Undertaking the university challenge

There's a maze of options available if you want to be a lawyer, but all involve both academic and vocational training, says Graham Virgo

People study law for a variety of reasons. For some it's because they want to join the legal profession. For others, it might be of relevance to another area, whether it's politics, local government or business. For yet more, it is because they want to study law as an academic discipline in its own right, and for many it is for a mixture of these reasons.

Once you have decided that you would like to become a lawyer, you are faced with a maze of options. Whichever you decide, your education will fall into two parts. The first is academic, the second is vocational.

The academic stage

Many people decide to satisfy the academic stage by studying law at university. All courses have a common component that involves the seven foundation subjects. These areas have been designated as essential for anybody who wishes to become either a solicitor or barrister. They are: criminal law; the law of tort (which involves the law of wrongdoing for which remedies are available, such as negligence, trespass and defamation); the law of contract; land law; constitutional law; the law of trusts, or equity; and the law of the European Union.

In addition, reading for a law degree will enable you to study a wide range of optional subjects, depending on your interests and what is on offer. So, for example, you can study commercial subjects, such as company law and consumer law; international law; legal history; or jurisprudence (the philosophy of law).

You might also be able to mix your study of legal subjects with others, some of which are particularly relevant to law and legal practice: economics, philosophy or sociology, for example. Another option is to study law with a foreign language, which will often enable you to go to another country and study law there. This option is especially useful if you wish to practise law both in England and in a foreign country. You can decide to read law at university regardless of the type of subjects you have studied at school. For most universities, the study of law itself at school is not a prerequisite.

It's worth noting that some universities now require applicants to take the Law National Admissions Test (LNAT); an online test of comprehension, reasoning and analysis (see Alternatively, you might want to study another subject at university. If you do, you can convert to law by taking the Common Professional Examination (CPE). This one-year course involves study of the seven foundation subjects. The course is intense, but is an acceptable route. Of course, this option entails additional financial implications; however, it is sometimes possible to obtain funding from a firm of solicitors or one of the Inns of Court. It is also possible to study law at the postgraduate level. This can involve taking a Master's degree (often known as the LLM), which typically involves courses at a more advanced level than as an undergraduate. It is also possible to pursue research in law and obtain a doctorate, possibly with a view to becoming an academic who teaches and researches law.

The vocational stage

Once you have obtained a law degree or passed the CPE, you then enter the second stage of your legal education. It is worth emphasising, however, that not everybody who has studied law will join the legal profession. People who have studied law go into all sorts of jobs, including accountancy, politics or even acting. But if you do wish to become a practising lawyer you will need to decide whether to become a solicitor or a barrister; it is worth undertaking some work experience while you are at university to help make up your mind. Many solicitor's firms operate vacation placements, which enable you to see what the work of a solicitor is like. Barristers' chambers often run mini-pupillage schemes, which likewise provide a flavour of their work.

If you wish to become a solicitor, you need to spend a year at law school doing the Legal Practice Course (LPC) before taking a two-year training contract at a firm of solicitors. Many students arrange their training contract before going to law school, and often their firm will pay the costs. If you want to become a barrister, you will need to complete the one-year Bar Vocational Course (BVC). You will then do a one year pupillage at Chambers with a view to obtaining a tenancy, which means that you can then practice as a barrister. Bar School is not cheap, but each of the four Inns of Court offer a number of generous, though competitive, scholarships to cover costs. Chambers will make awards for the pupillage year and some of these awards are very substantial.

Making choices

Many decisions need to be made if you wish to become a lawyer, not least whether you should opt for a law degree or take the conversion route. You should think whether there is a subject other than law that you might wish to study. If so, take it, but also consider the study of law as a demanding academic subject in its own right. When you study law, you are not simply concerned with what the law is; you are expected to analyse and criticise. This involves thinking about the underpinnings of the law, which include issues of social policy, economics, politics, philosophy and ethics. Ultimately, legal education is concerned with the training of students to think like lawyers.

Graham Virgo is a reader in English law and the access officer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge

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