Law at university: to degree or not to degree?


A career in the law is prestigious and carries an enviable salary once you have completed training. Legal careers can include a wide variety of roles, from paralegals to judges, to ushers and researchers.

The most popular and well-known roles in the legal world are as a solicitor or a barrister. There are two direct and widely-accepted paths into a career as a solicitor – one involves doing a three-year law degree and then a Legal Practice Course (LPC), and the other involves doing a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and then an LPC. For a career as a barrister, it’s the same process, but instead of an LPC, you’re expected to do a Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).

Statistics published in the Law Society’s Annual Statistical Report last year showed that just under three quarters (74.9 per cent) of those taking the direct route into the roll of solicitors were law graduates. The other 25.1 per cent were non-law graduates that had passed the GDL or other form of postgraduate law diploma.

So what’s the difference between the two paths and which one is for you?

The law degree route

Aathmika Kularatnam, 22, is a Trainee Solicitor at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP. Aathmika studied a law degree at University College London and graduated last year.

“I chose to study law after secondary school because I felt that it would be an interesting and academically challenging subject. I enjoyed debating and examining issues from different perspectives and felt that studying law would help me develop my analytical ability.

I initially intended to study either economics or business prior to pursuing a law degree. However, I decided to move to London to study law immediately after secondary school because I felt that studying law would provide the most direct route towards the pursuit of a legal career, potentially freeing up time for other opportunities (such as travel and work experience) in the process. 

At UCL, I had the opportunity to study a variety of legal subjects, determine which legal areas I was interested in and begin to develop the knowledge required to practice law as a solicitor. It was also enjoyable to study with others also interested in legal issues and the legal profession and to participate in law-related activities such as negotiation and client-interviewing competitions and mooting.

Firms are interested in employing students from both law and non-law backgrounds. The big questions in all of the interviews I attended were, firstly, why I wanted to pursue a career in commercial law and, secondly, whether I had the skills required of a successful trainee (such as attention to detail, co-operation and organisational ability).

I would recommend a law degree to those who are interested in law as an academic subject because not only did I develop my knowledge of the law but also a variety of transferable skills which are useful in any profession.”

The non-law degree route

Patrick Osgood, 30, started a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) in 2003 on a part-time basis, and then did a Legal Practice Course (LPC) in 2005. His first degree was in English and American Literature at Warwick University, and he is now an oil and gas journalist based in Dubai.

“I received three excellent pieces of advice. The first was to study what interested me at university. The second, from a lawyer, was that the law degree is dull. The third, from a Legal 100 recruiter, is that most firms and chambers don't care whether you've studied law, but whether you can be a lawyer.

The benefit that I saw of doing a straight law degree as opposed to the GDL route, was being surrounded by others with the same ambition, good links to potential employers, careers advice and fairs, and the like. You can also have a moan about filling in endless applications and the iniquities of trying to hold a glass and a vol-au-vent while shaking a partner's hand and being confident, without losing friends.

The downside is you'll be studying law. Law degrees are factory courses with large groups and little time to stop and think. Studying law is not practising it.”

Changing career

Even if you decide law isn’t for you, as Patrick did, studying any law qualification places you in a great position, whichever career you decide to go into. Patrick says his law training was a great start in a different career: “A legal background probably made the difference between needing to go to journalism school or not. The most valuable part of my training was working with some fantastic professional role models. I also learned important skills - organisation, analysis, cogent expression - that will always be useful.”

Advice for prospective law students

Having studied law to different extents, they both offer up some advice for potential law students. Patrick says:

  • Read the financial press every day, starting now.
  • Appreciate that being a solicitor is a service job and a desk job.
  • Have fun and pursue your interests, because that's what partners, recruiters and clients will ask you about.
  • Doing postgraduate courses before you have a training contract is money wasted.

Aathmika says:

  • Participate in as many presentations and law fairs as possible in order to meet different employers and determine whether a career in law is a good fit for you.
  • Make the most of your university experience and participate in extra-curricular activities because employers are always interested in your personality.
  • Try to gain legal and commercial work experience (for example, by applying to mini-pupillages and/or vacation schemes). Though the application process can seem daunting, making applications and attending interviews will allow you to learn more about the profession and different employment opportunities.
  • Getting good marks doesn’t hurt either!
  • Get to the point
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