What degree should I do to be a lawyer?

University course books for law degree students
Do you need a law degree to work as a lawyer? Are you and your career at a disadvantage by choosing a non-law degree? We let you know.

There are a variety of job roles in law – paralegals, legal executives, judges, legal secretaries – but the most popular routes for university graduates remain the solicitors’ profession or the barristers’ profession. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you must do a law degree to qualify as a solicitor or barrister; it seems logical. In fact, around half of newly qualified lawyers have a non-law degree. Both choices have their merits. We help you choose between a law or non-law degree.

Routes into law careers: the benefits of doing a law degree

  • The law degree is designed to cover the areas of law you are likely to come across as a qualified lawyer, and arguably offers a more in-depth knowledge of some aspects of law.
  • The law degree teaches you useful skills, transferable across many professions. These include: problem solving, critical thinking, logical reasoning and analytical skills.
  • You’ll be surrounded by others with the same ambition, and will be kept in the know by your law department about careers advice, fairs, guest speakers and events that can give you good links to potential employers.
  • You will have the opportunity to test whether law is right for you by getting involved in your university’s law society: moots (mock trials), socials, meeting recruiters, presentations and so on. Not all law societies allow non-law students to join, meaning that if you don’t do a law degree you might miss out on this insight into the profession as an undergraduate.
  • The law degree has a good reputation among non-law employers and it can open doors to other professions, such as legal publishing, banking, tax and more.
  • Currently, studying a law degree is the quickest, most direct and cheapest route, as the conversion course (the graduate diploma in law, or GDL), which you need to do after a non-law degree, adds an extra year to your training, and ranges from about £7,000 to £15,000 for a full-time course, depending on where you study. Also, under the current system, all graduates who want to become trainee solicitors have to complete the legal practice course or LPC (ranging from about £10,000 to £17,000), and trainee barristers the Bar professional training course (ranging from about £12,000 to £19,000). Therefore, skipping the GDL fees can be financially beneficial. However, if you are lucky enough to secure a training contract in advance, your GDL and LPC fees may be covered by your future employer – many big commercial law firms sponsor their future trainee solicitors through these courses.

Routes into law careers: the downsides to doing a law degree

  • Studying law and practising law are two very different things. Some find the law degree a little dry; many find it much more interesting in practice. As a law student you explore law's importance and boundaries at a philosophical level, but in practice you learn that you are working for a paying customer, and apply the law to their specific needs and circumstances.
  • Think hard about whether you will enjoy the academic study of law. There’s a lot of reading and you’re likely to have more lectures than your friends on humanities and language courses, potentially giving you less free time.
  • Barristers and solicitors specialise in a select number of practice areas, meaning that many of the subjects studied by undergraduate law students are only really useful for academic purposes.
  • It’s a highly competitive course to get onto, requiring high A level grades and – for some universities – successful completion of the Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT). The upside to this test is that it can help you understand if law is the right degree for you, and allows universities to see whether you might succeed on a law course.
  • There are plans to introduce a new qualification route for solicitors from September 2021, called the solicitors qualifying exam (SQE), which is planned to be introduced from September 2021. This new route does not require aspiring solicitors to complete an additional postgraduate qualification on top of an undergraduate degree (such as the LPC or the GDL conversion course). Because of this, if you are due to begin your degree or apprenticeship after September 2021, the cost of qualification for law students and non-law students is likely to be very similar.

But not all UK law schools are the same: law degree course rankings

According to the Complete University Guide, the top 20 law degree courses in the UK for 2019 (taking into consideration entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality and graduate prospects) are:

  1. University of Cambridge
  2. University of Glasgow
  3. University of Oxford
  4. London School of Economics (LSE)
  5. University of Aberdeen
  6. University College London (UCL)
  7. Durham University
  8. University of Dundee
  9. King's College London (KCL)
  10. University of Edinburgh
  11. University of York
  12. University of Nottingham
  13. University of Bristol
  14. University of Leeds
  15. University of Strathclyde
  16. University of Warwick
  17. Queen's University, Belfast
  18. University of Kent
  19. University of Exeter
  20. Lancaster University

Courses vary between universities, so do your research before you apply – most universities will give a course breakdown on their website so you can compare them easily. Notable differences will be entry requirements, module titles (what you’ll study), how you’re marked (exams and coursework – how many of each and how often), how many years the law degree takes, how many optional modules you’re allowed to choose and in what year you’re allowed to start choosing optional modules, and so on. It’s worth noting that the Scottish universities above offer the Scottish law degree – to practise as a lawyer in England and Wales with a Scottish law degree, you need to complete the GDL conversion course.

Routes into law careers: the benefits of doing a non-law degree (followed by a law conversion course)

The conversion course (GDL) that you complete before starting a training contract or pupillage crams the three-year law degree into a one-year course.

Choosing to study a subject you’re genuinely passionate about is more likely to result in high grades – a must for a career in law, which is an intellectually challenging profession. If you’ve always wanted to study French or chemistry at university, don’t let your ambition to become a lawyer stop you. Law recruiters are looking for a consistently high academic record but the degree you achieved those grades in is less important.

Some subjects help to show skills that will be useful in law. For example, history gives you analytical and research skills, while modern languages can help when you work for a global law firm with international clients and colleagues. Also, maths develops your logical thinking and a science background can help lawyers who specialise in technology-based work, eg intellectual property.

Routes into law careers: am I at a disadvantage if I have a non-law degree?

The short answer is no. Law recruiters have the same criteria whether you’re a law student or not: a good academic background and the skills to be a lawyer. Remember that studying law at university is very different to working as a lawyer, so law graduates have to find out about the profession too.

Additionally, recruiters don't discriminate against people who haven't studied law as undergraduates, and often value the broadened skills set and varied experience. Therefore, the different abilities and interests developed through a non-law degree can even be an advantage if presented in the right way.

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