A law degree: what’s it worth?

Henderson Chambers’ Rachel Tandy writes an open letter to non-law graduates

My dear future learned friends,

One of the questions I get asked most often by mini-pupils is “I don’t have a law degree – does it matter?” I am truly baffled by how many people are concerned about the apparently enormous gulf between those who have spent three years worshipping at the altar of law and those who have only recently seen the light.

So I write this now to urge you not to panic. I can honestly tell you, dear reader, there is absolutely nothing to support the hypothesis that law students are somehow at an advantage over the late bloomers of the legal world.

Zero. Zip. Nada.

Admittedly, I am biased by virtue of the fact I was a child of the dreaded law conversion course and I turned out (just about) fine. And you do need to recognise that you are a different creature to your law-studying friends and competitors, with different strengths and weaknesses to play to.

So, if you are weighing up the toss – or simply desperate to have an appraisal of the pros and cons – here they are.

As a non-law undergraduate, you might have missed out on:

1. Getting ahead. The “do I want to be a solicitor or am I a barrister?” debate is a toughie. Law undergraduates have two and a half years in which to make that decision, ably assisted by lecturers, careers advisors, and the like. If you’re on the conversion course, you have approximately six months. The resources available to help you weigh it up are pretty limited. The good news is, publications like Lawyer 2B are a great place to start – so if you’re reading this, you’re on the right track.

2. Mini pupillages. My set takes the view that a mini pupil should at least have completed their first year of a law degree, or have started the conversion course. I think most have a similar stance. It’s as much for your benefit as it is for ours – if you don’t even have basic contract law under your belt, for example, it’s unlikely you will get anything out of sitting through a two-day consumer credit trial. But it does mean that if you have come to law from another discipline, you will have very little time to squeeze in a mini – and it will have to be during one of the busiest years of your life.

3. Networking (part one): knowing your contemporaries. Your first five years are crucial when you’re building your practice. If you can start out with a little black book full of solicitors who might want to work with you, you are already one step ahead. Law undergraduates spend more than two years longer than GDLers getting to know their classmates, so they’re likely to find it easier to hang on to those relationships after graduation. You might well find yourself needing to consciously “work the room” to try to bridge the gap.

4. Networking (part two): knowing senior barristers. Lecturers at undergraduate level (many of whom are also at the bar and still practise) seem to take a more active role in their students’ emotional and professional development than tutors on the conversion course. This is mostly, I expect, because when you’re trying to cram a three-year degree into nine months you don’t have time to stop for a cup of coffee, let alone a heavy discussion about where your career is going. But it does mean that law graduates could potentially have benefited from an extra three years’ worth of insider advice about what kinds of work, and which sets, are likely to suit them. As a non-law graduate, you would be wise to actively seek out and use all the resources at your disposal – including the extensive support offered by the Inns, which are often overlooked pre-BPTC.

5. “Obscure” law. The conversion course covers the seven core subjects (contract, tort, public law, land, equity and trusts, criminal, and European law), but there’s not much time to go into detail. My GDL notes on the law of agency, for example, amounted to about four sentences. It’s obviously a practical way to get through a large volume of material in a short space of time, but it does mean that more complex or esoteric areas are passed over. This can leave you at risk of being knocked for six by topics like the nemo dat rule or the law surrounding bills of sale. There’s no substitute for time and experience – you will eventually catch up, and it doesn’t take as long as you think – but in the meantime, the best strategy is simply to turn your geek-ometer up to max and over-prep.

Having said all of that, the strengths you are likely to be able to play to are:

1. Commercial experience. Lots of non-law graduates dabble in other careers before seeing the light, making it likely you’ll have more commercial awareness than your peers. That in turn means you might be better at looking at a legal problem in context, rather than in a vacuum or from an academic perspective. That is particularly relevant at the bar; it doesn’t matter that you can write the world’s most elegant and compelling advice on prospects, if you neglect to warn your client about, for example, how much a case might cost them.

2. Enthusiasm. You are more likely than the average law graduate to have spent your university years studying a topic you really loved. Admittedly a lot of people also love law. But equally, many might have chosen it as an undergraduate degree because they thought they had to if they wanted to be a lawyer. A lot of my non-GDL friends have since said that they wish they had broadened their horizons first and have found themselves feeling a bit jaded since. Not you, oh wise one.

3. And in the same vein: commitment. You are coming to the bar in the knowledge that you know what else is out there… and you are still sure that this is the career for you. In a world where sets invest huge amounts of time and money into their pupils, they want to see that you know what you’re getting yourself in for, and you are fully committed to the cause. Look no further, my friend.

4. Variety. Your experience and knowledge is more likely to differ from those interviewing you for pupillage (and from others they have interviewed), which instantly makes you an exciting prospect. Law graduates know how daunting it is to be talking about a paper they once wrote on vibrational white finger, only to realise the silk doing the interview literally wrote the book on it. For the avoidance of doubt, hilarity does not ensue. Instead, you instantly feel that you are either (a) horribly ignorant or (b) probably boring him / her. Either way, you wish you could stop yourself from talking. Does this happen when you, like me, instead tell a story about a paper you once wrote about the effect of the fall of communism on nomadic farming traditions in Kazakhstan? Does it heck.

5. You will have paranoia on your side. This sounds bonkers, but bear with me. If you did the GDL, you’re less likely to believe that you know the answer to a legal question off pat, and so more likely to look up every last tiny detail of your case, in order to know you are right about every inch of it. Admittedly, this probably means less sleep for you, but it also happens to mean better value for your instructing solicitor, probably more repeat instructions, and a reputation for thoroughness which will be the envy of your peers. (Unless they are thorough too, in which case they are probably too busy being thorough to be envious of you. Sorry about that).

Armed with this knowledge, dear reader, your fate is in your hands. And whichever route you choose or have chosen, may I wish you the best of luck for your studies, and for your future career. I’ll see you at the bar.