It's never too late to turn a passion for justice into a satisfying career

With a broad field of specialisms and fairly secure employment, a career in law is an attractive and challenging option for postgrads

"I worked in the publishing and bookselling sector before converting to law, dealing with suppliers and customers from all over the world," says Simon Portman. "This gives me an insight into the priorities and problems of doing business internationally; it means I can relate to clients more."

Like many of his colleagues in the legal profession, Portman, managing associate at Cambridge law firm Marks & Clerk, didn't begin his academic or professional career in law. Instead, he came to it through postgraduate study, a move that he believes has helped his working life. "Someone who has studied a degree in another area and even worked in another field before converting to law tends to have a wider perspective," he argues, "which can lead to a more creative and lateral approach to legal problems."

Law offers many different pathways for postgraduate study. Those like Portman who want a change of career can do so in several ways and there are also options for Masters level study for those already working in the profession, or in related fields such as business or finance, who want to augment their current skills with a little legal knowhow.

For postgraduate lawyers-to-be, whether they come straight from a first degree or an existing career, the common route is to sign up for the graduate diploma in law (GDL). The one year full-time course (or two years part-time) is taught at law colleges and universities all over England – see – and gives students a grounding in law before they move on to the legal practice course (LPC) taken by all solicitors. Barristers take the Bar Professional Training Course.

"The full-time GDL course is incredibly detailed, it's English law in a year," explains Angela Smith from the College of Law. "It's the building blocks of what you need to know about the law." The course is thorough, and Smith warns prospective students that the experience can be intimidating at first. "I do get the impression that students who come from subjects where there isn't a great deal of contact time are quite shocked by the actual physical work they have to do; it's intense and people need to be prepared for that."

However, students won't be tackling the sum of all English law on their own. Courses are generally very focused on group work, with lots of contact time and practical workshops, according to Smith. "You're given a question and you have to work it out. It does reflect the professional environment to a degree: you'll often work with your colleagues to arrive at an answer."

Within the academic environment, those "colleagues" will be classmates from a range of backgrounds, adds Sarah Gale, deputy course director of the graduate diploma at the City Law School, City University London. "While many are graduates, some have worked in the City or have been academics in other disciplines. We also have doctors, engineers, surveyors or vets who are seeking a career change." The result tends to be more dedicated students, she says. "If you've given up a career to return to education, your level of focus is extremely high."

The GDL qualification isn't the only postgraduate option for those switching to law. It's also possible to become a legal executive – a lawyer specialising in a particular area of law – by following a training course provided by the Institute of Legal Executives in one of more than 90 accredited colleges (see for more information). Candidates with no legal training usually qualify by studying part time while completing five years of qualifying employment in a legal trade, such as legal secretary or paralegal work. This lets you gain experience and earn a salary while training.

There are also plenty of Masters-level postgraduate courses in law available, which students can take either pre- or post-qualification as a lawyer, or simply to broaden their professional expertise. "Students might be interested in postgraduate law studies to broaden their knowledge, or to differentiate themselves in the market," says Dr Tony Harvey, head of postgraduate legal studies at Liverpool John Moores University. "A Masters can be a complementary programme for those who are exposed to the law as part of their regular employment."

The university offers a Master of laws (LLM) qualification in international business corporate and finance law and a Masters in criminal justice, as well as an LLM in legal practice. The latter allows those with an existing LPC qualification to top up to a Masters award following a dissertation in their chosen area of law. The others follow a similar programme of seminars, lectures and written assessments.

Whether students use their qualifications to help a current career or switch to a new one, Harvey – who chairs a recruitment panel for a law firm– believes that those extra letters after their names will make them interesting to any prospective employer. "An LLM is something that employers value. I think it rounds people off as candidates and gives them a wider reach."

The benefit of additional study is the depth of knowledge it provides, demanding considered, in depth legal analysis, says Harvey. "You're equipped with higher level research skills in a practical context, so it helps develop your legal skillset. That helps develop both employability and personal confidence, I think, and that's important."

It can certainly be appealing to law firms looking to get the right balance of staff, says Peter Bennett, partnership executive officer of charity law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite. "Having lawyers with qualifications in different disciplines or first-hand experience of working in other sectors brings diversity and makes for a much more interesting working environment. This benefits us as an employer, as well as professional advisers to our clients."

He also agrees with Portman's original assessment that coming to law either from a previous career or academic discipline adds a different element to their legal practice. "They're able to draw on additional valuable insights beyond the law. This brings another dimension to their roles and the solutions they offer clients."

For postgraduates looking to enhance their professional skills, a little law can go a long way. And for those looking to change careers or pursue law after their undergraduate studies, Smith believes that those extra experiences all count.

"I always tell students that any life experience can help. It doesn't matter that you didn't start law when you were 18; if you've come to it later you bring a more mature perspective," she says.

Finally, Smith adds, with the number of training contracts on the rise the profession isn't going anywhere despite the current economic perils. "Law is still quite a secure profession. We're always going to need lawyers, and it's also a very rewarding career for people to go into."

'Getting used to learning again was a challenge'

Steve Marriott studied politics and history at university, then worked for a large insurance company for 11 years before deciding to retrain as a lawyer at the College of Law. He's due to qualify as a solicitor shortly.

"I'd always had a legal career in the back of my mind. I thought about it after my first degree, then found that my job prompted further interest: I dealt with the legal team a lot and found the legal aspects of the role appealing, and I think that's partly what caused me to take the plunge and retrain as a lawyer.

"Taking the decision to leave and retrain was a very daunting prospect, and not just academically. I was 34, so one of my biggest concerns was how I was going to fit in with the other people doing the GDL – I was aware that many of them would be straight out of university or in their early twenties. But actually it was fine and I got on well with everybody.

"The academic side of the GDL was probably the most intense thing I've ever done! It took me a while to get back into the studying groove again, I had to relearn how to study. But I was bursting with enthusiasm and thoroughly enjoyed it, I never tired of it and it was a really enjoyable year.

"I think having worked for a few years helped because you know how to apply yourself, be disciplined and deal with people. I approached it like a job – I'd go in for the morning classes and then do study and preparation work in the afternoon and evening for the next morning. I think that was helpful in terms of getting through it all, so there wasn't a mad panic at the end of everything.

"Getting used to learning again was a challenge, but the college was good at steering me through. It's about time management and packing everything in, while having a social life as well. I'm excited about qualifying – I'm looking forward to having more responsibility and working independently – and I'm pleased I made this move, I wouldn't do anything differently."

Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Shami Chakrabarti
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Nursery Nurse

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Leeds: Nursery Nurse Leeds November start...

EBD LSA required - Vale of Glamorgan

£60 - £65 per day + plus free travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The J...

EBD Teacher - Food Technology Specialist

£100 - £181 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: The JobTo plan and deliver all ...

Learning Support Assistant

£50 - £60 per day + plus free travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The J...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker