L2B Guide to a Career in Law 2009-2010
Law is one of the most demanding degrees you can study. Here we take you through the process of applying for the course and some tips on how to survive it.
If you have decided that a legal career is for you, then you should be aiming to kick off the academic stage of your training by reading law at university. That said, you do not necessarily have to study for a law degree to qualify as a solicitor or barrister.
Making the grade
Good written presentation, motivation, logical thinking and an interest in law are essential, but realistically you will also need stellar A-level results. Because of the fierce competition for places on law degrees, many of the top universities require applicants to gain a minimum of three A grades (360 Ucas points).
Traditional universities also prefer applicants who have studied academic A-levels. Studying drama, media studies or art by no means excludes you, but law schools do prefer candidates to have A-levels in traditional subjects such as English Literature, Economics or History. Contrary to popular belief, studying law at A-level is not a prerequisite for enrolling on a law degree and will not necessarily give you a head start when completing your Ucas form.
There has been extensive debate in recent times about whether A-levels have become easier, but whatever the reason more students than ever are attaining top grades, causing headaches for university admissions departments up and down the country.
To help differentiate between the large numbers of high-achieving students, those applying to Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Glasgow, Leeds, Nottingham and Oxford universities, as well as King’s College London, National University Ireland (mature students only) and University College London will be required to sit the National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT).
The LNAT, which costs £40 to sit in the UK or EU, is taken on a computer terminal and comprises two sections.
The first section (80 minutes) uses 30 multiple-choice questions to assess your ability to read, understand, analyse and make logical deductions from passages of text in formal English. The second section (40 minutes) requires you to write a well-reasoned essay in English (500-600 words) on a topic chosen from a list. The essay should be written in full sentences, not notes or bullet points. Your ability to set out your argument in plain English is one of the things that is being tested.
To find out more go to www.lnat.ac.uk.
Choosing a university
The content of law courses varies considerably. Some are very theoretical, while others are very practical, so it is worth finding out more about the course before you make a choice.
An increasing number of law faculties are holding open days and attending these can be very helpful. Also, make sure the degree you are applying for is a qualifying LLB (Bachelor of Law) degree. Some universities offer BAs (Bachelor of Arts) in law, but unlike the LLB some of these courses may not be counted as one of the steps towards qualifying as a lawyer as they do not cover all seven foundations of legal knowledge. Check the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) website (www.sra.org.uk) for a list of qualifying law degrees as well as individual university prospectuses for more details. For instance, although the University of Cambridge’s law degree is a BA, it is a qualifying law degree.
If you are sure that you want to become a solicitor at the end of your degree, find out more about the four-year exempting law degree offered by the universities of Westminster and Huddersfield. These courses combine the law degree with the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and can therefore work out cheaper than doing the two courses separately.
Alternatively, check out the University of Huddersfield, which runs a similar course. Huddersfield’s four-year course combines the LLB with a Master of Law in Practice, which also exempts students from the LPC. Nottingham Trent University, meanwhile, has launched a course that combines the LPC with a four-year sandwich degree.
Although commercial law firms make a big deal of their willingness to recruit students from any university, the fact remains that, at least for the time being, the majority of trainees still hail from traditional red-brick universities, so this is also worth taking into account when you apply.
Law degrees are applied for through Ucas in the same way as for any other undergraduate course and you can start applying from the beginning of the second year of your A-levels (applications open on 1 September). Note that if you need to complete the LNAT you will still have to apply for your university place through Ucas.
Ucas’s application process typically begins in early September for entry to university in the following academic year. Although the application process stays open for several months, it is advisable to get your forms in as early as possible.
Also, note that the deadline for applying to Oxford and Cambridge universities normally closes in mid-October. For more information on university admissions, it is worth taking a look at the Ucas website, (www.ucas.ac.uk).
A common misunderstanding among aspiring lawyers is that you have to read law at university if you want to qualify as a solicitor or barrister. The good news is that this is simply not the case. You will, however, need to do an extra year’s postgraduate study.
Provided you have a strong academic record, your lack of a law degree will not act as a disadvantage. Indeed, some firms often have around a 60:40 split of law and non-law graduates. Again, traditional subjects such as Economics and History are viewed more favourably by law firms, as well as sciences and modern languages.
Converting to law
The Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Common Professional Exam (CPE) are the academic qualifications that transform non-law graduates into potential lawyers. The SRA and Bar Council recognise both qualifications, so they are in effect the same.
Once you have completed the year-long GDL, you are on the same footing as a law graduate and will be able to embark on the LPC or Bar Vocational Course (BVC). Given that the GDL is a three-year course squeezed into a year, it is not for the faint-hearted. You will sprint through the seven foundations of legal knowledge - criminal law, equity and trusts, EU law, contract law, tort, property law and public law - and the pace is extremely demanding. Applications for the course are made through the Central Applications Board. Application forms are normally available from November, with the closing date around February. You will find there is tough competition for places and that most applicants will have at least a 2:1 from their first degree.
The course is not cheap and you should be prepared to pay more than £8,000 at some colleges, especially the London-based ones. However, as is the case with LPC students who secure training contracts, you may be able to receive sponsorship from future employers that will cover the course fees and living costs.
Breaking the bank
There is no denying that going to university will be expensive. Tuition fees for the 2009-10 academic year will be £3,225 a year. Thankfully, help is at hand. You can apply for a subsidised loan, which attracts a low rate of interest, from the Student Loans Company (SLC) to cover the cost of course fees and maintenance. This includes a tuition fee loan of up to £3,070 (2007-08 figure) to cover the course fees. You should also be eligible for a maintenance loan to pay for your living expenses. This, however, is means-tested, so your maximum entitlement will be subject to your place of residence and the year of the course.
You do not have to start repaying the loan until you have left higher education and are earning more than £15,000 per year. For more information, go to the SLC website (www.slc.co.uk).
Depending on your personal circumstances, you may also be eligible for bursaries and grants. Some universities may even offer scholarships. For more information, contact your local education authority or the universities you wish to apply to.
Assuming you can get fantastic A-level results, make mincemeat of the LNAT, dazzle law school heads with your knowledge and enthusiasm and win a coveted place at the university of your dreams, what should you expect once you get there?
Hard work, hard work and a bit more hard work. Do not be shocked if you are given a reading list as long as your arm. Although you will spend less time attending lectures and seminars than some of your peers, you will be expected to put in many more hours of independent study.
Emphasis and content will vary, but all qualifying law degree courses must teach the seven foundations of legal knowledge: criminal law; equity and trusts; EU law; contract law; tort law; property law; and public law (including constitutional law, administrative law and human rights law).
In addition, students are expected to become skilled in legal research. You will be assessed through a combination of coursework and exams.
A distinct lack of spoon-feeding is a major characteristic of all law degrees, and this can be a culture shock after life in the sixth-form. For qualifying purposes, the required pass mark is 40 per cent, regardless of the pass mark set by the university itself. And do not forget that the degree will only remain valid for seven years, after which it cannot be counted towards the qualification process.
Commercial law firms usually ask for a minimum degree class of 2:1. If you have anything less then you will need to have some pretty good extenuating circumstances to gain an interview.
Have fun and make friends in your first year, but remember that your first-year results are what law firms use to decide whether to offer you a summer work placement. So make life easier for yourself and make sure you get the grades.
Taking part in extracurricular activities is not only good fun, it also develops skills and enhances your CV. Most universities have law societies run by students. Law firms target societies at some universities, offering anything from sponsorship of the law society ball to organising visits to the firms’ offices.
You may also get the chance to take part in pro bono work (free legal advice for charities or other deserving clients), although this is still relatively limited at undergraduate level. And for those looking to practise their courtroom skills, most universities organise mooting competitions that allow students to present arguments in mock cases.
It goes without saying that any work experience you can get that demonstrates your interest in the law is valuable. That said, non-law-related work experience, including summer jobs, will also go a long way to giving your training contract application the edge.
If you are serious about carving out a career as a commercial lawyer, you should also be crafting your commercial awareness. What this means is an understanding of the business context in which law firms operate.
So get into the habit of reading the business pages and the legal press, such as The Lawyer and Lawyer 2B. The best way to show you have what it takes to cut it as a commercial lawyer is to start thinking like one as early as possible.