Legal recruiters in England and Wales are looking for graduates who are not experts in law yet. A degree in theology, nuclear engineering, medieval history or almost anything else is a perfectly good starting point for choosing a law career and the impressive financial rewards that often go with it.
Completing a one-year full-time conversion course provides the opportunity to catch up on legal knowledge and with the holders of law degrees (but not in Scotland as the legal system is a little different). There then remains a further year of ‘vocational study’ that has to be undertaken by all would-be solicitors and barristers.
Even before students from other degrees have started on these two years of further study, leading firms of solicitors may consider promising them a job (in the form of a training contract), to be taken up later.
Virtually all the leading London firms of solicitors recognise that in order to recruit trainees of the highest calibre they must not only consider applications from non-law students but also offer them financial assistance during their remaining study. They help out with costs for the conversion course (CPE/GDL) as well as for the expenses for the year of vocational study.
Whilst the cash is not always forthcoming for study, the overwhelming majority of solicitors practices graduates of non-law degrees are welcome and the same goes for barristers’ chambers in London and elsewhere.
Before anyone rushes to the conclusion that non-law graduates jump to the front of the queue, some caveats must be entered. Firstly, law is a highly competitive field and anyone seeking a law career with whatever degree will have to meet highly demanding entry criteria, including both academic performance and personal attributes. Secondly, non-law graduates need to demonstrate their strong commitment to a legal career and this will be closely scrutinised.
Evidence of motivation is important when non-law graduates are applying for training contracts at leading firms of solicitors. As many of the top firms take applications more than two years in advance, students have no chance to test their interest in law by actually studying it.
Hence non-law students even more than law students must try to get on to vacation placements in law firms (there are both winter and summer placements). They should also attend whatever law careers events are going and otherwise seek out legal professionals to find out more about legal practice. Any relevant activities that they can take part in such as voluntary advice work with a legal angle will also be helpful. Non-law graduates who are interested in becoming barristers need to do mini-pupillages.
If you’re thinking of making the switch, you need to find out about law careers as soon as possible. Applications for full time conversion courses must be submitted by February before the autumn start dates.
Applications two years in advance for training contracts in law firms are in a few cases taken around the same time as applications to the conversion courses, but for most large and medium-sized firms the date will be during next summer. Barristers chambers and small firms of solicitors take applications a year or two later.
What Do Barristers Do?
While barristers are mainly known to the public for their appearance in criminal trials, in fact they are more likely to be concerned with commercial disputes. Not all barristers make frequent appearances in court. Providing advice and opinions and drafting court documents are part of the role to a greater or lesser extent depending on specialisms. Barristers can succeed as extremely bright legal specialists rather than talented public debaters. But advocacy symbolises the profession.
What Do Solicitors Do?
The work of solicitors varies a great deal depending on whether they work for large, highly commercial firms or small firms with a much wider range of clients. But commercial and property matters are the mainstay of the profession. Preparing agreements is a bigger part of the work than disputes going to court. Providing advice, taking part in negotiations, drafting documents and doing research are all part of the picture. In some, mainly small firms, strong human interest is provided by crime and family disputes.
Qualifying For The Law
After taking a law degree or the one-year conversion course for non-law graduates, would-be solicitors then take the Legal Practice Course and prospective barristers the Bar Vocational Course (both are one year full-time, two years part-time).
A two year training contract precedes qualification as a solicitor. Applications to large firms are made during the final year of non-law degrees or the penultimate year of law degrees.
The barristers’ work-based training is called pupillage and lasts for one year. Competition for places is intense.
Non-law graduates may be able to offer some qualities that holders of law degrees are lacking. For one thing, they may have a broader outlook from having studied something else and this may be helpful in applying the law in real-life situations.
Particular non-law graduates may also offer specific knowledge and skills:
Languages are useful in forms or chambers that handle international work.
A degree in science or technology could be helpful for legal specialists in intellectual property and patents.
Business studies have much relevance to commercial law.
Engineers fit well in legal practices with an emphasis on construction or industry.
A numerate degree will be useful for an expert in tax and banking law, among other specialisms
More broadly, science, engineering and maths qualifications indicate a capacity to make sense of the large amounts of information the lawyers face; while arts and humanities graduates may have writing skills useful for drafting legal documents.