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 lawcareers.net – 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 ilex.org.uk 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."

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