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.
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.
Lord Neuberger, the UK’s most senior judge has stated that a fast-track promotion scheme may need to be implemented into the judiciary in order to deal with the lack of diversity on the bench. The president of the UK Supreme Court stated that often top city law firms prevent their talented solicitors from moving to a career in the judiciary by using “honeyed words” in an effort to keep them in their firms practice. Lord Neuberger further stated that without immediate and radical changes the shortage judges from ethnic minorities and women would simply take too long to correct.
In an interview with the Supreme Court blog the president of the court decided to address the issue of the funding system by stating that courts are currently underfunded and that there is an increasing amount of litigants in person which has amounted as a result of the recent legal aid cuts. Lord Neuberger argued that the legal aid cuts are resolving in longer delays as well as less good justice.
The comments made by the judge will provide more fuel to the fire in the ongoing debate on how exactly to make the UK’s senior bench better reflect the composition of the UK society. In total, 24.5% of court judges are women and about 5.8% are from ethnic backgrounds with only seven out of 38 judges in the court of appeal being women. The problem escalates when looking at the composition of the Supreme Court with only one of twelve justices being a woman, Lady Hale. Lord Sumption, a justice at the Supreme Court has said that under the current mechanism of appointing judges it will take some 50 years before a representative judiciary is achieved.
Lord Neuberger has suggested that one solution may be to offer “a career judiciary where there is a potential fast track could be an option: such an individual could enter it at, say, the age of 35 as a junior tribunal member or possibly a district judge and work their way up”.
He was quick to warn that he changes must not however, sway towards those from a minority or unreasonably favour them by stating “it’s important to make sure others coming from a more traditional career aren’t then overlooked. But the thing that the judiciary needs to do is go out and encourage more people generally to consider being a judge as an option for them.”
Some of the largest insurance companies representing a majority of the insurance industry have expressed their view that whiplash injury claims compensations should be abolished. The chief of the motor and liability for the Association of British Insurers, James Dalton has called for a policy debate to be conducted as a matter of public interest. Mr Dalton stated that all low-value claims for damages should be removed and instead the insurers should only be required to pay for any subsequent treatment directly. This will be the first time that a debate on a complete removal of whiplash injury compensation will take place although Mr Dalton has in the past called for a moot on whether the damages paid to victims claiming whiplash should be reduced.
At a conference held in London called the Modern Claims he stated “we need a debate about whether someone should be awarded money for a low-value, low-impact and very minor injury claim”. The main issue at question is whether victims should be provided with rehabilitation rather than fill their pockets with cash. This comes amid many statistics forecasting large amounts of whiplash being faked by people in accident often of the mildest collision. Mr Dalton stated that this debate is one of utmost importance to society and that politicians are ought to decide on.
Further, the chief representing the insurance industry stated that although ABI is currently in the process of creating safeguards to encourage the government to increase the small claims limit, he aimed criticism at the fees charged by solicitors in low-value claims. Last year, the Ministry of Justice decided not to increase the lower limit. However, in the opinion of Mr Dalton, this is subject to change ‘depending on the outcome of the election’. He further went on to question whether there is a place in the market for lawyers who represent clients claiming damages for low-value personal injury. In his speech he shared his vision that lawyers should place their efforts with those high value and complex cases and further stated that the upper limit of £5,000 will increase once again, as a matter of time.
On the other hand the Motor Accident Solicitors Society and Association of Personal Injury Lawyers stated their intentions to protect any attempts from the government or political groups to abolish whiplash compensation for victims. It is argued by Craig Budsworth that compensation should in any case always provide for loss of amenity as well as rehabilitation.
The Director for Public Prosecutions (DPP) who is Britain’s highest ranking prosecutor has publicly defended journalists who risk their liberty by breaking the law in order to break stories which are in the public interest. He revealed that guidelines had been drafted which are aimed at protecting such controversial cases.
Keir Starmer stated that “would be very unhealthy if you had a situation where a journalist felt that they needed to go to their lawyer before they pursued any lead or asked any question”. He stated that prosecutors must understand that during the course of an investigation journalists are most likely to cross paths with the criminal law which is why the new guidelines take this fact into consideration. The guidelines will aid prosecutors to take into account the crime committed against the public interest pursued by the journalist and conduct a balancing exercise to see which outweighed the other.
Mr Starmer made the statement at the end of another week surrounded with the controversy of whistleblower Edward Snowden who has caused a storm in Westminster. Calls from a Tory backbencher have requested that the police investigate a major national newspaper for publishing Mr Snowden’s revelations about GCHQ’s wide surveillance activities. Without explicitly mentioning Snowden’s name, the DPP stated that his guidelines had been specially drafted in order to accommodate journalists who want to pursue difficult stories but fear the criminal law. The guidelines will place great emphasis on a public interest threshold meaning that journalists are likely to avoid prosecution if they meet this standard. Mr Starmer stated that he realises there is a great number of offences which a journalist may commit during the course of his business which will be prevented by the new rules which will avoid prosecution in such circumstances.
Starmer said that there are many current and past examples of journalists who on face value have breached the criminal law but have done so pursuing a greater good, meaning a criminal conviction is not in itself in the public interest. The starting point for prosecutors under the guidelines will be to consider whether an offence has been committed, if not then there will be no further action. If an offence however has been committed then the question is whether the public interest pursued ought weighed the criminal offence committed. If this is the case then there will be no offence. The changes are set to be one of the last which Mr Starmer introduces as DPP since he departs the post at the end of the month.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May has sent out a warning to the police stating that their abuse and improper use of their powers to stop and search people can undermine public assistance. She stated in an open speech aimed directly at the police forces that she need not remind them of the immense importance of public backing and public co-operation. She stated that this support is unable to be maintained if the public think that senior officials and police officers are lacking in integrity or behaving in a way which serves them best. She continued the sharp warning by saying that it is unacceptable for police officers to be rude and disrespectful to the public.
The speech which she delivered before the Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales conference, marks the Home Secretary strongest stance on her movement towards reducing the waste of time which is involved in conducting the roughly 1.2million searches per year by police officers on the streets across the country. May stated that the astonishing search rate only produces a success rate of 3% which is the amount of people arrested as a result of these searches. This figure in her opinion is far too low to get comfortable with.
However, the speech also gave credit where it was due to police officers since they have handled the their ongoing duties and have delivered despite there being a 20% cut in funding by Whitehall. The Home Secretary extended her praise to the officers by labelling them “the model public service” when previous speeches have seen her target the sector as “the last unreformed public service”.
Further praises went to the force who have managed to cut the number of crime rates while doing their job with less officers on the line and a lower budget to service the police force. The secretary stated that the stop and search law was a priceless tool which if used correctly may aid in reducing crime rates staggeringly especially when targeting knife crime. She said that it was the superintendents it was their duty to make sure stop and searches are properly and fairly conducted by their officers in command on the streets. She said that the power is a double edged sword due to the fact that if it is improperly used it can backfire by causing the public not to trust the police.