Law is one of the most traditionally vocational subjects you can study at university. It’s just assumed that most law students will want to become lawyers and most lawyers must have studied the subject but this less and less the case.
Half of trainee solicitors now arrive at a legal career having studied another subject at university and then complete a conversion course to become a qualified barrister or solicitor. So how did a law degree become an optional requirement for becoming a lawyer?
Firstly the law conversion course, known as the GDL, became far quicker and easier to do. Most importantly law firms realised that they would hire a greater proportion of the best talent if they opened up their recruitment process to non-law graduates.
There are a number of differences between the two routes. Studying law is the quicker way to a legal career. To put it simply, completing a conversion course takes up more of your time, while navigating the fairly complicated field of vacation scheme and training contract applications is arguably easier to do from a law degree. You’ll be more directly recruited and will likely find the application process less confusing.
Professor Graham Virgo of Cambridge University believes that "there are all sorts of advantages and benefits" to studying law at university "regardless of what you want to do".
"When you study law you acquire legal knowledge but that’s only a very small part of what academic study of Law actually involves," he says "What you’re actually doing is learning to think like a lawyer."
The concept of "thinking like a lawyer" is one of the central tenets of a law degree. If "thinking like a lawyer" is the ultimate purpose of studying law then it seems unlikely that a year of studying a law conversion course will give the same level of skill as three will achieve.
Margarita Sweeney, a former admissions tutor and law lecturer at King’s College London says: "The analytical ability that a law degree develops is what really sets a law student apart from students of other subjects. Recognising relevance and getting to the root of a problem quickly can’t be taught in a year. Those skills develop over time."
Study vs practice
Studying law and practicing law are two very different things however. A law degree encompasses a wide range of subjects. Criminal law, legal philosophy, constitutional law, family law and a whole host of other weird and wonderful legal options are available to the undergraduate law student.
William Thong, an undergraduate at Cambridge says his course has taught him far more than a conversion ever could.
"Simply put, the best, most interesting bits of the law are those elements you’ll never be required to know to pass the GDL," he says.
A practicing lawyer has a very different perspective to a student, however. A lawyer will either be a barrister or a solicitor and within that will specialize in a select number of practice areas. Many of the subjects studied by undergraduate lawyers are only really useful for academic purposes. Legal philosophy, also known as jurisprudence, will inform a person’s understanding of law but is it necessary to practice successfully as a lawyer? Absolutely not.
The enjoyment of your degree is also an important factor in which route to take to a legal career. Applicants from non-law backgrounds are not disadvantaged in the recruitment process so studying your favourite subject and then doing the bare minimum of toughgoing legal training could be the best option.
Imogen, a second year history undergraduate wants to go into law, but loved history too much to ditch it.
"When I was told that there was no need to study law at university in order to become a lawyer, I decided to study history," she says. "This summer, I participated in several vacation schemes, and felt at no disadvantage to my peers studying law."
Ultimately a good degree that gives you relevant skills and a commitment to a legal career are the requirements to become a successful lawyer. Law firms rightly don’t discount anyone because they’ve chosen to study a different subject and there are also skills which will be only be developed over a number of years of study.
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