The Graduate Diploma in Law explained

The Graduate Diploma in Law: what is it, why study it and how is it different to a law degree? This feature presents all the information you need to know about the conversion course for non-law graduates.

What is the GDL?

Put simply, the Graduate Diploma in Law - sometimes called the Common Professional Examination (CPE) - is the recognised law conversion course which allows non-law graduates (or non-graduates with relevant experience) to begin professional legal training without taking an undergraduate law degree.

There are three stages (outlined below) that people must complete in order to qualify as a solicitor or barrister in England or Wales: the academic stage, the vocational stage and the training stage.

Academic stage

Either:

  • non-law degree + GDL;
  • relevant experience + GDL;
  • law degree from another country + GDL; or
  • LLB law degree.

Vocational stage

  • Legal Practice Course (LPC) for aspiring solicitors; or
  • Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) for aspiring barristers.

Training stage

  • Training contract (training in a law firm); or
  • pupillage (training in a set of chambers).

Why should I study the GDL?

If you're interested in a legal career and have a degree in a subject other than law - or have relevant management experience - then the GDL is most appropriate for you. The programme is designed to help make the transition from graduate level into the legal profession and no prior knowledge of the law is needed.

If studied full-time, the GDL only takes one year to complete (one-and-a-half or two if part-time), so graduate students can progress their legal careers quicker than if they study a law degree - which typically takes three years.

However, while the majority of students take the GDL because they want to get on and start the LPC or BPTC as soon as possible, many enjoy it as a valuable qualification in its own right. Others may have decided later on that they wish to pursue a career in law, so it is an ideal conversion programme for this purpose.

Student view

Holly Bibby graduated from the GDL at BPP University Law School in London Waterloo in 2014, having previously studied for a degree in politics at undergraduate level. She says: "I decided to do the GDL after working for two PR companies, the Houses of Parliament and two law firms. I enjoyed my experience at the two law firms the most and decided that doing the GDL would take me one step closer to eventually working in one. The course is incredibly varied and intellectually stimulating. The best part is the way it changes your thought patterns, the course structure is designed to get you thinking as a lawyer and it really does. The tutors are qualified solicitors and barristers and this impacts on how they convey the law to you in tutorials. It helps you to see the bigger picture of what you are learning."

She continues: "My advice to future students is to pick the topics you’d like to do in the exams early on, ensure you do the mocks each week and create a case list for each subject so when it comes to the exams you are prepared. The exams come around so quickly so start thinking about them from week one and you will be ahead of the game."

GDL or LLB?

For any students currently weighing up the merits of the GDL versus a traditional LLB, it's important to bear in mind that employers do not usually favour one path over the other. It's really up to each individual to decide which programme best suits their needs and circumstances.

The main difference between the two qualifications is the time it takes to complete them, the scope of the course content and the intensity of the workload. Both qualifications cover the 'seven foundations of legal knowledge' - the core subject areas all lawyers must study before progressing in their legal education. These are: contract law, constitutional and administrative law, criminal law, equity and trusts law, land law, law of the European Union and law of tort. As such, students on both courses gain a range of knowledge and insight into the fundamentals of English law.

On the LLB, the core subjects are spaced out over three years, but on the GDL they are packed into one year of intensive full-time study. This means that there tend to be more opportunities for broader study of other subjects and electives on the LLB.

Of course, just as some providers give students the option to speed up the LLB to fit inside two years, there is also often the choice to study a broader range of subjects on the GDL. For example, BPP University offers its GDL students an optional range of modules through our GDL Extra and GDL Skills in Practice options.

What's the workload like?

Danielle Young studied the full-time GDL at BPP Law School in Leeds and is currently studying the BPTC. She says: "My GDL experience was enjoyable although there is a lot to read and study. The workload, however, becomes easier if you are well organised and focus on working efficiently."

The key to managing the workload is to be proactive in finding a study routine that works for you. The GDL can be studied full or part-time to suit your needs and, with most educational providers embracing online learning methods alongside face-to face teaching, it becomes much easier to fit study in around other commitments.

Practical experience

As anyone interested in a career in law knows, making your CV stand out from the crowd is essential and practical legal experience is a great way to do this. Of course, the reality is that valuable work can be difficult to secure, particularly when having to concentrate on studying.

But while studying the GDL there should be plenty of opportunities available to you to increase your legal skills and gain tangible work experience - whether that's through careers support and pro bono activities or through placements at local firms or sets of chambers.

James Whittam describes how undertaking work experience helped him: "It was extremely beneficial and helped give me an edge when it came to interviews and undertaking vacation schemes. Since studying the course, I have completed two vacation schemes and have accepted a training contract offer from one of the firms."

GDL students should also be willing to take advantage of the careers support available to them. Claire Hall was impressed with her experience of the careers service at her law school on the GDL: "The careers service was very helpful. I used the service in order to receive advice regarding application forms for training contracts, I had mock interviews in preparation for real interviews with law firms and they were more than happy to give general advice about your legal career."

Next step

If you're now interested in studying the GDL, the next step is to do some research. This is common sense but worth emphasising - go along to open days to get a feel for whether the course is right for you.

Want to apply? Applications for the full-time GDL starting in September 2017 or January 2018 need to be made through the Central Applications Board.

If you want to study part-time, you need to apply direct to the place where you wish to study.

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