There are several reasons that somebody may want to study law as a mature student. You may be pursuing a change of career by retraining for the legal sector, you may have been asked to complete your degree for professional development or to qualify for a promotion, or you might just be doing it for the love of learning. Whatever the case, there are a few things you may wish to know before you begin your studies.
Types of Study
The type of study you complete will largely depend on your previous educational background. If you have completed a degree in a different subject the past, then you will most likely only be required to complete a law conversion course – much like a recent graduate who wants to pursue a career in law but studied a different subject.
If you do not already have a degree, then you will instead have to take a full degree. This takes three years if studying full-time, compared to a law conversion course which takes only one year of full-time study. If you are undertaking study at your employer’s request, they may also request you study the full degree even if you already hold a degree in another subject. Of course, if you are studying out of personal choice then you may choose to take the full degree out of simple preference.
Qualifying for legal study varies from institution to institution. To be able to undertake a law conversion course, you will certainly need to already hold an undergraduate degree. Generally, you will be required to have achieved a grade of at least 2:2 on your first degree to be accepted for a conversion course.
To take a full law degree, if you are educated to at least A-level or equivalent then, depending on grades, you should usually qualify for degree-level study. If you do not have A-levels or equivalent qualifications, this does not mean you cannot go to university but you may well have to complete some other course first, such as an Access to Higher Education course. Relevant work experience may also be considered as an alternative to these qualifications. Speak to the admissions department of the universities you are interested in attending.
If you have not undertaken a university-level qualification before, then you should qualify for student finance when taking a law degree just as younger students do. If you have started but not completed a degree in the past, you may still qualify for funding but this could just be partial.
Usually, if you do not qualify for student finance you will have to fund your studies yourself. If you are being asked to undertake these studies for professional reasons, however, you should speak to your employer about whether they can assist with the costs.
Law students spend a lot of time looking at specific cases. Some of these are simply good examples, but many are studied because they set precedents and established principles that continue to have major consequences for the way the law is administered in the UK. The following cases are a few key examples of such landmark legal events:
The Arrest of Pinochet
In the late 1990s, General Pinochet (pictured right), former dictator of Chile, was placed under arrest in London and detained following a request for extradition to Spain. He was facing charges of crimes against humanity. Ultimately Pinochet was never extradited, but the case still established an important principle. Before the establishment of the international courts that would now be tasked with handling such charges – as recently demonstrated by the conviction of Radovan Karadzic for crimes against humanity – this incident established that heads of state were accountable and were not immune from legal consequences for their actions.
The Belmarsh Decision
One of the more recent landmark cases, the Belmarsh Decision of 2004 related to the then-government’s policy of detaining foreign individuals suspected of terrorism indefinitely without making charges against them. After nine law lords reviewed the policy and a subsequent legal challenge, a majority declared that the practice was both discriminatory and illegal. This is now one of the key precedents to consider when debating the delicate balance between individual freedoms and national security.
The Snail in the Bottle Case
This 1932 case firmly established a legal concept so powerful that, today, it is the basis for an entire area of the law. It was arguably the first case in which an individual made a claim for criminal negligence, and enshrined into law the need for individuals and businesses to take due care to ensure that they do not cause harm to others. A Mrs Donoghue brought a claim against the manufacturer of a bottle of ginger beer in which she had found “the decomposed remains of a snail which were not, and could not be, detected until the greater part of the contents of the bottle had been consumed.” The court found that, as the manufacturer was creating a product designed for human consumption and placing it in a bottle which did not allow the customer to inspect it before drinking, they had a duty to ensure that the contents were indeed suitable for their intended purpose and not likely to cause harm to the drinker.
A student-led initiative at the University of Bedfordshire offering legal advice to members of the public for free has reopened at the institution’s Luton campus. The initiative, simply called The Law Clinic, sees the university’s law students offer fee-free legal support to those who need it covering multiple areas of the law.
The initiative is not only staffed but run by students, though they operate under the supervision of the university’s legal experts to ensure the fact they are still learning does not compromise the quality of advice they give to the public. The initiative also ran last year, when 24 clients received free advice on a range of issues. Primarily, this included issues in the fields of employment law, consumer rights and issues with housing.
According to the University of Bedfordshire School of Law and Finance’s acting department head and Associate Executive Dean (international), Dr John Beaumont-Kerridge, “The Law Clinic is an excellent example of contemporary Higher Education working to provide a valuable service to the community and at the same time offering a unique experience to students.”
He continued: “Always under the guidance of experienced and qualified staff, members of the public have access to free legal support on housing, consumer and employment issues.”
the benefits to the local community are obvious and, according to Dr Beaumont-Kerridge, “immeasurable.” However, the students are also reaping very solid benefits from the initiative. Running the clinic is giving them valuable real-world experience of providing legal guidance and support to genuine clients. This is helping them to better prepare themselves for the world of work in the legal sector. By doing so, it also represents a valuable entry for their CVs, helping them escape the “experience trap” which can be as problematic for legal students when they graduate as for those trying to get into any other field of work.
Gaining experience is invaluable for graduates looking to secure a training contract or some other first step into their legal career. Places can be competitive, and having some experience of providing legal services in a practical way can be a big advantage. However, opportunities to get experience can also be competitive and their numbers are limited. A scheme such as the University of Bedfordshire’s Law Clinic provide students with an accessible way to get genuine experience of supporting real clients with real legal issues while still studying their degree and within the bounds of their university campus.
Personal Injury law is quite an emotive area of law to work in, and addresses matters that are very personal and of great everyday concern to the client. The outcomes of personal injury cases will affect people’s lives greatly one way or another. Unfortunately, it is only too easy to have an accident that results in a serious injury, be it at work, playing sport, on the road, or elsewhere.
Personal injury (PI) claims come under civil law, and are subject to the rules of tort law. When assessing a potential personal injury case, be it arising from a workplace accident or elsewhere, the PI lawyer is ultimately looking for a ‘breach.’ The lawyer is also seeking to see if the case meets all the elements and criteria of tort law; duty of care, breach of dirty, causation, remoteness, damage, etc.
The lawyer is assessing whether there was a breach of the employer’s duty of care towards thier employees, particularly regarding health and safety. However both tort law and employment law hold the employer liable for far more than just matters of health and safety at work.
In a work accident claim, the liability and duty of care of the employer is assumed, and has to be argued against, rather than proved. The breach of such responsibility and legal duty can manifest itself in many ways, which the PI lawyer has to be watchful for. Legal causation is similarly one of those elements of tort that is famous for being rather more complicated. However, addressing the issue of remoteness of (the possibility of) damage, applying the Wagon Mound (No1) case, makes that question much more straightforward. Overall, the elements of tort, and applying it to a specific personal injury claim, are actually quite straightforward. After learning the basic legal tests and rules (along with the attendant variations), it is a matter of using a ‘flowchart’ approach to see whether all those criteria of tort are met.
Inevitably, the classroom is always different to reality.
Putting that ‘flowchart’ into practice can be fairly daunting – but also relatively easy. A complicated and emotive matter such as a workplace injury can be neatly reduced and dissected to its core essentials, and the heart of the claim easily found. A convoluted series of events, and complicated injuries, can similarly be interpreted more easily. The structure and nature of the questions asked at each stage of the ‘flowchart’ are very descriptive, detailed and definite, and at the same time very open and flexible. As such, in most cases it will be evident early on whether the case before you will meet the required criteria.
With that in mind, injury compensation, whether the injury is a result of a workplace accident, car accident, or sporting accident, is a relatively straightforward area of law to practice. PI law can also be very rewarding. A client seeks advice making a claim against an employer having suffered sometimes dreadful injuries, and possibly unable to work and to earn for some time. Obtaining for that client an apology or compensation will really make an improvement for their situation. The PI lawyer is really having a regular impact upon the lives of their clients, and quite often for the better.
Unfortunately, a great many people get injured annually, either at work, on the roads, or elsewhere, and want to seek compensation or a legal remedy for thier accident. Consequently, PI is an area of law that is rarely affected by recessions, or has significant changes in the law that defines it. As Judge Lord Macmillan stated in 1932, “the categories of negligence are never closed.”
Further, the great majority of PI cases are often handled under a Conditional Fee Arrangement (CFA) regarding funding. Under a CFA, the claimant does not pay up front, with the PI lawyer only getting paid when the case is successfully resolved. Therefore, many injured in workplace accidents or similar will approach a PI lawyer and the resulting PI litigation not deterred by the financial cost. Further, as mentioned, it is relatively easy to make a rapid decision as to whether a PI claim will be successful or not, given the criteria and tests behind tort law and personal injury cases. When you actually get to court, you have already assessed that the PI claim before you has a very great margin of success. That is both good for you – and good for your client.
The legal sector is a competitive area, and one that is not immune to the “experience trap.” While a training contract should give you the kind of real world experience you need for your subsequent legal career, prior work experience can be invaluable in beating out the competition to secure that contract in the first place. Some degree of work experience can even be a big help at the very earliest stages of your career, when applying for a law degree or conversion course.
So what kind of work experience is out there in the legal sector, and how do you go about getting it?
Formal work experience opportunities, paid or unpaid, may be advertised by firms of various kinds. These tend to be advertised in much the same way as any other job, through online job boards or in the press, and have similar recruitment processes involving a CV or application form followed by an interview. Not all opportunities are advertised at all, so you might want to send a CV speculatively to some firms that are especially relevant or conveniently-located just to see if they will consider giving you an opportunity or have anything coming up in the near future.
Some of these may be vacation schemes, designed for degree or conversion course students. These are of various lengths and are even more diverse in terms of the kind of work they might involve, depending on the type and size of the firm offering the opportunity. However, they are timed to coincide with university holiday seasons as they are specifically designed for current legal students to gather industry experience between semesters.
You might also undertake pro bono work, using the skills and knowledge you have already gained in your studies to help out with real cases. This is naturally more demanding and is unpaid, but is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to the profession while dealing with real cases and having direct contact with clients.
If you are interested in a career as a barrister rather than a solicitor, you may be able to undertake a mini pupillage. This involves a short period – usually just a week or two – spent shadowing a barrister in chambers.
Informal opportunities may be of interest to those who are already studying law, but are arguably more useful for those who want to gather some experience of the legal profession before starting their degree (or their conversion course, as the case may be). The experience will look great on your UCAS application, and will also be a great way to find out first-hand about what a legal career entails and make sure it is right for you.
This kind of work experience involves shadowing legal professionals or providing basic assistance with their work on a voluntary basis. It is essentially similar to the work experience you were probably required to do for a week or two during secondary school. On some levels, the experience you gain is basic but it still represents a useful real-world insight into the legal sector. Opportunities are almost certainly unadvertised, requiring a speculative and proactive approach on your part, and will almost certainly be unpaid.
Before embarking on a career in the law, you will need a lot of training in the complex intricacies of the British legal system. All this training requires funding, both for payment of fees and to meet your living expenses. Some of this training can be pricey, and not all of it will qualify for assistance from the Student Loans Company.
For some of “the professions,” such as teachers, there are government schemes to provide help with training costs. This is unfortunately not the case with the legal industry. However, there are a few options available for funding.
What are the Costs of Legal Training
The first step in training for a legal career will be a degree. Aside from living expenses, these will carry standard university tuition fees – currently up to £9,000 a year in England and Wales, as well as in Scotland unless this is your home region. The degree lasts three years.
If you study a subject other than law, then you will have to undertake a Graduate Diploma in Law, commonly known as a conversion course. This can cost between £7,500 and £10,000.
After you graduate, further training will be necessary. If you aim to become a barrister, you will have to complete a Barrister Practice Training Course (BPTC), costing at least £11,000 and potentially up to £16,950.
If you aim to become a solicitor, on the other hand, then after graduation you will have to complete a year-long course known as a Legal Practice Course. The price tag on this is lower than that attached to a BPTC, but still will still come in at £8,000 minimum and up to £13,500.
Total fees associated with legal training, therefore, can be up to £53,950 for barristers and £50,500 for solicitors. If your degree is in law and you don’t need a conversion course, this knocks £10,000 off each figure, but still leaves over £40,000 in fees.
For your first degree, you will qualify for student loans to fund your study just as any other student does – assuming you have not attended university before.
For your training after graduation, there are a few options available to you. One possibility is a specialist loan. While the Student Loans Company may no longer be willing to help you, some private lenders offer loans specially designed to help with legal training costs. You could also potentially qualify for low-interest postgraduate loans known as Professional Career and Development Loans (PCDL).
There are also some scholarships and bursaries available. For solicitors, these come from bodies such as The Law Society, while barristers-to-be may be able to access schemes from the likes of the Bar Council.
A few very lucky students may be able to get a sponsor – a legal firm who pays for their training on condition you work for them after you qualify. Sadly, these are very few and highly competitive. Usually, the only students who even get a look-in are first-class graduates of Oxford or Cambridge.
If your career goal is to become a solicitor, graduating from university is only the first part of the process. There are further steps you must undertake within the industry in order to qualify to practice as a solicitor.
If this is the path you want to pursue within the legal industry, you will have the following routes open to you after your graduation:
If You Don’t Have a Law Degree
If you are currently studying or have graduated in a subject other than law, then the road to being a solicitor isn’t entirely closed to you. However, your first step after graduating is to return to university and do a law conversion course, in which you will intensively study core areas of the legal system. After that, you can then proceed along the road to becoming a solicitor in much the same way as a law graduate.
Legal Practice Course
The first step for law graduates will usually be the Legal Practice Course (LPC). This is a vocational course tailored not just to the law but to the role of practicing solicitors specifically. This step will usually take a year, or can sometimes be taken part-time over a longer period, and will help you develop the skills you will need for your career as a solicitor.
After completing your LPC, you will move onto a period of recognised training within the legal industry. Usually, this will involve taking on a training contract with a firm and working within the industry as a trainee solicitor. This will allow you to learn about being a solicitor and develop the skills and knowledge you will need for the role on-the-job in a real-world legal practise assisting with genuine cases.
Professional Skills Course
As part of this period of training, you will also complete your Professional Skills Course (PSC). This will be the part of your training period that most closely resembles a formal, academic education. You must complete and pass your PSC in order to qualify as a solicitor and go into practise.
As part of a drive to provide more flexibility for those who want to pursue a legal career, the concept of “alternative means” was introduced last year. This allows qualification to be granted to people who have gained experience within the legal sector which brings them up to the same standards of knowledge and skill as somebody who has followed the above route in full and completed a training contract. This isn’t really a route that can be relied upon, and so far only one person has qualified through these means. However, for those who may want to pursue a career as a solicitor later but want to enter a different legal position after graduating this is an extra route that may be open in the future.
A career in the law can be rewarding both emotionally and financially. However, it can also be demanding and hard work, meaning often only those with the greatest love for the subject decide to pursue a career.
Unfortunately, this means that some people can be unnecessarily put off of studying law because they perceive the subject to be essentially vocational. Even if they do love the subject, they may be reluctant to spend years of their life and amass a lot of student debt when they may ultimately decide they are not cut out for a law career. While it is important to think about any degree choice carefully, a law degree can open up work in many areas besides the legal sector. It is not necessary to see it as a vocational qualification leading to one defined career path, as it can also open up opportunities in:
Obtaining a law degree is a demanding process, and involves many transferrable skills. Law graduates are often well-equipped for careers in management, particularly through joining graduate management training schemes. More even than most graduates, they are used to demanding workloads and challenging tasks. They often have more specific skills too, such as knowledge of contract law, which can also work in their favour when pursuing a management career.
Finance is a regulation-heavy area, and like management it is also a field that requires many of the transferrable skills that a law degree will teach. Many financial companies, from investment banks to insurance firms, are keen to recruit legal graduates who have a good appreciation of the regulatory challenges that face the industry.
If you have the necessary skills and knowledge for a legal career but have decided you don’t want to follow this avenue for yourself, you could instead use your abilities to help others enter the sector. Law is taught at various levels in the UK school system from GCSE upwards, so if teaching is a career that appeals to you then this can be an excellent and rewarding way to put your knowledge to good use. For the vast majority of teaching posts, however, you will need a further teaching qualification to go with your degree.
Publishing is also an industry that likes to recruit its fair share of law graduates. Part of this is down to specialist legal publications, which understandably want to recruit staff members who have an appreciation of the area. Other publishers simply like law graduates because they tend to be skilled at research tasks, and simply because a law degree is evidence of hard work. Departments dealing with intellectual property and rights issues may also be open to law graduates with knowledge in these areas.
There are a number of reasons people might train in the law. Some may not even intend to enter the legal profession upon graduating, as the law is a subject with many transferable skills which can be useful for a variety of career paths inside and outside the legal industry. However, many students choose to study law for the most obvious reason: to work in the legal sector after qualifying. There are a number of factors that attract students towards legal work, and a recent survey by the University of Law has revealed the key motivations that are driving current law students.
Perhaps encouragingly, one of the most prominent motives uncovered by the survey is a decidedly selfless one. Almost half of all prospective solicitors responding to the survey (49%) said that the main reason they were looking forward to pursuing a career in law was that they had a desire “to help people.” For those who hope to become barristers, this figure is 61%.
Law Society Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) chair Max Harris described the large number of legal students motivated by wanting to help people as an encouraging one. Harris said that “Helping people can range from helping large in-house legal teams with their corporate considerations, to helping vulnerable children or adults in family, housing or other human rights matters.”
He went on to say that the latter form of helping people is “under great threat” in light of “recent cuts to legal aid.” This, he believes, is a particularly pertinent point as a recent survey by the JLD revealed a mere 4% of junior lawyers were interested in or actively involved with legal aid work.
According to Harris: “The Society, the JLD and so many other organisations are fighting hard to ensure that a career in legal aid remains a viable option for law students.”
The survey took in the opinions of more than 1,200 new GDL, LLB, BPTC and LPC students. A number of other factors were also identified as key motivators of solicitors-to-be. These included a hope for “interesting and varied work,” an enjoyment of “intellectual challenge” and simply holding an interest in the law. Collectively, these three motives help to drive more than two thirds of current law students towards a career in the legal profession.
It also seems that many students have decided to pursue a legal career from a fairly young age. Over a quarter of them reached the decision that they would like to work in the legal sector between the ages of 16 and 18. Of course, this is not a prerequisite for a successful career and the law is also open to those who only realise their interest later.
If you are not currently studying law but considering a career in the industry, there is a strong chance you will be looking into a law degree. However, regardless of subject one of the biggest problems with taking a degree is working out where you should study.
It is possible that this question has been decided for you by circumstances. For example, if you are returning to study as a mature student based in your current home and maintaining a job in the meantime, you might have chosen a local university, or a distance learning option such as the Open University, out of necessity. However, most students approach this decision with the luxury of choice. For the subject of law specifically, these are currently some of the top-ranked universities in the UK.
University of Oxford
It is no great surprise that the list is currently headed by Oxford. The nearly 1000-year-old institution is famously a world-leader in most subjects, and this includes an exceptionally strong law school. The main catch is the fact that, due to its prestigious nature, entry to Oxford is much harder than getting into most universities. There is an extra application process specific to this university on top of the standard UCAS form, and only very high-achievers are likely to be accepted.
University of Cambridge
Equally unsurprising is the presence of Cambridge in second place. Currently, Oxford is only ranked above Cambridge by a tiny margin (in rankings that use scores out of 100, the difference tends to be measured in decimal points) and this is always subject to change. As Cambridge is similarly prestigious, the disadvantages are much the same as those which apply to Oxford. However, if you can gain access to either of the Oxbridge institutions, your standard of education and current employability will be excellent.
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
While most people who think prestigious universities think Oxbridge, LSE is often placed with those universities as the third corner of the “golden triangle.” It is somewhat more accessible than Oxford and Cambridge, though still looks for higher-achievers than the average institution. People who have graduate from any golden triangle institution have, on average, noticeably higher salaries than graduates of other institutions. One of the key disadvantages of studying anywhere in London is the cost of living, higher in the Capital than in any other part of the UK.
University of Edinburgh
By rankings alone, the University of Edinburgh comes in below University College London (UCL) and King’s College London. However, when all factors are considered, the University of Edinburgh has two key advantages. It offers lower tuition fees in many cases, and the cost of living is also far lower than in London. Despite this, the University of Edinburgh is still a leading university that appears high in world rankings, both in general and specifically for studying law. Overall, this makes it a very appealing place to study indeed.