An introduction for non-law students: Shoosmiths' view

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 your last year of a non-law degree, or you might be a non-law graduate. The idea can be daunting when faced with competing applicants who have 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 their clients’ businesses are much more key to success. Non-law students that 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 that can speak fluently to international clients would enable smoother communications, and business students that can 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, trainee solicitor, Shoosmiths

Challenges

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 is equally important to reflect on the transition and what you would 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 often forget that law firms want to know why you have switched, what your aspirations are and what your motivations are in doing so.

There are two elements to this: firstly, reflect and understand why you have made the change and secondly, 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 really have thought it through!

Transferable skills

In a competitive market where training contracts 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 utilised 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 - are you able to use these types of experiences 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 are 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, future trainee solicitor, Shoosmiths

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 will 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 may decide that your specialism is commercial contracts in the automotive industry – if you have a background in engineering or maths or another degree related to that specialty, you may find yourself with a key advantage over your law-graduate peers.

How to ‘convert’ a non-law degree

If you are studying / have studied a non-law degree, you will need to undertake the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) which is the most common way to add law-degree-level knowledge, usually studied full time over one year. Basically, this adds one extra year of study to your journey into law than for law degree students.

After this, you’ll complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC), also usually one year of full-time study, along with all of the law graduates, before starting a training contract with a law firm.

The GDL and LPC can be costly and they don’t guarantee you a training contract in a law firm at the end. Many students choose to apply for training contracts while studying their undergraduate degree, in order to secure a training contract and sponsorship to study the GDL and LPC, so they don’t have to fund it themselves.

But this is all set to change in 2021 with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, which you can learn more about here.