Studying a law degree at university – and the careers it can lead to

The Supreme Court - the highest legal court in the UK
Law degrees are competitive to get onto but completing a degree in law can give you sought-after skills and a good range of career options after university.

Law degrees are highly respected by employers. Whether you decide to use it in practice as a solicitor or barrister – or in other careers where law degrees are welcomed – you’ll pick up lots of useful skills on the course, including critical thinking, research, presentation and organisational skills. The workload for students can be heavy but the benefits of a law degree are wide ranging.

Law degree entry requirements – what A levels and GCSEs do I need?

There are no essential A level subjects you need for entry to a UK law degree but we recommend you consider the following advice when choosing A levels.

  • Opt for A levels that develop the transferable skills needed in law. As well as being clever, you need good research, communication and analytical skills to be a successful lawyer – traditional, essay-based subjects develop those skills. ‘I studied physics, maths, ICT, Spanish, French and further maths at A level, which meant that I wasn’t well-equipped in terms of essay-writing skills,’ reflects Rosie Williams, a law student at the University of Nottingham. ‘Studying history or English would be good; I did neither of these and I have struggled with essay writing due to lack of experience.’
  • Choose A levels known as ‘facilitating subjects’ by the Russell Group of top universities, ie those that leave open a wide range of options for university study. These include: history, geography, modern and classical languages, English literature, maths and further maths, physics, biology and chemistry. General studies and critical thinking are not usually counted towards your main A level entry requirements.
  • Pick subjects in which you have a genuine interest and think you can get high grades. It varies but most universities/law recruiters want to see minimum grades of ABB at A level (or equivalent), with many of the top law schools/big commercial law firms asking for between AAB and A*AA before they offer you a place on their law degree course or a job in law.

Some universities may specify the GCSE grades you need. For example, University College London (UCL) asks for English language and mathematics at grade B or 6. For UK-based students, a grade C or 5 or equivalent in a foreign language (other than ancient Greek, biblical Hebrew or Latin) is required. Manchester University normally expects to ‘see a good GCSE profile with minimum grades across all subjects of A*/9 to C/4.’

Is law A level an entry requirement to do a law degree?

There is no entry requirement to study law at A level in order to do a law degree or become a lawyer – no previous knowledge of law is assumed or required. Only study law for A level if you are genuinely interested in it. ‘I didn’t study law at A level – I was told by my teachers that universities don’t advise it,’ remembers Imogen Reay, a law student at the University of Nottingham. ‘Apparently, you’ll end up having to unlearn everything.’

Studying law at A level won’t give you an advantage – law employers and universities will treat it the same as any other A level when considering your application. However, Georgina Farmer, a law graduate of Nottingham Trent University, recognises its benefits: ‘I found that a few of my law degree modules touched on areas I had already covered at sixth form during my law A level so, if nothing else, I was already familiar with the required approach to legal writing and studying.’

The LNAT test – an entry requirement for eight UK universities

Law is a highly competitive degree course to get onto, requiring high A level grades and a strong UCAS personal statement. Bristol, Durham, Glasgow, King’s College London, Nottingham, Oxford, SOAS and UCL universities also require you to successfully complete the Law National Aptitude Test or LNAT. Mastering the LNAT can help you decide that law is the right degree for you. Equally, passing the LNAT allows universities to see that you might succeed on a law course.

All other universities in the UK allow entry to their  law degree without passing the LNAT first.

Types of law degree

For UK school leavers embarking on a first degree, your law course is likely to be an LLB (bachelor of laws) or a BA. It’s worth noting that the law degree is known as ‘jurisprudence’ at Oxford University. Although jurisprudence means the philosophy of law, the same core modules (tort, contract etc) are covered at Oxford.

How long is a typical law degree?

Law degrees are typically three years long. Choosing to combine a language with your law degree will affect how many years your law course lasts. It can be four years long if you choose to go to a European country in your third year and study the law there.

What is a qualifying law degree and what will I study on it?

‘Qualifying law degrees’ (QLDs) are accredited law degrees that satisfy the first stage of training as a solicitor or barrister. In other words, graduates with a QLD can proceed directly to the vocational courses (the legal practice course (LPC) for future solicitors or the Bar professional training course (BPTC) for aspiring barristers) that go towards your training as a solicitor or barrister.

QLDs cover seven ‘foundation’ subjects. These foundation subjects are often taught in the first two years of the degree. They are:

  • constitutional and administrative law
  • criminal law
  • law of tort
  • contract law
  • land law
  • trusts and equity law
  • EU law

This leaves the final year for optional subjects such as: advanced tort, intellectual property law, employment law, tax law, family law, medical law, criminology and criminal justice, and international human rights.

What teaching methods are used on a law degree?

The above subjects will be taught through lectures, seminars and tutorials. Lectures involve an academic presenting in a lecture hall to around 100 students on a topic while students take notes. Seminars are similar to tutorials and universities will often use one or the other: small group or individual meetings with an academic member of staff where you are expected to prepare and contribute to the discussion to show you have understood the topics presented in lectures.

The modules are mostly assessed by end of year exams although some will be assessed by coursework. ‘My “understanding law” module in my first year and two essay modules in my third year were assessed by essay,’ points out Alistair Moulder, who has graduated from the University of Nottingham with an LLB law degree. ‘Everything else was assessed by exams.’

How many contact hours will I have on a law degree?

Contact time is when you are being taught by university staff. On average, law students have around 12 hours of contact time each week. The rest of the time is spent reading around the subject in order to be able to contribute to discussions in tutorials and seminars – Reading University, for example, assumes its students will study up to 36 hours each week in total. Alistair adds: ‘Naturally, contact time was reduced over the three years, averaging about 10 to 14 hours a week depending on the modules chosen. With law, self-study is always required; I cannot stress enough the necessity to read around the subject.’

‘I have around 12 or 13 contact hours each week,’ explains Rosie. ‘The rest of the time I tend to do 9.00 am to 4.00 pm in the library doing tutorial reading or making review notes on lectures.’

How difficult is a law degree?

Law is an academically challenging subject and universities will want to see evidence of your intellectual ability in your GCSE and (predicted) A level results. There is a lot of reading around the subject to prepare for tutorials and seminars – you will be expected to contribute to the group sessions and show your understanding. ‘The legal concepts aren’t necessarily difficult but the amount of work makes it very hard,’ points out Rosie.

Rosie’s fellow Nottingham law student, Imogen, agrees: ‘My law degree has been really challenging and there have been a lot of tears, but it’s so rewarding when the hard work actually pays off,’ she says. ‘It’s an enormous step up from A levels and, although you may have felt top of the class at school, there will be times during your degree when you feel incredibly stupid. Don’t forget that you had to be bright to get to where you are, and you wouldn’t have been accepted on to the course if they didn’t think you were capable enough.’

I’m interested in law. What other degrees can I consider?

You don’t need to do a law degree to become a solicitor or barrister. In fact, around half of newly-qualified lawyers have a non-law degree. The conversion course (GDL) that non-law graduates complete before starting their on-the-job training as a lawyer crams the three-year law degree into a one-year course. So if you’ve always wanted to study maths or English at university, don’t let your ambition to become a lawyer stop you. Law recruiters look for a consistently high academic record but the degree subject you achieved those high grades in is less important.

May Worvill, graduate resourcing and alumni manager at solicitors’ firm Bristows LLP explains: ‘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.’ We weigh up the benefits of a law degree against a non-law degree here.

May Worvill offers more advice on choosing a university degree here.

The benefits of a law degree – skills you’ll gain

One of the reasons law graduates are so sought after among all sorts of employers is the range of skills the law course develops. The benefits of a law degree include bringing on your analytical skills, research skills, time management, presentation skills – developed in tutorials and in mooting (fake courtroom debate competitions) – and organisational skills. ‘The law degree develops your critical thinking, ability to extract the most relevant information from long texts, an analytical approach to problem solving, confidence and organisation,’ explains Imogen. Rosie agrees that the law degree gives you the ability to see the wood for the trees: ‘A skill that this course definitely requires is being able to filter down important information; you are given a lot of reading and you must pick out the important bits from this.’

Prospects for graduates with a law degree

Each year, all UK universities get in touch with their former students six months after they complete their degrees to ask what they are doing. The results are compiled in the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which has data on both graduates from different degree subjects and on graduates as a whole.

The survey shows that in 2015/16 law had the highest percentages of leavers in further study (33%), compared with 17% of graduates from all subjects. However, of that 33%, some will be on the vocational courses to become a solicitor (LPC) or barrister (BPTC).

As for the prospects for graduates with a law degree, 46% of law graduates were in work sixth months after graduating, compared to 65% of graduates overall, but remember that the percentage for law is bound to be lower: you can’t go into a graduate job as a solicitor or barrister straight after your university degree – you need to do a vocational course first.

Career options for law graduates

The most obvious career path for law graduates is to become a lawyer. The word ‘lawyer’ is a useful umbrella term for anyone who practises law. Most UK lawyers choose to work as either a solicitor in a law firm or as a self-employed barrister. The type of work lawyers carry out – and the salaries they get – varies enormously. Lawyers usually specialise in one legal area such as family, employment or tax law.

What can you do with a law degree apart from being a lawyer?

Law degrees are well-respected. Recruiters understand the tough academic requirements to get accepted onto a law degree, the rigour of the course itself and the transferable skills the degree gives graduates. Apart from going into legal practice as solicitors and barristers, law graduates also go into areas such as:

Georgina Davidson, an investment banker previously at Mitsubishi UFJ Securities International, says: ‘My law degree gave me transferable skills that I didn’t even know I had. Experience of debating at university gave me confidence when giving presentations and speaking to clients. Being able to anticipate both sides of an argument is useful when recommending an investment to clients.’

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