Student late-comers court a range of career options with a legal degree

Waiting to study the law until after completing a first degree is a popular and viable option and does not put postgraduate students at a disadvantage in the lecture hall or in the marketplace

Studying law can appeal to postgraduates for many different reasons. It may be a way of bolstering existing legal qualifications, satisfying academic curiosity or even helping with a change of career path. Whatever the reason, prospective students have plenty of options and there are courses, and institutions, to help reach all manner of legal ambitions.

Perhaps the most well-trodden path to a postgraduate qualification is the one walked by those converting to law. Some sources estimate the intake of trainee lawyers into firms is split fifty-fifty between those who studied law at undergraduate level and those who qualified via the postgraduate route.

To convert to law, students first take the graduate diploma in law (GDL), an intense course that effectively condenses the three-year law degree (LLB) into a single year if studied full-time. Then, all prospective lawyers take either the legal practice course, if they're training to be solicitors, or the bar professional training course (BPTC) for those wishing to be barristers.

The GDL (and LPC/BPTC) is taught at institutions up and down the country, at universities such as London Metropolitan, Birmingham and Liverpool John Moores. There are also dedicated law schools and colleges, including BPP Law School (with Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, London and Manchester locations) and the College of Law (Birmingham, Bristol, Chester, Guildford, London and York). Full-time and part-time study options are available, depending on the institution, and distance learning may be possible. See www.lawcareers.net for a list of colleges and universities.

Although the GDL has an academic bias, it's still focused on the realities of working as a lawyer. "Students are taught using scenarios which ask them to look beyond a purely legal solution," says Angela Smith, careers manager at the College of Law, York. "Being able to think and act like a lawyer in practice is integral to the college's approach." Face-to-face tuition and workshops form the backbone of the teaching setup, she adds, as well as interactive learning tutorials that let students revisit topics after class.

Having completed the diploma, candidates begin their practical training in law in the form of the LPC or BPTC. Following this, solicitors will spend two years training in a law firm, while barristers will undertake pupillage, which Smith likens to a legal apprenticeship, within a set of chambers. Once fully qualified, solicitors may work for high-street or commercial law firms, as in-house lawyers for large corporations or charities, or even within government. Barristers may also be employed by similar organisations, but about 80 per cent go on to work in chambers.

Those with an existing undergraduate degree who wish to practice law, but find the idea of a second degree appealing instead of taking the GDL, could consider a senior status law degree (LLB Senior Status), which is offered at Cardiff University, Newcastle University and Queen Mary Law School, among others. Nothing to do with how close you are to retirement age, it is shorter than the standard LLB (two years full-time instead of three) but is still regarded as a qualifying law degree by the Solicitors Regulation Authority; see sra.org.uk for a full list of qualifying law degree providers in England and Wales. Graduates can then go on to take the LPC or BPTC to qualify as a lawyer.

If students want to pursue an academic law course at postgraduate level, they can also study for a master's qualification (LLM) in a range of subjects, from human rights to international business law. Ann Stewart, associate professor at the University of Warwick's School of Law, says: "LLMs enhance career prospects by providing evidence of more specialist knowledge and more developed transferable skills such as abilities in relation to group work, presentation, critical analysis, independent research and sustained research-led writing." The school offers an LLM in advanced legal studies and students join from both undergraduate courses and existing employment. Other institutions offering postgraduate programmes include King's College London and the University of Manchester.

Although taking the GDL followed by the LPC/BPTC may be the best-known postgraduate route to becoming a lawyer, it's not the only option. An alternative path, recognised by the Ministry of Justice, is to become a legal executive: a qualified lawyer who specialises in a particular area of law instead of covering a broad range of disciplines as a solicitor does. It is still possible for legal executives to qualify as solicitors; you can contact the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX) for information or see www.ilex.org.uk. ILEX trains legal executives at some 90 accredited colleges throughout the country.

Candidates with no previous legal training study for academic qualifications, usually part-time, in addition to completing five years of qualifying employment in the legal field. This might be working in a law firm as a legal secretary or paralegal, for example, supervised by a legal executive, solicitor or barrister. Students often try to carry out their studies and qualifying employment at the same time.

Law graduates might be interested in the graduate fast-track diploma offered by ILEX, a nine-month course that can act as an alternative to the LPC or BPTC. "It's designed as a flexible course to enable law graduates to start earning as soon as possible," says Paul Hutchinson, ILEX public relations and press officer.

The legal executive route allows candidates to qualify as a lawyer (but not a solicitor) without the need for the two-year training contract or pupillage, and Hutchinson argues that specialising during training doesn't limit legal executives in practice. He says: "It's incredibly rare to find [a solicitor] doing both company and partnership work, or family practice and personal injury. The fact that ILEX students specialise early is just a reflection of the legal environment."

The amount of time and money candidates spend on different postgraduate qualifications can vary hugely. What remains constant is the competition for training contracts, pupillages and jobs at the end. Smith believes students need to do as much as possible to enhance their CVs while still training. "Probably the most valuable activity a law student can do is pro bono work," she says. This unpaid legal "volunteering" ticks many boxes, she adds, showing "a commitment to practical legal activity that is useful to the community" and offering the chance to network with practising solicitors while developing professional skills.

However, as in many fields, having legal qualifications doesn't limit graduates to the law. Although law-related jobs such as clerks, legal secretaries and paralegals are all options beyond the traditional solicitor and barrister roles, many businesses are attracted to the analytical skills and commercial acumen developed by legal training. Smith cites a student who used his legal skills to work as a fire-eater, drawing up employment contracts and insurance provisions, before getting a training contract with a law firm. You might not share that particular burning ambition, but there are many legal roads for postgraduates to consider; deciding on the most appropriate path for you, and gaining some practical skills along the way, could lead to a bright career.

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