Law degrees

You do not have to have a law degree to qualify as a solicitor or barrister but if you have decided that a legal career is for you, reading law at university is the obvious first step on the road

What you need

If you want to do a law degree, good written presentation, motivation, logical thinking and an interest in the subject are essential, but realistically you will also need stellar A-level results. Because of the fierce competition for places, many top universities require applicants to gain a minimum of three A grades (360 Ucas points).

Traditional universities prefer applicants who have studied academic A-levels. Studying Drama, Media Studies or Art by no means excludes you, but some law schools prefer candidates to have A-levels in traditional subjects such as English Literature, Economics or History.

Contrary to popular belief, studying law at A-level is not a prerequisite for enrolling on a law degree and will not necessarily give you a head start when completing your Ucas form.

There has been extensive debate in recent times about whether A-levels have become easier but whatever the reason more students than ever are attaining top grades, causing headaches for university admissions departments across the country.

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The LNAT, which costs £50 to take in the UK or EU, is completed on a computer terminal and comprises two sections. To help differentiate between the large number of high-achieving students, those applying to Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Glasgow, Nottingham and Oxford universities, as well as King’s College London, University College London and the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (mature students only) have to sit the National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT).

The first section (95 minutes) uses 42 multiple choice questions to assess your ability to read, understand, analyse and make logical deductions from passages of text in formal English.

The second section (40 minutes) requires you to write a reasoned essay in English (500-600 words) on a topic chosen from a list. The essay should be written in full sentences, not notes or bullet points. Your ability to set out an argument in plain English is one of the things that is being tested. To find out more, go to www.lnat.ac.uk.

Choosing a university

The content of law courses varies considerably. Some are highly theoretical while others are much more practical, so it is worth finding out about the course before you make a choice. An increasing number of law faculties are holding open days, which can be helpful to attend.

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 many of these courses do not count as one of the steps towards qualifying as a lawyer because they do not cover all seven foundations of legal knowledge.

For more details check out the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) website (www.sra.org.uk) for a list of qualifying law degrees, as well as individual university prospectuses. For example, although the University of Cambridge’s law degree is a BA, it is a qualifying law degree.

If you are absolutely sure you want to become a solicitor at the end of your degree, find out more about the four-year exempting law degrees offered by universities such as Huddersfield, Northumbria and Westminster. These courses combine a law degree with the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and should work out cheaper than doing the two courses separately.

Northumbria also runs a course combining the three stages of qualifying as a solicitor – educational (LLB), vocational (LPC) and training contract – which enables students to enter practice as fully-fledged solicitors. Nottingham Trent University runs a course that combines the LPC with a four-year sandwich degree.

A further alternative is offered by BPP and the University of Law’s two-year intensive vocational LLB degrees followed by the LPC or BPTC, which is, in effect, a three-year intensive programme.

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 time being, the majority of trainees still hail from ‘traditional’ Russell Group universities, so this is worth taking into account when you apply.

You also need to take into account the financial impact of your choice of university – the lifting of the cap on annual tuition fees means that universities can charge up to £9,000 per year.

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How to apply

Law degrees are applied for through Ucas in the same way as any other undergraduate course, and you can start applying from the beginning of the second year of your A-levels. Note that if you need to complete the LNAT you will still have to apply for your university place through Ucas.

The Ucas application process typically begins in early September for entry to university in the following academic year. Although the application process stays open for several months, it is advisable to get your forms in as early as possible. Also, note that the deadline for applying to Oxford and Cambridge universities is normally mid-October.

For more information on university admissions, it is worth taking a look at the Ucas website (www.ucas.ac.uk).

Once you are there…

Assuming you can get fantastic A-levels, 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 arm. Although you will spend less time attending lectures and seminars than some of your peers, you will be expected to put in many more hours of independent study.

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Emphasis and content will vary, but all qualifying law degree courses must teach the seven foundations of legal knowledge as described in the Converting to Law section below. In addition, students are expected to become skilled in legal research and will be assessed through a combination of coursework and exams.

A distinct lack of spoon-feeding is a notable characteristic of all law degrees, and this can be a culture shock after life in the sixth form.

For qualifying purposes, the required pass mark is 40 per cent, regardless of the pass mark set by the university itself. And do not forget that the degree remains valid for only seven years, after which it cannot be counted towards qualification.

Commercial law firms usually ask for a minimum degree class of 2:1. If you have anything less you will need to have some pretty good extenuating circumstances to gain 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 summer work placement. So make life easier for yourself and get the grades.

Extracurricular activities

Taking part in extracurricular activities is not only good fun but also develops your 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.

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.

For those who want to practise their courtroom skills, many universities organise mooting competitions that allow students to present arguments in mock cases.

It goes without saying that any work experience you can get that demonstrates your interest in law is valuable. That said, non-law-related work experience, including summer jobs, will also go a long way to giving the edge to your training contract application.

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

So get into the habit of reading the business pages of the national newspapers and the legal press, such as Lawyer 2B and its sister title The Lawyer. Both are available in print and online, and the best way to show you have what it takes to cut it as a commercial lawyer is to start thinking like one as early as possible.

Top tips on surviving your first year

The key to getting the most out of your first year at university is to strike a healthy balance between work and play. And if you have not already done so, it is important to start thinking about your CV.

Work

  • First-year marks may not count towards your final degree, but do not take this as an opportunity to slack off. Firms will ask for these grades when you apply for vacation schemes.
  • You will be expected to spend more time studying on your own, so be sure to get organised from the start. This will help you keep on top of your work throughout the year and will prove invaluable when it comes to revision.
  • Try to attend all lectures. They present an overview of the topic that will make your independent reading much easier. Lecturers are often at the top of their field, so pay attention.
  • Do not be overwhelmed by the reading list – not everything is useful and you will soon be whizzing through it.
  • Do not be put off by the jargon – law is full of it but you will soon get used to it.
  • If you are strapped for cash, visit the second-hand bookshop or eBay to purchase relevant textbooks.

Play

  • This is the fun bit. Immerse yourself fully in the university experience, make an effort to socialise and explore your environment. Many people make lifelong friends at university.
  • Freshers’ Week is great, so make the most of it as this is the only chance to go out and enjoy yourself without having work to do or lectures to attend.
  • Go to your Freshers’ Fair and join the societies that interest you, especially the law society. They are not expensive to join and many have free taster sessions.
  • Society involvement is a great opportunity to gain some of the vital skills employers are looking for. If no society interests you, why not set one up?

CV

  • Do not worry too much about your CV in your first term, concentrate on getting involved in university life, adjusting to the new environment and keeping on top of your work.
  • If you are sure you want a career in law, get involved in activities such as debating and mooting. Also, attend employer presentations and careers fairs to start familiarising yourself with the legal sector. This will put you in a stronger position when applying for formal work placements.
  • Start working on your CV over the Christmas holidays, as there are a number of work experience opportunities at City law firms for first-year students. Places on these schemes are competitive, so do not be disheartened if you do not get a place. Apply for an open day instead.
  • Firms want you to be well-rounded, so do not dismiss a non-legal summer job as irrelevant. Working in a shop, for example, involves solving customer problems and can show off many of the skills that employers are looking for.
  • Use your legal knowledge to help the community. Get involved with your university’s pro bono society, for example.

”What work experience would you suggest for younger aspiring lawyers who are yet to start university? Is it necessary to start in the summer after my GCSEs?”

Most employers value some sort of extracurricular activity on CVs, whether it is an internship or just part-time work experience, neither of which have to be in your chosen field, although that will help.

Your academic studies will equip you with certain skills but in an increasingly competitive market, you need to develop yourself so that you stand out from the crowd.

Any work experience will be useful as most key skills that employers look for are transferable across different industries and job sectors. Getting work experience early on will also help you to develop your networking skills as well as building contacts for the future.

Caroline Sarson, graduate recruitment partner, Mayer Brown

Converting to law

A common misunderstanding is that you have to read law at university if you want to qualify as a solicitor or barrister. The good news is that this is not the case. You will, however, need to complete an extra year of postgraduate study.

If you have a strong academic record, the lack of a law degree will not be a disadvantage. Indeed, some firms have more non-law than law graduates. Traditional subjects such as Economics and History are viewed favourably, as well as sciences and modern languages.

The Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Common Professional Exam (CPE) are the qualifications that transform non-law graduates into potential lawyers. The more common GDL is essentially the CPE with knobs on – the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Council recognise both qualifications. Once the year-long GDL is completed, you will be on the same footing as a law graduate and be able to embark on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).

Given that the GDL is a three-year course squeezed into a year, it is not for the faint-hearted. You will cover the seven foundations of legal knowledge: criminal law, equity and trusts, EU law, contract law, tort, property law and public law.

Applications for the course are made through the Central Applications Board (lawcabs.ac.uk). Application forms are normally available from November, with a closing date around February. There is tough competition for places and most applicants will have at least a 2:1 degree. You should be prepared to pay more than £9,000 at some law schools, especially the London-based ones. What is more, securing funding for the GDL has become more difficult as it is no longer possible to use career development loans towards the cost.

However, as with the LPC, students who secure training contracts may get sponsorship from future employers. Also, many law schools offer part-time courses, so you can combine study with paid work.

Dates

  • Key LNAT dates for 2013/14
  • Do not sit the LNAT before the summer holiday as your result will not be carried forward
  • LNAT registration begins 1 August 2013
  • Ucas applications can be submitted from mid-September 2013
  • LNAT test sittings from 1 September 2013

Deadlines if you are applying to Oxford

  • Register and book an LNAT test slot by 5 October 2013
  • Submit Ucas form by 15 October 2013
  • Sit the LNAT by 20 October 2013 at the latest

Deadlines for applications to other LNAT universities

  • Register and book an LNAT test slot by 15 January 2014
  • Submit Ucas form by 15 January 2014
  • Sit the LNAT by 20 January 2014 (the deadline for King’s College London is 15 January 2014)

Factors to consider when choosing a university

  • Reputation of the university and course
  • Entrance criteria
  • Course length and content
  • Fees (remember not all universities charge £9,000)
  • Location: city or campus?
  • Size
  • Facilities available
  • Number of contact hours with tutors
  • Quality of careers service
  • Student satisfaction
  • Employability statistics
  • Social life
  • Is there guaranteed first-year accommodation?
  • Living costs, including rent
  • Availability of financial assistance

Glossary

Russell Group – A group of 24 leading universities. The top commercial firms hire very heavily from graduates of these universities.

Pro bono – Means ‘for the public good’. Work undertaken for free by lawyers for individuals or organisations that cannot afford to pay.