Could you have been studying something you actually found interesting rather than contract law? Jennifer Currie discovers that law firms don't really care what degree you study and are taking on just as many non-law graduates as LLB students.
It sounds silly to say that you do not need a law degree to become a lawyer these days, but it is true. Thanks to post-graduate conversion courses, many firms now recruit approximately half of their trainees from undergraduate disciplines other than law and seem quite happy with the results.
As a survey by The Times confirmed earlier this year, law is still the most popular academic subject of them all, with close to 17,000 applicants competing for around 14,000 places every year. But because only 50 per cent of law graduates actually decide to become lawyers at the end of their three years of study, the legal profession now has to cast its recruiting net much wider in order to satisfy increasing demands for top-notch brains.
Bearing in mind the fact that a law graduate actually intent on becoming a lawyer will have tucked away three years of legal study before embarking on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Vocational Course (BVC), it is easy to see why they might think it quite unfair that a physics graduate can complete the one-year Common Professional Examination (CPE) and go on to enter the profession at exactly the same stage and earn exactly the same wage.
If that is the case, then what is the point in slogging away at a law degree if you have always really fancied studying history and know you can still emerge as a lawyer at the end of it all? Surprisingly, many firms agree that there is actually not much point in studying a law degree and positively encourage wannabe lawyers to study a subject that interests them, particularly if it is one they are likely to do well at.
Nicki Baba, a graduate recruitment officer at City firm Herbert Smith, says the firm is “more interested in what grades students gain as opposed to what they study”.
“I've often heard lawyers saying they didn't need their law degree to do the work they do,” she adds. “And if they were to advise students they'd say study what you like because you can always convert after your degree.”
Although taking on non-law graduates is more expensive because it involves paying for another year of funding and tuition fees, Clare Harris, the head of graduate recruitment at Lovells, believes it is an investment worth making.
We ask if they have the raw material to be a good lawyer' – Clare Harris, Lovells
“No one's going to get all of their recruits from just law students,” says Harris. “We look for people with quite rigorous, intellectually demanding degrees and we aim for about a 60:40 law to non-law split. But rather than looking at it as a law versus non-law debate, we ask whether or not they have got the raw material to become a good lawyer.”
As a result of this all-inclusive approach, Lovells has a pharmacologist, an Egyptologist and an Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic expert on its books. “It makes for a healthy balance and it's dynamic to have a mix of people from different backgrounds in the firm,” Harris adds.
The search for talent is now leading some law firms into uncharted territory. This year, Addleshaw Booth & Co's graduate recruitment team will be attending a number of general career fairs as well as law fairs in an attempt to inform non-law graduates that they, too, can become lawyers.
So what is the big deal about non-law graduates and why are law firms so keen to offer them training contracts when they know very little about the profession they are entering?
Graham Stoddart, a graduate recruitment officer at Macfarlanes, says: “If you think about the number of trainees who are taken on by the top 100 law firms in this country every year, and how this has increased over the last five years, the number of trainees required must have gone up by thousands. But because the number of law students and the overall quality hasn't gone up, law firms have had to look elsewhere because they've almost exhausted the supply of decent law students.”
Simran Foote, graduate manager at Addleshaws, says non-lawyers are popular with recruiters because “they've thought more about why they want to be a lawyer. Presumably this is because it's a bigger step for them to train.”
But Professor Peter Jones, dean of Nottingham Law School, says non-law graduates are so popular because of the “graduateness” they can bring to their studies.
“The most important subject that law students study at undergraduate level and on the CPE is contract, and in many ways it's the most complicated. But law undergraduates only study contract during their first year, when most of them are aged 18,” he says. “At this stage, they tend to have had no experience of making a contract and so they have nothing to relate it to. It's as if they've ticked a box and that's the end of it – and they don't touch contract law again. So when they come onto the LPC or BVC, they can't remember any of it.
“Compare and contrast this to a graduate who may have studied languages or history, who comes to study contract law for the first time aged 21 or 22. They have greater intellectual skills and maturity as well as life experience. When you talk to them about making a contract they know what you mean. Frankly, they understand [the law] better, even though they've only studied it for a year. It's a nonsense to think that the most talented people are all going to be on law degree courses.”
'I've often heard lawyers saying they didn't need their law degree to do the work they do' – Nicki Baba, Herbert Smith
Yet university law schools argue that they do not exist simply to churn out reams of trainee solicitors for law firms. Just as 50 per cent of law graduates go into the legal profession, the other half will go on to compete directly with accountancy and business graduates for hard-won places at accountancy firms and banks. And you can bet that some accountancy graduates will bear a grudge if they are pipped to a place at Ernst & Young by a law graduate.
Professor Gillian Douglas of Cardiff University says that studying for a law degree is much broader than many people think, because it provides “a fully rounded understanding of the law and its place in society. In other words, a legal education rather than just legal training.”
But although the outlook seems to look rosy for non-law graduates, some ominous rumblings can be heard reverberating in the legal jungle. Given the current state of the economy and the fact that it costs around £11,000 extra to put a trainee through the CPE year, it is no surprise that some firms are a bit more cautious about offering training places to non-law graduates than they have been in previous years.
Nicky Lawson, head of graduate recruitment at Theodore Goddard, admits that cost implications have had an impact on the firm's “flexibility” this year. As a result, she was not able to offer places to all the non-law graduates she wanted to. While Lawson thinks the situation was a one-off for Theodores, she expects that some smaller firms will experience this problem more acutely in the future.
Aside from the extra cost for the firm, the non-law graduates can find themselves at a disadvantage in commercial and corporate areas of work, according to Graham Camp, a staff and recruitment partner at Bird & Bird. “The learning curve in these areas is significantly steeper for non-lawyers than it is for law graduates, simply because they've had less training. It can be a real struggle for some people,” says Camp, although he adds that non-law graduates such as scientists are ideal candidates in areas such as intellectual property and IT.
As it stands, law graduates still have a natural advantage over graduates from other disciplines in that they could win hands down in a 'who knows more about the law' quiz. But it is fair to say that non-law graduates are sneaking up in the popularity stakes, and in some cases are even beating the law graduates at their own game.
As Stoddart at Macfarlanes points out: “We take on 50 per cent non-law students. But 50 per cent of our applicants are not non-lawyers. So, statistically speaking, non-lawyers applying to us have a greater success rate than the law students.”
What is clear is that law firms are placing an even greater importance on the content of the post-graduate and training contract stages of training. After all, the advent of the City-focused LPC speaks volumes about the extent to which some firms will go to ensure they get the trainees they are paying through the nose for.
“If we recruit the right people, then the two-year training contract will deliver,” says Maia Riley, head of graduate recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.
“My advice is to do something you're interested in,” adds Sally Bridges, head of graduate recruitment at Nabarro Nathanson. “The LLB is an excellent grounding. But three years is a long time if you're not sure, so give yourself a bit of flexibility and do something that you'll enjoy.”