Law's back door

So you've watched Ally McBeal and you too want to share a piece of the action, strutting around in short skirts and getting all emotional in court.

If that sounds like you, then put The Lawyer down and pick up a copy of The Beano – this career is not for you.

However, if you are bright, hardworking with an ability to learn often stultifyingly dull reams of case law, and you are determined to succeed, then read on.

If you are already doing a law degree then you will already know about the case law bit. Law libraries all over the country are full of students "just having a quick doze" over a copy of the All England Law Reports.

And if you law undergraduates have ever felt smug at the thought that because you were spending more time in the library than your peers who are doing less-intensive degrees, you would eventually come out on top, then you are wrong.

For those who have not done a law degree, there is an alternative way to qualify: by doing a one-year post-graduate conversion course, called the Common Professional Examination (CPE) and a post-graduate law diploma. (Those who have not taken all the required components of their law degree (ie contract, tort, criminal law, equity and trusts, property law and public law) will also need to take the CPE.) This precedes the Legal Practice Course (LPC), which both law and non-law graduates have to take before starting their training programmes at a law firm.

And, according to a quick snapshot of the top law firms, this is by no means the poor man's relation to doing an undergraduate law degree.

Clifford Chance, for example, the world's biggest law firm, aims to recruit 50 per cent of its trainees from a non-law background, while Allen & Overy takes around 40 per cent without a law degree. Slaughter and May, too, has traditionally favoured those with another string to their bow.

Wragge & Co, a Birmingham powerhouse, aims for around 30-40 per cent, and for national firms Eversheds and Hammond Suddards Edge it is about 33 per cent. Alison Archer, head of graduate recruitment at Hammonds, says that the percentage of non-law graduate trainees is in proportion to those who apply. So while those who travel the CPE route are in the minority, if these law firms chose to do so, they could fill their trainee vacancies from the ranks of those with law degrees. At Nottingham Law School, there are only 150 students doing the CPE and 500 on the LPC.

One of the obvious disadvantages of not doing a law degree and then going on to qualify as a solicitor is that it is going to take you longer and cost you more. The CPE takes one year and fees will cost around £5,000 followed by around £8,000 for the year-long LPC, which covers all the core subjects listed above and is quite academic.

Peter Jones, the dean at Nottingham Law School, says that although he would not say that one route is better than the other, he can see many advantages in doing the CPE. "It's quite interesting when you look at students who've done another discipline," he says. "There are certain disciplines that do put students in the right mindset to do good practice as a lawyer. For example, the research and analytical skills that practical scientists and certain historians have are the sort of skills that marry very well with good practice as a lawyer."

In addition, says Jones, there are some degrees that can provide useful knowledge for certain disciplines in law, such as biosciences, which is a growing area of practice.

One final benefit that the CPE students hold is that by the time they come to study the law they are that bit older. "It's amazing what a difference that [year] can make in terms of coming to relatively new ways of thinking a bit later in life," says Jones.

Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, argues that law firms can gain a more motivated lawyer if they select from the ranks of non-law graduates. He says: "You then get someone at 22 or so making a conscious decision to go into law. We've just finished discussions with [US firm] White & Case on the subject and they agreed."

Savage believes that law is increasingly becoming a post-graduate discipline, as it is in the US, where undergraduates are choosing to study a subject that they enjoy before switching to law.

Jones argues that the current format of most law degrees does not help the law graduate coming to the LPC with, for example, contract law, which is at the heart of commercial law and is often taught in the first year and not revisited.

Another factor that has been thrown into the equation for every wannabe lawyer is the recent introduction of the so-called City LPC, which includes courses sponsored by the top eight UK law firms which are designed to fit the requirements of the City lawyer.

Nottingham Law School, BPP and Oxford Law School have won a tender from the consortium of eight to develop these special courses.

In Nottingham, students will all follow the same programme until they reach the second semester, when those on the City LPC will take three corporate electives, while their peers who are not heading for a City firm will choose other options.

The College of Law, which has branches in London, Birmingham, Chester, York and Guildford, is launching a rival scheme which, if the student chooses, can be totally geared towards the commercial firms.

The course planner Barry Dean explains that the college has decided to tailor the whole course in that way to fit in with the economics of the legal training market. He says: "As we explain to students who want to practise in, say, family law, most of the training contracts are concentrated in the bigger firms. There's enough fallout from the larger firms [to allow smaller firms to recruit only qualified lawyers]. So if you're looking for a training contract, you're looking at the larger firms, which tend to be commercial. So even if you want to be a family lawyer, you're going to have to impress them and so you need to get to grips with commercial issues."

So if you are a law undergraduate, you will have to accept that the housemate who seems to do half the amount of work that you do and loves their course may stand a better chance of getting your dream job in the City.