updated on 25 September 2018
The autumn term is well underway and final-year students will be considering their next steps. Prospective solicitors in the last year of a law degree must weigh up whether to start the Legal Practice Course (LPC) in September 2020, or hold back if you haven’t secured a training contract yet, but wisely want to do so before committing. Final-year non-law students making the switch to law will be applying for places on the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). Meanwhile, aspiring barristers will be mulling over the new Bar course options that will be available from 2020, replacing the BPTC.
Students who start their degrees after 2021 will have to take the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), which is scheduled to replace the LPC and GDL in 2021. Students who have already started a law degree, GDL or LPC by 2021 will still be able to qualify as solicitors through the old route until as late as 2031, but it remains to be seen whether law firms will want to have a mix of SQE passers and LPC graduates in the same trainee intake, so anyone who would be completing the LPC more than a year or two after the SQE is introduced would be wise to think about the new pathway instead.
For courses starting in 2020 though, the GDL and LPC will continue as normal.
Fees for all three of the current courses are ridiculously expensive and there is huge competition for trainee roles in both the solicitors’ and barristers’ professions, so enrolling on any of these postgraduate programs is not a decision to take lightly. If you’re one of the many students weighing up postgraduate study next year, consider the following before you commit.
Are my academics good enough?
Many law firms expect no less than a 2.1 undergraduate classification and AAB/ABB at A level. If your academic record doesn’t match up to this, your chances of securing a training contract are likely to suffer. It is true that some firms accept applications from candidates with a 2.2, so not having a 2.1 doesn’t have to bar you from becoming a solicitor. However, those firms don’t have lower recruitment standards – they prioritise other factors such as work experience, the quality of the candidate’s application and how they view the candidate’s suitability for the role in personal terms. This means that those with a 2.2 should not press on blindly – in the majority of cases, 2.2 candidates fall at the first hurdle.
To be successful with a 2.2, you will have to make yourself an outstanding candidate in all other respects and carefully target the more limited range of employers who will consider you.
The emphasis on academic excellence is perhaps even less forgiving for prospective barristers. The Bar is a highly academic, intellectual profession and a glance at the roster of tenants on most chambers’ websites brings this home – large numbers of barristers have first-class degrees from Oxford, Cambridge and Russell Group universities. There are no doubt barristers out there with less-than-perfect academic histories, but these are the exceptions to the rule.
Of course, most law schools and universities will accept you onto a GDL, LPC or BPTC program even if you have a 2.2, no legal work experience and no realistic prospect of ever securing a training contract or pupillage. This single-minded pursuit of profit is dubious in an education setting to say the least, but it means that the onus is on you, the candidate, to look out for your best interests.
Are the fees feasible?
With GDL fees exceeding £11,000, many LPC fees over £15,000 and fees for the new Bar courses up to £13,000, the financial implications of postgraduate study are a key concern to all but the wealthiest students. Investigate funding options such as scholarships, local authority grants and career development loans before you enrol. Law firms (and Inns of Court, for barristers) often provide sponsorship to future trainees, which brings us on to…
Should I try to secure a training contract/pupillage before committing to a postgraduate course?
Yes. Yes you should. This is not quite so important for those considering the GDL, which teaches transferable knowledge and skills, and is a useful qualification to have on your CV even if you don’t end up becoming a lawyer. However, for students weighing up the LPC or a Bar course, it is almost essential that you try to line up a job first. The LPC and Bar Training Course (or Bar Practice Course) are vocational courses which have no value outside of the path to becoming a solicitor or barrister, respectively. This, combined with the sky-high fees involved and the intense competition for a limited number of training contracts and pupillages, makes taking these courses a high-risk investment unless you have already secured a job offer.
This means that if you’re planning on starting the LPC or a Bar course in September 2020, for example, you should first apply for a training contract or pupillage starting in 2021. Firms and chambers don’t expect applicants to have already gained the knowledge taught on the LPC or Bar courses, so you won’t be at a disadvantage.
What about law school sponsorship?
Many law firms sponsor their future trainees through law school, eliminating those punitive fees from a student’s list of worries altogether. Some of those firms prefer students who have accepted the offer of a training contract to study the LPC (and sometimes the GDL, but this is usually less important) at a certain institution. For example, leading commercial firms Freshfields, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Norton Rose Fulbright and Slaughter and May all prefer their future trainees to study the accelerated LPC at BPP University Law School.
When considering firms with such relationships with law schools, it is even more worthwhile to hold back on the LPC and apply for a training contract first. However, if you do take the LPC without having a training contract lined up already, it would be illegal for firms to discriminate against your application as an LPC graduate, so don’t be put off applying at a later date.
If I don’t secure a training contract/pupillage before taking the LPC/BPTC, is all lost?
Not necessarily – many candidates who take the LPC/Bar courses without a role already lined up go on to secure one during their studies. However, as above, it is always a risk to fork out a fortune for these qualifications without a guaranteed job at the end of them, so this is a decision you need to make with your eyes open and with a realistic understanding of your chances of success. If you have a good academic record and some legal work experience on your CV, your decision will be much less risky than someone with a 2.2, no work experience and £15,000 burning a hole in their pocket.
For more on this ever-tricky issue, see the Oracle’s advice to a previous correspondent. Best of luck for the term ahead!