Olivia Atkinson - The GDL: We're all in the same boat, we just haven't met yet
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As a postgraduate who is fast approaching a conversion to law – and essentially a life changing period of my life – I am constantly wondering if I am the only one who desires more information, a comforting source of knowledge and perhaps a circle of like-minded people that are equally as nervous as me! What I have come to realise, friends, is that we're all in the same boat, we just haven't met yet. I'd like to talk about some of the topics that seem to be popular among those I have encountered going through this process with me so far.
As you may or may not already know, the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) is just one way that students who have already completed a degree can convert to law. After graduating from university with an English degree last summer, I have taken some time out and spent this year researching. But by no means am I ‘on pause’. I'd like to share some top tips with those out there who might be on the edge of considering a career in law and hopefully help you take the first steps needed to get involved.
Step 1: do your research
Just like any application, research is essential. You must look into what law is really like. Don't rely on the crime dramas; the likes of How to Get Away with Murder, Suits, or even Judge Judy are not going to show you a realistic vision of the law in practice. These are Hollywood glosses on a (mostly) unglamorous reality. The truth is hard work, long nights, reduced social life and perhaps even hair loss (if you're really unlucky). Start with websites of local and regional law firms. Don't freak yourself out by weeping over the unreachables of the magic circle. There's no reason why you can't make it in the big city, but we're only in step one.
Step 2: work experience
Ok, now that you're aware of what's actually out there, remove your hoodie and joggers and start contacting and directly interacting with firms and real people through work experience. This is the best way to find out what the practical day-to-day life is like for a qualified lawyer. Whether you're into wigs and the Bar, or prefer the comforts of a solicitor's office, you can sneak a glance into your potential future by picking the brains of those who have already done it. It looks great on your CV and future applications, because you have demonstrated that you have an active interest in law and have taken the initiative to further your curiosity into useful skills and knowledge.
Step 3: just apply. Now.
Don't wait too long to make the decision. Although centres such as The University of Law don't apparently have an actual deadline to apply for the course, the spaces on that course will fill up quicker than you think. Have a timeline for your year and stick to it. Deadlines for vacation schemes and training contracts tend to gather around Christmas time, so once this period of jingle bells and exhaustive cover letters passes, start researching the law schools near you. There are many to choose from, but the two most popular are BPP Law School and The University of Law, both of which operate across the country. Aim to have your application, which will usually include a personal statement, submitted by the end of May, before the official exam season draws to a close. Once you have your place or receive an offer, you can turn your attention back to securing that all-important work experience (or maybe even a training contract).
Step 4: be commercially aware
Finally, learn what commercial awareness is and what it means to you. It’s good to get familiar with what’s going on in your chosen profession. Firms will absolutely rave about this and unfortunately it doesn't just mean you should watch ITV News at Ten with your parents. Start by choosing and regularly reading a newspaper and delve into the business section. If you’re a fan of instant news, subscribe to an email news source, such as Lexology, who provide daily legal news based on your preferences and interests. If you're more traditional and prefer the paper version, try The Law Society Gazette. While there is a fee for subscription, think of this as an investment in your future - you will need to show that you are aware of legal developments and discussions in future interviews, and be able to provide your own opinion. And it's just good practice to get into, as in future, this knowledge may even assist you in case work.
Everyone shares in the fear of commitment; the not knowing whether you will excel in the legal profession is a leap of faith. However, what I can see from observing and shadowing practitioners in work experience placements is that this lifelong career has the potential to be truly special. It will expose you to exciting problems to be solved, interesting people, perhaps even new cities if you're fortunate enough to travel. Most importantly, it will allow you to feel truly fulfilled knowing that the work you do makes a real difference.
Olivia Atkinson is an English graduate working as a paralegal before starting the GDL in September.