The top universities for law careers

Oxford University - one of the top universities for law careers
If you are considering a career as a solicitor, your first two decisions are likely to be: ‘Which course should I do?’ followed by ‘Which universities should I apply to?’. We talk through these decisions below with the help of three recruiters from law firms.

The solicitors' profession is competitive to get into so choosing the right place to study is worth taking your time over. Currently, the most common path to qualifying as a solicitor is a degree followed by a one-year conversion course (if you studied a non-law degree) and/or a one-year vocational course (a course you take after your degree that prepares you to work as a lawyer).

Which universities are best for a career as a solicitor?

Degree courses vary between universities, so do your research before you apply. Look on universities’ websites for a course breakdown so you can compare courses easily. Differences are likely to include A level entry requirements, modules (what you’ll study), how you’re taught (tutorials and lectures), how you’re marked (coursework and exams – how many of each and how often), length of course, and whether you’ll need to write a dissertation. Some degree subjects, such as history or maths, may vary enormously in their course content from university to university so the above research will pay off.

To a certain extent, law degrees are standardised across all universities in that they have to cover seven compulsory modules to be considered a ‘qualifying law degree’: contract; criminal; tort; equity and trusts; EU law; land law; and constitutional and administrative law. Students have the chance to choose other electives, such as family law or company law, but they are not compulsory element of the qualifying law degree or QLD. Even though all law degrees in the UK have to cover these seven areas, some law schools have a better reputation than others. Rankings are one way to research the prestige of a university’s law course.

Do I need to study a law degree?

The advice from solicitors' firms’ recruiters is to choose a university subject that you have a genuine interest in – you are more likely to get better grades needed for a career in law in a subject that you are fired up about. ‘Choose to study a subject that you’re passionate about; this is your one chance to study that subject in depth,’ advises May Worvill, graduate resourcing and alumni manager at solicitors' firm Bristows LLP. ‘Law is one of the careers you can go into without doing a vocational degree so don’t feel pressure to choose law over, say, history if history is your passion. That said, law is an interesting academic subject in its own right and the three-year degree allows you to study it comprehensively.’

As well as transferable skills such as commercial awareness and problem-solving, graduates from non-law disciplines are able to bring their subject-specific knowledge from their degrees in their future law career. For example, a graduate with a real estate degree might choose to later specialise in property law. Recently, TARGETcareers has noticed that law firms are particularly interested in hiring graduates from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) backgrounds – who may be able to use their skills and knowledge in technology law.

Use our special feature on ‘What degree should I do to be a lawyer?’ to help you weigh up the pros and cons of a law and non-law degree. Remember that traditional academic subjects such as English, history and science – as opposed to, say, media studies – remain the most popular non-law subjects for a career in law.

How is the route to qualifying as a solicitor changing?

There are currently plans to introduce a new standardised route of qualification for solicitors, whether they are doing a degree or apprenticeship – called the solicitors qualifying examination (or the SQE). This route is currently set to be introduced in September 2021, though students and apprentices who have begun their courses before this date will have the option to qualify through either the new or the old systems. To be eligible to complete the SQE you will need to have completed an undergraduate degree or a legal apprenticeship, and have two years of work experience. However, unlike the current qualification system, completing a law degree or conversion course is optional, although it's worth considering as it may be beneficial for your knowledge of the profession, which will help with the SQE assessment.

UK university rankings for law degrees

We list below how law degrees rank in two university league tables. The two tables base their rankings on slightly different factors. The Guardian tables are based on current students’ satisfaction with course and teaching, student to staff ratios, spend per student and the proportion of graduates in work within six months of graduation. The Times tables consider research quality and influence, as well as student satisfaction.

How law schools rank in The Guardian University League Tables 2019

  1. University of Cambridge
  2. University of Oxford
  3. University of Dundee
  4. London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
  5. University of York
  6. University College London (UCL)
  7. Abertay University
  8. Durham University
  9. University of Glasgow
  10. University of Leeds
  11. University of Bristol
  12. King’s College London (KCL)
  13. University of Kent
  14. Solent University
  15. University of Aberdeen

How law schools rank in The Times University Rankings 2019

  1. University of Cambridge
  2. University of Oxford
  3. London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
  4. University College London (UCL)
  5. University of Edinburgh
  6. King’s College London
  7. University of Manchester
  8. Queen Mary University of London
  9. University of Nottingham
  10. Durham University
  11. University of Essex
  12. University of Glasgow
  13. University of East Anglia
  14. University of Kent
  15. University of Bristol

How much weight should you give to UK law school league tables?

League tables are a useful research tool as some law schools are better than others – universities such as University College London (UCL), the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), King’s College London (KCL), Durham, Oxford and Cambridge appear regularly in top ten rankings of law courses. Attend one of these universities and you’re likely to receive a top-quality law degree education.

Jackie Trench, graduate recruitment manager at solicitors’ firm Clifford Chance LLP, explains how her firm uses university rankings: ‘We tend to look at the Times Higher Education UK University Rankings for comparative reasons – so we can notice trends for that university overall and also by subject – for law and for other traditional subjects that lend themselves to a career in law, such as history.’ Jackie’s point about looking at overall rankings as well as subject rankings is valid: Queen Mary University is ranked eighth in law but 17th overall across all subjects in The Times rankings. Similarly, Essex is ranked 11th for law and 35th overall. They both have an excellent reputation for law, but don’t assume they are as prestigious for non-law subjects. You can search The Guardian rankings for any degree subject – it’s worth doing that as part of your research if you’re considering a non-law degree.

It’s worth keeping these tables in perspective, however. A university that comes 15th in the rankings may only be a few points behind a university in ninth or tenth place. Manchester University, for example, is in seventh place in The Times University Rankings 2019 but is ranked 60th in The Guardian’s law university rankings. Similar can be said for Essex University (11th in The Times, 70th in The Guardian), and yet both universities have a good reputation for law and law firms visit regularly to entice their law students to apply. ‘We pay attention to university rankings – we look at The Times and The Guardian rankings – but we don’t put too much emphasis on them,’ says May. ‘We look at the rankings in context with other information, such as which universities we’ve successfully recruited our trainees from previously.’

Recruiters at solicitors’ firms are interested in students from all universities

When we interviewed recruiters for this article, they made it clear that they encourage applications from all universities. Toby Horner, graduate recruitment specialist at Clifford Chance LLP, explains: ‘We don’t recruit purely from Oxbridge – naturally, we recruit from Russell Group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, but we target a variety of universities based on research and the intelligence we have within the firm.’ The Russell Group represents the top 24 universities in the UK. They tend to offer the most prestigious law courses but not exclusively. Dundee, Abertay, Kent, Solent University, Aberdeen, Essex and University of East Anglia all feature in one of the tables above but are not Russell Group universities.

It is best to look at rankings as part of the bigger picture, as recruiters do. ‘When we review job applications, we don’t compare a candidate who went to Nottingham University to study law with another candidate who went to Edinburgh University, for example, and ask ourselves “Where do these two universities appear in The Times or The Guardian rankings?.” We’re more interested in individual performance,’ points out May.

Developing the right skills for a legal career is important

You may be wondering what solicitors' firms mean when they talk about individual performance, as May does above? They want to see evidence that you have thought about the job of a lawyer, and tried to develop some of the skills needed for that role. They are not looking for the finished article but they want to see potential. It’s not enough to just have strong academic record – think about how you can work on your organisational, teamwork and research skills along the way. Perhaps you have organised your school prom or worked as a team to complete your Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award, so make sure you continue with this type of activity while you’re at university. ‘You could have gone somewhere that’s number one in the rankings but you don’t have the transferable soft skills (the people and communication skills you acquire as a student and later transfer to a job) that we’re looking for,’ clarifies May. ‘It’s not so much about where you are but what you do while you’re there. Some people might need to go to the university closest to their home in order to afford the fees – people shouldn’t be penalised for that in terms of recruitment.’

How can you choose the best university for you?

Aside from looking at rankings, factors to consider include: the modules offered at that university, distance from home, cost of living (renting a house in London is more expensive than renting a place in Swansea), whether it is a campus university or spread across a city. ‘Getting into law is competitive,’ points out Jackie. ‘If you want to end up at a firm like Clifford Chance, go to a university where you’ll feel comfortable and will thrive, and get a good grade. If you go to a top university but are unhappy and come away with a 2.2 (the third highest degree grade), you’ll find it very difficult to get your first job in law. But if you get a 2.1 (the second highest degree grade) from a slightly less prestigious university most firms will consider your application. The grade you end up with is more important than the university you studied at.’

Everyone is different and the factors that are important to you may be less crucial to others – and they needn’t be related to the course necessarily. There may be universities that have a strong reputation in a sport you excel at – you may choose to study at a coastal university if you are keen on water sports. Equally, a campus with a state-of-the-art climbing wall might keep a keen indoor climber happy while working hard on their law degree. ‘University choice is a very personal, individual decision,’ says Toby Horner, graduate recruitment specialist at Clifford Chance. ‘It’s important to look at the academic quality of the course and university, but you also need to consider where you can see yourself fitting in and excelling.’

It’s clear that choosing a university where you feel comfortable and fit in is an important factor for you – you’re likely to achieve the high grades needed for a career in law if you’re happy at that university. But how can you know where you’ll be happy? May’s advice focuses on open days and research: ‘Visit universities, but if you can’t get to their open days, look at their websites, get in touch with departments and research the different course modules. Think about the environment: different universities suit certain people. Some individuals are suited to a big city like London and might apply to UCL or KCL. Others might suit a university in a small city such as York whereas life at a campus university, such as Warwick, is better suited to others. If you’re happy at university, you’re more likely to get good results.’ Use our university reviews to help you consider which universities would suit you.

Hidden career benefits to choosing a law degree at a top university

While solicitors' firms welcome job applications from students across all universities, there are advantages to going to one of the bigger, prestigious law schools listed in the above rankings when it comes to job-hunting, as Jackie explains: ‘If you go to the bigger Russell Group universities, it is easier to meet representatives from global law firms at campus events – a commercial law firm might sponsor your Law Society Annual Ball or have a stand at a careers event. Graduate recruitment teams in law firms tend to be small (made up of fewer than five people, often) and have limited budgets – so while they encourage applications from students at all universities, they don’t have the budget to visit all universities and have to prioritise. If you go to a small university, it’s likely you will have to work harder to meet law firms before you apply for a job.’

We asked Neel Trivedi, a law student at KCL and the vice president of the KCL Bar Society, about how choosing to study at a central London university can help with job-hunting. ‘KCL is in close proximity to the Supreme Court, prominent barristers’ chambers and global commercial law firms,’ she says. ‘Panel discussions hosted by commercial law firms, as well as regular visits by, for example, Supreme Court judges to networking events and as mooting competition judges, means that KCL students get exposure to all that a legal career has to offer.’

Recruiters are solicitors’ firms offer jobs to students from a wide range of universities

The message from recruiters is clear: the university you attend is not going to make or break your chances of getting a career in as a solicitor. ‘We are open to applications from students from all universities and do our best to advertise at as many as possible – even if we can’t physically attend an event or fair,’ reminds May. Remember that it’s not so much about which university you attend or course you study but what you do with your time while you’re there. Have you joined clubs and societies? Have you taken on a leadership role, such as secretary of a society or captain of a sports club? How have you developed the teamwork and communication skills that make a good lawyer? Have you combined your studies with a part-time job, which has given you time management skills and shown commitment to an employer. ‘We are often asked about extracurricular activities. Remember that part-time work or Saturday jobs show you can balance commitments while studying just as effectively as a hobby,’ concludes May. ‘Also, that type of work can put candidates in more serious positions of responsibility that they can talk about in interviews or applications.’

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