Are you trying to decide whether to complete a law degree before you go into a career in law? Or did you already complete a non-law degree and now don’t know where you stand? Our tutor, James Edenborough, is a practising barrister and shares his insights and experience on the non-law degree route to a career in law
On average, UK law firms have a very balanced intake of trainee solicitors from law and non-law backgrounds, with roughly 50% of those recruited having obtained a degree in a non-law subject. Until recently, pursuing a career in law as a non-law degree graduate meant an extra year, or two if part-time, studying a law conversion course (currently the PGDL). Whilst that is still a requirement for the Bar, the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) removes the conversion course requirement to qualify as a Solicitor, and it’s worth taking a moment to think about the pros and cons of the law and non-law routes to both professions.
Deciding whether to go down the qualifying law degree (QLD) or non-QLD route:
1. Love of the subject
You may have a love of another subject and, if so, go for it; doing what you love to do is probably where you will find success and will be most emotionally rewarding. However, beware: legal practice is demanding, and you will need to love it for its own sake. If you think you will ‘do what you love first and then law later’, do you really want to do law at all?
From my personal experience, I studied social and political sciences and history at university and didn’t decide to become a barrister until my final undergraduate year. I decided it would combine intellectual stimulation and public value. I had very little knowledge of law and decided to do a Masters degree in Legal and Political Theory first. This was an absolutely brilliant course that could have led onto postgraduate study in, (surprise) academic law or political philosophy, but it wasn’t a qualifying law degree. I then took the (then) CPE (Common Professional Examination in Law).
I would advise that if you have an academic interest in law, you may want to think about what a law degree specifically can offer, or how you might develop that interest without a law degree. However, to this day I am grateful that I studied a subject I loved and I still have a keen interest in these areas to this day.
2. Specialist knowledge
It is worth exploring whether specialist non-legal knowledge may help in your intended practice area. If your first degree is in science or engineering, these can give you practical contextual knowledge when practising in some areas, such as intellectual property (are you a biochemist?). That goes for languages and business too; are you looking for a practice where these skills will be useful, and do you want to qualify in law principally to assist with work in a business? My own qualifications certainly gave me a wider social context when it came to practicing criminal law.
The above are just a few examples – why not look at the qualifications of Solicitors and Barristers already practising in the area you are interested in?
3. Crossover of skills
You might find the skills from your non-law degree are transferrable. For example, English or History are both quite common first degrees for Lawyers, and will help you develop relevant skills like textual and evidential analysis (although of course, a degree in law does rather do that too!).
4. The cost
Cost will still be a factor if you are going down the Bar route to become a Barrister with a non-law degree, because you will still be required to complete an extra year of study to achieve your PDGL. However, the SQE route now means that you can qualify as a Solicitor utilising your non-law degree – the only educational costs of which will be an appropriate Prep course, followed by assessment costs.
You can find out more about the costs of qualifying here.
5. Drive and self-determination to study
I can’t emphasise enough how valuable it is to immerse yourself in the subject as far as you can within the constraints of real life – this is where the Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) element of the SQE should be particularly useful.
For my own part, my conversion course had to compress the core of a full law degree into one year, and so it was quite dry. I didn’t immediately realise that just attending the lectures and small groups and reading lecture notes was only the start of what you need to do; I should have done more self-directed study and career research, and so it took me longer to get on top of what law is about. If you have a non-law degree background, be prepared to really apply yourself to be able to develop a full and rich understanding.
“I didn’t do a Law degree – is it too late?”
You may have settled on a legal career after choosing your ‘original’ career. That’s fine, lots of us did! I wasn’t sure if wanted to become a journalist or an academic and expected to go into party politics at some point. None of which has happened… yet! Your first step is to investigate whether your current qualification and experience may lend themselves to a particular area of practice.
Do your research early, along with deciding what route to take, and do what suits you best! It is important to treat different types of practice as different careers themselves! If you can, go to Courts and Tribunals (including virtually) and read judgments in different areas. Get work experience early and as often as possible, as well as look at the qualification backgrounds of practitioners in different areas.
Once I got started with Law, I actually changed my mind about what area I wanted to practice in half-way through the year. I had wanted to do commercial contract law as it is very academic and that suited me, but once I worked out that there was much more courtroom advocacy in criminal law, I was sold. I now practice in professional regulation, which again involves quite a lot of oral advocacy.
To summarise, the law offers a range of different and interesting careers, and it is important to be aware you can come to it without a law degree. What I have discussed is based purely on my own experience, and the qualifying part was some time ago at the turn of the century (albeit this one!). You should of course research and decide for yourself what is right for you, but I hope sharing some experience and flagging some points helps you.