is taught by career academics who have less of a practical outlook. In contrast, you are much more likely to be taught by experienced practitioners at providers which also offer LPC and Bar courses, whose courses will tend to have more of a practical emphasis.
Modular v linear structure
Students tend to prefer a modular structure (which examines you as you go along) instead of examining everything at the end. Make sure you are clear what you are signing up to if this is important to you.
Formal examinations or coursework
Some law conversion courses include assessed coursework alongside written examinations, replicating the undergraduate LLB experience, whereas others include very little (if any) coursework. Before you settle for the perceived ‘easier’ option, remember that you are ultimately preparing for high stakes professional examinations 12-24 months later and as none of the new centrally assessed exams will include coursework, you may benefit more in the long term from practising conventional assessments which include multiple-choice questions (MCQs).
Getting the best careers advice is essential to anyone who has not yet secured a training contract or pupillage. Does the law careers service include staff who are former graduate recruitment managers and former practitioners alongside specialist law careers consultants? Or are you more likely to get advice from someone who is advising a student about a career in banking or finance one minute, and the next is advising you on your law career?
Getting relevant legal work experience can be difficult to find, especially for those from a non-law background, so make sure you also research the extent of the pro bono opportunities at your proposed provider, the range of projects and number of places offered on those projects.
A number of providers quote employability rates. However, be careful when comparing statistics from different institutions, because you won’t always be comparing ‘like with like’. Are the figures produced by an independent body, or does the data originate from the university’s own research? Perhaps the best place to undertake your research is HESA, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which is completely independent of all providers.
Recommendations and reputation
Recommendations from friends who have studied at particular institutions can be useful, but don’t necessarily assume that your experience will match theirs. Instead, perhaps a more reliable badge of quality is looking at where top local law firms send their trainees: their endorsement should give you confidence that you will be making the right decision.
Attending virtual openings for your shortlisted providers may help you make your decision. Weigh up which of the above factors are most important to you. Many students need to finance their studies by choosing a master’s version of the PGDL/GDL in order to access government funding, so that may narrow the field, but if funding is less of an issue, do consider your long term prospects: what course offers the best value for money and the best chance of getting your foot onto the first rung of the career ladder.
Jonny Hurst is a senior lecturer at BPP University Law School and former law firm partner.