Undergraduate: the first rung of the ladder

The right law degree is a good first step to a legal career but competition is high, so heres some top tips to get ahead


Undergraduate: the first rung of the ladderLaw is one of the most demanding degree courses you can choose to study. Here we take you through the process of applying for the course and tips to survive it.

If you have decided that a legal career is the one for you, then you should be aiming to kick off the academic stage of your training by reading law at university.

But be warned, most of the top law departments are heavily oversubscribed and competition is fierce. Entry is by no means guaranteed.

MAKING THE GRADE
Good written presentation, motivation, logical thinking and of course an interest in law are essential, but realistically you will also need stellar A-level results. And because of the fierce competition for places, a minimum of three A grades (360 Ucas points) has become basically the prerequisite for landing a place on a law degree at a top university.

Traditional universities also prefer applicants who have studied academic A-levels. Studying drama, media studies or art by no means excludes you, but law schools do prefer candidates to have A-levels in traditional subjects such as history or economics.

Professor Peter Jones, the senior pro vice chancellor of Nottingham Trent University Law School, explains: The key to success in studying law at undergraduate level is the ability to analyse data, and some A-levels encourage those skills more than others. Another ability that is important is the ability to research, and research skills are easier to learn by doing harder-edged academic subjects.

Contrary to popular belief , an A-level in law is not looked on particularly favourably by undergraduate law schools, and some schools have actively avoided taking on students who have one.

Mike Bower, principal lecturer at the University of Teesside Law School, says: At degree level youll be going into depths that you wont have done at A-level and students are often fooled into thinking that, when they do a subject at A-level, they know all they need to already. I wouldnt say I avoid students with law A-level, but its a neutral, not a plus.

The advice from Bower is to try to get as much real-life experience while studying for your A-levels, and he recommends students undertake activities such as work-shadowing in a solicitors office.

There has been extensive debate about whether A-levels have
become easier in recent years, but whatever the reason, more students than ever are attaining top grades a trend that is causing headaches for university admissions departments up and down the country.

To help to differentiate between the large number of high-achieving students, a group of the largest law schools banded together to launch the National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT) in 2004. Since then the consortium has grown, and sitting the LNAT is now compulsory for students wanting to study law at Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan, Nottingham and Oxford universities, plus Kings College London and University College London.

The LNAT is taken on a computer terminal and comprises multiple-choice and essay questions. The multiple-choice element consists of a series of argumentative passages, with a few questions on each to test the candidates powers of comprehension, interpretation, analysis, synthesis, induction and deduction the verbal reasoning skills at the heart of legal education.

You do not have to have any knowledge of the law to take the test, just a good grasp of the English language. The essay component of the LNAT tests the ability of candidates to argue economically (ie in the minimum words necessary) in clear English, and involves writing a conclusion in a maximum of 70 words. To find out more, check out www.lnat.ac.uk.

CHOOSING A UNIVERSITY
The content of law courses varies considerably some are very theoretical, while others are very practical so it is worth finding out more about the course from the institution before you make a choice.

NON-LAW DEGREES

Another piece of good news it that you can still go on to become a lawyer even if you do not read law at university. You will have to do an extra years postgraduate study but, providing you have a strong academic record, your lack of a law degree will not act as a disadvantage and firms often have around a 60-40 split of law and non-law graduates.

Again, traditional subjects such as history and economics are viewed favourably by law firms, as well as sciences and languages.

Deborah Dalgleish, graduate recruitment head at magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, agrees. All sorts of degrees give you the relevant transferable skills that work well in law. Like a lot of top firms we have a very diverse client base and we need to have lawyers who are as diverse as they are, she says.

An increasing number of law faculties are holding open days, and attending these can be helpful.

Also, make sure the degree you are applying for is a qualifying LLB (Bachelor of Law) degree. Some universities offer BAs (Bachelor of Arts) in law. But unlike the LLB, some of these courses may not be counted as one of the steps towards qualifying as a lawyer, as they do not cover all seven foundations of legal knowledge. Check with individual university prospectuses for further details.

If you are sure that you want to become a solicitor at the end of your degree, find out more about the four-year exempting law degree, which at the moment is only offered by the University of Northumbria in Newcastle. This degree course combines the law degree with the Legal Practice Course (LPC) (see page 14) and can work out as a cheaper alternative to doing the two courses separately.

Although commercial law firms make a big deal of their willingness to recruit students from any university, the fact remains that, at least for the moment, the majority of trainees still hail from traditional redbrick universities, so this is also worth taking into account when you apply.

Law degrees are applied for through Ucas in the same way as for any other undergraduate course, and you can start applying from the beginning of the second year of your A-levels (applications open on 1 September).

The deadline is 15 October for Oxford and Cambridge and 15 January for other universities. For more information on university admissions, it is worth taking a look at the Ucas website (www.ucas.ac.uk).

YOU’RE THERE
Assuming you can get fantastic A-level results, make mincemeat of the LNAT, dazzle law school heads with your knowledge and enthusiasm and win a coveted place at the university of your dreams, what should you expect once you get there?

Hard work, hard work and a bit more hard work. Do not be shocked if you are given a reading list as long as your leg. And although you will spend less time attending lectures and seminars than your peers, you will still be expected to put in many more hours of independent study.

Emphasis and content will vary, but all qualifying law degree courses must teach the seven foundations of legal knowledge: criminal law; equity and trusts; EU law; contract law; tort law; property law; and public law.

In addition, students are expected to become skilled in legal research. You will be assessed through a combination of coursework and exams.

A distinct lack of spoon-feeding is a major characteristic of all law degrees, and this can be a culture shock after life at school or at a sixth-form college.

Jatinder Paul, a final-year student and head of the law society at the University of Leicester Law School, says: At degree level you should expect to spend a lot more time doing independent research than during your A-levels. It can be a real culture shock, although you do usually get used to it early on.

Commercial law firms usually ask for a minimum degree class of 2:1, and if you have anything less then you will need to have some pretty good extenuating circumstances to get an interview.

Have fun and make friends in your first year, but remember that your first-year results are what law firms use to decide whether to offer you a work placement. So make life easier for yourself and make sure you get the grades.

EXTRAS
While you are at university, taking part in extracurricular activities is not only good fun, it also develops important skills and enhances your CV.

Most universities have law societies run by students, and law firms target societies at some universities offering anything from sponsorship of the law society ball to organising visits to the firms offices.

If you are lucky you may also get the chance to take part in pro bono work (free legal advice for charities or other deserving clients) although this is still relatively limited at undergraduate level.

And for those looking to practise their skills in the courtroom, the good news is that most universities organise mooting competitions, which allow students to present arguments in mock cases.

Last but not least, it goes without saying that any work experience you can get that demonstrates your interest in the law is valuable.

If you are serious about carving out a career as a commercial lawyer, you should also be crafting your commercial awareness. What this means is an understanding of the business context in which law firms operate.

Paul at Leicester University advises: Read the business pages of newspapers and the Financial Times and see whats new, and read about the latest deals that have been done. It can be hard and not that interesting at first, but when you understand what the major deals are it gets easier.

GOOD LUCK IN WHATEVER YOU DO
Hopefully you now have a real idea of what a law degree entails. The beauty of having a law degree is that, even if you decide that a legal career is not for you after all, the skills picked up during your study will provide you with an excellent platform to pursue a good range of alternative careers.

BREAKING THE BANK

From the start of the 2006-07 academic year, the annual tuition fee at most universities will be a whopping 3,000.

However, you can apply for a subsidised loan, which attracts a low rate of interest, from the Student Loan Company (SLC) to cover the cost of course fees and maintenance. You can borrow up to 3,000 to cover the course fees and up to 6,315 if you study at a London university and are living away from home.

You do not have to start paying back the loan until you are earning more than 15,000 per annum (2006 rates). For more information, go the the SLCs website at www.slc.co.uk.
Depending on your circumstances, you may also be eligible for bursaries and grants. Some universities may even offer scholarships. For more information contact your local education authority or the university you wish to apply to.