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.
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.
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.
Those who would like to consider a career in the law but have not taken a degree in that subject may still have a way in. A law conversion course allows people with a degree in another subject, or in some cases strong relevant experience, to qualify for a legal career after a year’s further study.
What is a Conversion Course?
Commonly known as a law conversion course, this mode of study is more properly known as a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or the Common Professional Examination (CPE). The course takes one year, or two years if taken part-time, and essentially crams the seven core modules of a law degree into a single year’s worth of study. Transferable skills and knowledge gained in your first degree is considered to take the place of the rest of the law degree.
By the end of the GDL, you will essentially be at the same stage as somebody who has just completed a law degree. You will still need to complete a vocational course and a training contract in a law firm (to become a solicitor) or set of chambers (to become a barrister) before you are fully qualified. These requirements are the same as those that apply to law graduates.
How Much Does it Cost?
The cost of completing a GDL varies, depending on the institution in which you wish to study. Prices for the most recent courses, which began this year, generally ranged from £7,500-£10,000. You may be entitled to a discount if studying at the same institution as you chose for your original degree. There may also be other funding options available from professional bodies or even city law firms.
If taking the course full-time, you will find study very intensive. This has an impact on costs, because it makes it very difficult to fund your course or living expenses with a part-time job while studying. Unless you are able to meet both course costs and living expenses without additional income, you should probably consider the part-time course.
What Does the Conversion Course Entail?
The conversion course entails most of the central aspects of a law degree. This includes the study of seven core modules, which are as follows:
- Land Law
- Contract Law
- Equity and Trusts
- Public Law
- Criminal Law
- European Union Law
There will also be additional aspects to the course and examinations you will have to complete. These include an examination based on your ability to analyse an example case, a statute analysis exam, and a project dealing with European Union Law.