The top universities for law careers

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

Currently, the most common path to qualifying as a solicitor is a degree (either a law degree or a non-law degree) followed by a conversion course and/or a vocational course. If you choose to go to university, it’s taking your time to carefully think about choosing the right university and course to study.

What to think about when choosing a university

The content and teaching methods of degree courses vary between different universities, so it’s crucial that you do your research before you apply. Look on universities’ websites for detailed information on courses so you can compare courses easily.

Differences been courses are likely to include:

  • entry requirements (the grades and qualifications that they ask for)
  • 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)
  • the length of the course
  • 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. Even though all law degrees in the UK have to cover these seven areas, some law schools have a better reputation than others.

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 (QLD). If you already have an idea of what areas of practice you are interested in specialising in, or just want to find out more about, it’s worth comparing the electives offered by each course.

How to choose the best university for you?

When you’re choosing where to go to university, it’s important to look beyond just the course you want to take. Other factors such can be equally as important, these include: distance from home, cost of living (the cost of renting differs across the country), the facilities, the extracurricular activities it offers and whether it’s a campus university or spread across a city. The factors that are most important to you in a university can be very personal – think about where you would feel comfortable and fit in.

‘Getting into law is competitive,’ points out Jackie Trench, graduate recruitment manager at solicitors’ firm Clifford Chance. ‘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.’

Make the most of open days and other opportunities to visit universities and see for yourself whether it would be a good choice for you. ‘Think about the environment: different universities suit certain people,’ advises May Worvill, graduate resourcing and alumni manager at law firm Bristows LLP. ‘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.’

Which universities do law firms and chambers prefer?

The message from recruiters is clear: the university you attend is not going to make or break your chances of getting a career as a lawyer. ‘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. Toby Horner, graduate recruitment specialist at Clifford Chance, agrees: ‘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.’

Hidden career benefits of law degrees at different universities

While law recruiters welcome job applications from students from all universities, there are ‘hidden’ advantages to some bigger, perhaps more prestigious, law schools that are worth considering.

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.

Similarly, a university in London is in closer geographical proximity to the Supreme Court, prominent barristers’ chambers and offices of international law firms, so is likely to have a closer relationship to these than a university in Sussex, for instance. This isn’t to say that you cannot have a successful careers at these firms or chambers having studied at smaller universities, but you might have to put a bit more effort to connect with these employers.

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. You can find out more about the different rankings and the different factors that they consider here.

How law schools rank in The Guardian University League Tables 2020

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

How law schools rank in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020

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

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

League tables are a useful research tool to see which law schools are held in particularly high regard – 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.

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 examples is in seventh place for The Times Higher Education’s rankings but is in 46th place in The Guardian’s. But, the university has a good reputation for law and is regularly visited by law firms.

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