The top universities for law careers

Oxford University - one of the top universities for law careers
If you are considering a legal career, 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.

Law is a competitive profession to get into so choosing the right place to study is worth taking your time over. The most common path to qualifying as a solicitor or barrister is a degree followed by a one-year vocational course (a course you take after your degree that prepares you to work as a lawyer) – but that degree needn’t be in law. Around half of all qualified lawyers have a non-law degree – so one of the first decisions for an aspiring lawyer to make is: ‘Do I want to study law or another subject at university?’.

The advice from law 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 law 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.’

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.

Which universities are best for a career in law?

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. History or maths degrees 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: 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. Even though all law degrees have to cover these seven areas, some law degrees have a better reputation than others. Rankings are one way to research the prestige of a university’s law course.

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 and spend per student. The Times tables consider research quality as well as student satisfaction.

The Guardian University League Tables 2017

  1. Cambridge
  2. Oxford
  3. London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
  4. King’s College London (KCL)
  5. Queen Mary
  6. University College London (UCL)
  7. Durham
  8. Dundee
  9. Robert Gordon
  10. University of East Anglia
  11. Queen’s Belfast
  12. Edinburgh
  13. Birmingham
  14. Aberdeen
  15. Kent

The Times University Rankings 2016–2017

  1. Oxford
  2. Cambridge
  3. University College London (UCL)
  4. London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
  5. King’s College London (KCL)
  6. Edinburgh
  7. Manchester
  8. Sussex
  9. Durham
  10. Bristol
  11. Sheffield
  12. Warwick
  13. York
  14. Essex
  15. Exeter

How much weight should you give to university rankings?

League tables are a useful research tool as some universities are better for law 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 law 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 fifth for law but 34th overall across all subjects in The Times rankings. Similarly, KCL is ranked fourth for law but 42nd 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 The Times University Rankings 20162017 but doesn’t make the top 20 in The Guardian rankings. Bristol University is the same, 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 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.’

Law recruiters 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. Kent, UEA, Dundee, Robert Gordon, Sussex and Essex 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 law 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 focusses 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 top university

While law firms welcome job applications from students across all universities, there are advantages to going to one of the bigger, prestigious law departments 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.’

Law recruiters 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 law. ‘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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