Degrees of change: making the conversion to law

It might mean you spend an extra year completing the GDL, but taking a non-law degree in no way hinders your career prospects – in fact, it could help them

Making the transition from a non-law degree to a legal career is increasingly common. At most law firms, 50 per cent of trainees are non-law graduates and it is a similar story at the bar. Despite this, entering a complex and rapidly changing legal market from a non-law background can be daunting.

Lawyer 2B spoke to students, trainees, barristers and recruiters to find out why they made their career decisions and how to pursue a legal career as a non-law student.

Why did you study a non-law subject rather than law?

Joe England, barrister, 3 Paper Buildings: I studied English literature at the University of Warwick and graduated in 2008. Before university, I didn’t know for sure that I wanted to go into law.

Joe England
Joe England

When I first looked at universities I did think about studying law. But during that process I discovered this magical thing called the GDL, so I weighed it up and spoke to people who had studied law and people who had studied English, and everyone I spoke to who had studied English at university said they loved it, and no one who I spoke to who had studied law said they loved it. Most people said they liked it, but most also saw it as a means to an end.

I was particularly enjoying my English studies at the time and thought that for three years I would rather do something that I loved than a means to an end. Obviously I thought about how my degree would enable me to go into law, and thought that the skills I would gain matched up.

Edward Bray, trainee, Bristows: I studied at Bristol and did a four-year masters degree in physics. I graduated in 2011, then did the GDL and LPC, and started at Bristows this year.

I didn’t really consider being a lawyer until my final year. Until that point I wanted to be a physicist and go on to do a PhD and move into academia. Then in my fourth year I had to do a dissertation – I did it on the area of physics I found really interesting, which was laser physics. All of the work that you do is in a blacked-out room, as all of the measuring equipment you have is sensitive to light. Any stray photons play havoc with experiments. So during my final year I had an eight or nine-week project over the winter, coming in during dark mornings, spending the day in pitch black, and leaving after dark.

I quickly realised that if I did go into academia, that is what it would be like. So I looked at what else was out there and got the training contract in my final year of university.

Deborah Nicholls, trainee, Withers: I went to the University of Manchester and graduated in 2008. I decided to study art history. I have always been a big believer in the idea that you should follow the things you are passionate about while studying and then the career side of things will open up at the right time. I wasn’t thinking too long-term about career options at that stage, but I didn’t want to be one of those people who falls out of university, falls into a job and ends up staying there for 10 years for no particular reason.

Before going into law, I did want to be an artist or work in the arts. My main sticking point was that going into an art history-based job was even more competitive than law. I felt that both of those careers were more about who you know than what you know and I felt that law, despite the negative views that people sometimes have of it, is a merit-based system. It was a less risky option and one that could be very satisfying.

Are you a non-law student thinking of converting to law? Sign up for Lawyer 2B’s careers event, Law for Non-Law on 16 January 2014. The evening at the University of Law’s Moorgate campus will include useful presentations, workshops and the opportunity to network with law firms.

How did you get relevant work experience?

England: In the summer between my first and second year of university I did a placement at a criminal firm in East London, and that was very good. I was essentially sent along as a paralegal to court to take notes, and met a lot of barristers at criminal set 25 Bedford Row.

I got along with one of them particularly well because I was on a trial with him for two days. He then offered me a mini-pupillage, so I then had two things on my CV and could apply for more. Many of my work placements came through meeting people on other placements. I’d make sure I spoke to as many people as possible at court, for example.

Josh Boyden, GDL student, Kaplan Law School: I studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh. I did an informal shadowing of a barrister at home in Bristol. That was extremely useful because when I started out I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go to the bar or be a solicitor, so spreading your bets at an early stage is good idea.

Then I did a vacation scheme with Bird & Bird. That was great because it confirmed I wanted to focus on corporate and commercial work.

Deborah Nicholls
Deborah Nicholls

Nicholls: I knew nothing about law and I don’t have any family connections, but my university had a mentoring scheme which was really helpful. I was paired with a partner at Cobbetts who is now at Hill Dickinson, and he spent hours talking to me about law and what it is like working in a commercial firm.

He did his training contract down in London and was able to give me a perspective on that, which gave me a real insight. We used to have meetings in his office just so I could get a feel of what a law firm is actually like.

I did a vacation scheme at Cobbetts, which opened up the doors to more things. I got some practical experience by volunteering at the Citizens Advice Bureau at Longsight in Manchester, which is a particularly rough area. They had queues going out of the door and I tried to do one full day a week there during my final year. That was the final push I needed to know that I wanted to do law. I would go in and advise people and I’d come out walking on air.

How did you find the Graduate Diploma in Law?

England: The GDL was a tough year. But I would not say the course itself was particularly difficult but more the amount of time needed for extra-curricular activities that were necessary in order to build up one’s CV alongside the course.

The GDL year is the first time a non-law student can apply for pupillage, so I spent a lot of time mooting, volunteering, completing mini pupillages and writing application forms. The GDL requires mainly rote learning, which suited me although it was very different to my English Literature degree. There were no other prospective barristers in my class which meant little ability to compare notes and some of my classmates were not even sure they wanted to go into law at all, meaning I had to be very self-motivated and focused.

It was a useful precursor to the BPTC because it gave a good overview of topics and many were fresh in my mind, in contrast to some LLB students on the BPTC who may have studied the same topic on their degree a few years ago.

Bray:I found the GDL relatively straightforward. Coming from a physics background where the types of questions you get also have a structured approach meant prepping for the tutorials and revising for the exams wasn’t hard.

Boyden:I’m finding the GDL interesting and challenging, but there’s no shying away from the fact that it’s hard work! Coming from a non-law background I’m finding that I’m having to change the way I write quite dramatically. Being concise and clear is much more important than elaborating on a point and fleshing out an essay, for example. That being said, the analytical and critical thinking skills a humanities subject teaches you come in really useful.

Was it a challenge to convince recruiters you wanted to do law?

Boyden: No, quite the opposite – people can see your enthusiasm for your degree. And if you can demonstrate it is transferable to law then it is actually really beneficial. I know from speaking to friends that law degrees can be very dry and it can be quite difficult to become genuinely enthused about the prospect of, say, land law. But if you are doing something you are passionate about, that comes across and renders you a more interesting candidate.

I think firms are really happy to accommodate non-lawyers. I don’t think people realise that when they start out. On the intake of my Bird & Bird vacation scheme, the non-law graduates outnumbered the lawyers.

It is about making a measured application and using your degree to your advantage. In outlining your skills and elaborating on those, you can make a really strong application. You’re not making excuses for your subject, you’re using it to your advantage.

Edward Bray
Edward Bray

Bray: At Bristows there are a lot of people from non-law backgrounds and the people who interviewed me understood where I was coming from.

England: It was a challenge sometimes. I applied for a few mini-pupillages and was told that because I wasn’t a law student I would have to wait another year. That was often frustrating.

Nicholls: When it came to Withers, I got pressed quite hard in my interview to answer why I wanted to do law. My interviewer kept coming back to why I wanted to do law, saying that he wasn’t quite satisfied with my answer. But I think that instead of actually doubting my commitment, he was seeing how I performed under pressure. I had a grilling on it but it hasn’t stopped me.

In law firms, skills are very important – more important than qualifications – and I gained analytical skills and the ability to research properly and argue coherently as part of my degree. It was the best thing for me. And because I felt like it might be a bit of a challenge going from art history to law, it meant I put in more effort.

What effect has your degree choice had on your legal career?

Bray: I am in my first seat, in IP litigation. A lot of what Bristows does is patent litigation, so having a science background does help. Obviously I have only had one seat but at the moment I would like to go into a department like IP, which fuses my degree and law.

It is really fun and really varied, especially in litigation as you have to interview a lot of experts and try to work out the science behind your case.

Those will be the top scientists in their fields and you will have day-long interviews chatting to these world-renowned scientists and getting to understand information too. In IP litigation you get to stay involved in the scientific world, learning all the time.

Nicholls: When I first started looking into law and looking for a training contract, I considered specialising in arts law and hooked on to that because I felt like it was a way in for me. But now I have started my training contract I can see other areas of law that interest me – areas that aren’t so specialised.

It would be great if I could have arts law as an add-on to my career, but I don’t think it is the be-all and end-all for me any more. As your career progresses, your ambitions change.

Sponsor’s comment: Gemma Baker, head of careers and pro bono, Kaplan Law School 

Gemma Baker

The contributors are absolutely right to stress that the legal profession loves non-law graduates: some of its most successful figures started out as students of other disciplines. Lord Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court, was a chemistry graduate who worked briefly in financial services before becoming a barrister and then the most senior member of the judiciary.

Of course, his success is exceptional. Most students converting to law are concerned primarily with finding a training position that sets them on the right path.

Among the students interviewed here, there are those whose direction was influenced by what they had studied at undergraduate level and those who have kept an entirely open mind as to what to pursue. Edward Bray, the Bristows trainee, tells a familiar story. His physics degree has equipped him with an approach to problems that directly benefits his work in the IP litigation team. His story illustrates how a student can, to use Edward’s own words, fuse a first degree and law.

Joe, Deborah and Josh will not necessarily have impressed recruiters with what they know but rather how they think, analyse and write. For them, the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) exists to provide them with the fundamentals of English law, and as Josh emphasises, to teach students to tackle problems in a particular way.

Work experience helped each of these students find their direction. Indeed, Josh investigated each branch of the profession before deciding that commercial practice as a solicitor would suit him best.

I cannot recommend work experience highly enough – on the one hand it will clarify your ideas about what lawyers do and just how varied the profession is, on the other it will add real credibility to your applications for vacation schemes, training contracts, mini pupillages and pupillages.

I do worry about the GDL applicants who have never stepped inside a law firm or barristers’ chambers because they simply have not made an informed decision about their future career and they can rarely articulate why they want to be a lawyer. Candidates must be able to express their choices credibly – reasoning based on experience is more convincing than just paper-based research. The GDL is a demanding course that requires a high level of commitment so you need to be entirely certain of your decision to pursue it.

I have some top tips for anyone thinking about a GDL:

  • Read ‘Is Law for You?’ by Christopher Stoakes. It is an excellent book.
  • Join your university’s law society and/or
  • Take part in mooting and/or debating, particularly if you’re aiming for the bar.
  • Attend careers events hosted by legal employers, both at their offices and at your university. Often, all you need to do is sign up. They will all be useful.
  • Attend law school open days and ask questions.
  • Make an appointment with your careers service.