updated on 21 March 2023
Law firms are constantly developing and moving away from the traditional set-ups that only recruit those from certain universities with certain degrees. Shoosmiths recognises that a candidate with a non-law degree can bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the firm, along with the necessary skills that are required to be a successful lawyer.
You might be applying for a training contract during the last year of your non-law degree, or you might be a non-law graduate. The idea can be daunting when faced with competing applicants who’ve been studying law for years. Not all firms test legal knowledge as part of the training contract application. Instead, firms such as Shoosmiths value the skills that can be transferred from a non-law background and a passion to learn. They recognise that being a lawyer isn’t all about the law. Having commercial awareness and an understanding of the clients’ businesses are also vital skills. Non-law students who can therefore bring their knowledge and unique interactions to the table are hugely beneficial to both the firm and the client. For example, a foreign languages student who can speak fluently to international clients would enable smoother communications, and business students who understand the fundamentals of investment and growth will be valuable assets to any corporate team.
Further, Shoosmiths appreciates that non-law students have truly considered their route into law, choosing it as a career move and dedicating themselves to that choice. This is something highly appealing to law firms who are looking for a well-thought-out answer to the age-old question, “Why law?”
A partner once said to me, ‘What are lawyers if not wordsmiths?’ After that I really understood that being an English Language graduate was my unique selling point – Stephanie Pye, associate, Shoosmiths
Switching from a non-law background to law, in whatever capacity and at varying times in one’s education or career, can be a big decision and shouldn’t be underestimated. While the end goal is certainly extremely important, it’s equally important to reflect on the transition and what you’d like to achieve on your journey.
The challenge that non-law students often face is not being able to explain or demonstrate their commitment to the industry. Non-law students sometimes forget that law firms want to know why you’ve switched, what your aspirations are and what your motivations are in doing so.
There are two elements to this: first, reflect and understand why you’ve made the change and second, engage in as many additional activities as possible. These can range from volunteering with Citizens Advice, to engaging with law firms on social media, attending networking events and conferences. Many universities now have specific ‘law for non-law’ societies, so get to know what yours has to offer. Not only do you learn important skills, but the knowledge that you gain of the industry and your commitment to get involved as much as possible will reinforce your motivation and demonstrate to a law firm that you’ve really thought it through!
In a competitive market where training contracts, and legal work experience in general, are highly sought after, an important distinction between successful and unsuccessful training contract applications is the ability to distinguish the skills that set you apart from other candidates.
The ability to analyse a set of circumstances, understand the different viewpoints of parties and argue your position is a skill practised in many undergraduate degrees; dissertation modules being a good example of this. This is a skill used regularly in any trainee solicitor role and, with widespread knowledge beyond that of the law, will enable you to consider situations from alternative perspectives.
Another transferable skill to think about is teamwork. Think about group projects and presentations – can you use these types of experience to showcase how well you can communicate with others and drive projects forwards? Shoosmiths is known for cross-departmental and cross-office ways of working and so the ability to work well in a team environment is a key attribute considered by the assessors.
You’re also likely to come under pressure to meet certain deadlines during your degree. Strong time management skills and an ability to prioritise tasks effectively are key aspects of a trainee solicitor’s role and are often tested by firms at assessment centres and other stages of the application process.
A question that most Geography undergraduates will be familiar with – “Geography? Isn’t that just colouring in?” In fact, my Geography degree gave me the opportunity to develop strong skills in analysis, oral and written communication and teamwork – Vicky Oxley, associate, Shoosmiths
Read LCN’s ‘A non-law student’s guide to a career in law’ for more advice.
A specialist advantage
A training contract (for law and non-law candidates) is a chance to experience different areas of law, and find out what interests you, and what you’re good at. You’ll hopefully get the chance to experience a number of areas, including contentious and non-contentious work, so you’ll end up with a broad understanding of how to apply the law to client problems. When you qualify as a solicitor, you’ll narrow down your area of specialism and a few years later, this may narrow even further as you choose the type of work particularly suited to you.
For example, you may qualify in commercial law, working mainly on drafting contracts and agreeing terms, but with some experience, you might decide that your specialism is commercial contracts in the automotive industry – if you have a background in engineering or maths or another degree relating to that specialty, you could find yourself with a key advantage over your law-graduate peers.
How to ‘convert’ a non-law degree
As you’re probably aware by now, the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) was introduced in September 2021. The new, centralised assessment has replaced the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) for aspiring solicitors.
If you’re a non-law student who completed, started or accepted an offer of a place on the GDL before 1 September 2021, you can continue to qualify via the LPC route, which makes up the vocational stage of training to be a solicitor for the old route. The LPC is usually one year of full-time study, before starting a training contract with a law firm.
Under the new system (ie, the SQE), it’s no longer compulsory for non-law graduates to complete a law conversion course. In order for a non-law student to become a solicitor they must:
That said, it’s likely that most non-law graduates will complete a law conversion of some kind to provide them with the skills and knowledge required to pass the SQE. Over the past couple of years, education providers have been developing SQE preparation courses specifically designed for non-law graduates, while some will continue to use the respected PGDL/GDL. For example:
There are now a range of courses to choose from that vary in cost, structure and contact time. So it’s important you spend time researching the different education providers offering SQE prep for non-law graduates to find the route course for you.
The SQE has also brought with it more flexibility around training. While many firms will continue with the traditional two-year training contract model, there are now other ways by which candidates can build up their QWE, including volunteering in a pro bono clinic, paralegal work and experience at a law centre. The SRA stipulates that for the work to count as QWE, it must offer you the chance to develop:
You can learn more about the SQE via LawCareers.Net's SQE hub, sponsored by The University of Law.