“To LLB or not to LLB? That is the question”.
As exam period approaches, many students at various stages of their education will be contemplating whether to, and perhaps what to, study at university.
For some, the decision will be a simple one that is driven by long-standing ambitions or in a bid to pursue a specific career, while others may choose to study a subject out of a pure interest without having a career pathway in mind.
Entry into the legal profession is not limited to students who study the LLB (Bachelor of Laws) with the intention of qualifying, as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) offers a breath of fresh air for those whose degree is not in law. This fact was soon established having engaged in conversations with Guy Draper (Pump Court Chambers), Fionn Pilbrow (Brick Court Chambers), Lucas Bastin (Quadrant Chambers) and another barrister from a leading chambers. During this time, they shared with me their LLB and GDL experiences, closing with useful advice for anyone facing this degree dilemma.
What is the GDL?
The GDL is an accelerated legal qualification for graduates who did not study law for their undergraduate degree. Both Draper and Pilbrow studied for this degree, having graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Philosophy and a BA and MPhil in History, respectively.
As required by the Law Society of England and Wales, the course typically consists of the following seven core modules: contract law, criminal law, equity and trusts, the law of the European Union, land law, public/constitutional law and tort law.
In addition most providers will require students to study an additional compulsory module designed to introduce them to the English legal system and study of law. For example, Kaplan Law School teaches English Legal Method. Many providers also require either an independent research essay or one further module to be undertaken.
Why may people choose to convert to a GDL?
From my talks with Draper and Pilbrow, it became apparent that there are often multiple influences which encourage non-law students to study toward and qualify as lawyers.
Draper’s decision stemmed, in part, from a friend who had studied History and then successfully completed the GDL. Philosophy being a theoretical and argument-based discpline, which exposed him to other theoretical approaches and methods of thinking, provided a solid foundation for the study and practice of law.
The decision to embark on the GDL, he recollects, felt like a step in the right direction and it is an experience which proved to be both interesting and satisfying for the sense of achievement that professional progress was being made. He says: “I’m in a better place to do the job, now I have a broader experience”.
Pilbrow’s route to law was somewhat different. He says he reached the stage where he was either going to follow the path of being a professional historian or choose another career ambition.
Pursuing a career in law seemed the sensible alternative for a history graduate with experience of analysing and theorising in an academically- and intellectually-challenging subject. He therefore elected to study the GDL, as opposed to the Senior Status LLB as it offered him the opportunity to move out of academia.
Retrospectively, he believes that he was able to learn the basics of law in that year, without feeling disadvantaged by a comparatively shorter introduction to the law.
The fact that many disputes are factual, as opposed to legal, stresses the critical importance of strong adversarial and analytical skills, rather than an extensive knowledge of various legal areas in which you may not practise.
“You learn to do the job in pupillage and practice,” says Pilbrow. While he never thought of studying law before this moment, his firm belief is that you should study what interests you and therefore what you’ll succeed in, as he did. He doesn’t believe that either degree promotes or disadvantages you, when pursuing a legal career.
How much does it cost?
Prices for the course, much like the structure, vary according to provider.
At BPP you can expect to pay anything from £7,980 to study in Manchester, to the top-end fees of £9,900 at its London Waterloo campus. In comparison, Kaplan, based in London Bridge, charges £9,700 for its degree. The University of Law’s (UoL) fees range from £7,700 in Birmingham to £9,820 at its Moorgate location, due to increase to £7,800 and £10,300, respectively, as of the September 2014 intake.
How long does it take?
Typically, students of BPP and Kaplan can expect to spend one year on the full-time course, extending to 1.5-2 years for those taking the part-time option at BPP. The UoL’s full-time course is considerably shorter at just nine or 10 months, depending on month of intake (September and January, respectively). Its part-time option is completed over 22 months, while its distance-learning programme takes 18. Draper and Pilbrow both say it is no easy feat to complete the GDL, which, for the former, proved to be an exercise in self-discipline and a “year of solid hard-graft”.
Where can the GDL be studied?
Increasingly, “traditional” universities are offering prospective students the opportunity to undertake the GDL, as well as other professional qualifications. For instance, City University London is a renowned provider of the GDL course, with many legal professionals having opted to study there. Aside from this route, the “big three” providers (BPP, Kaplan and the UoL) are recognised institutions offering this qualification.
How does the LLB compare with the GDL?
In comparison to the GDL, the LLB, which Bastin and my fourth interview subject studied, is most often taught as a three-year course or over four years, if a year is spent abroad. There is also the option for students with a non-law undergraduate degree, on coming to study the LLB, to undertake a two-year Senior Status programme, which universities are increasingly offering.
For Bastin, however, the university where he studied for an LLB, in his native Australia, required him to complete his Bachelor of Arts, in addition to his LLB, before becoming a lawyer there. His long-standing interest in law and broad intention to become a lawyer prior to undertaking his LLB, as well as the expectations and regulations of the Australian legal industry, were no doubt strong influences in making the big decision to study for this degree.
During their degree, students can expect to study the compulsory modules (listed above) required by the Law Society, in addition to a range of optional modules such as company law, family law and mental health law. One barrister I spoke to felt that, during the three years of an LLB, a student is given the time to consider every miniscule aspect of the subjects taught within the degree.
Also, the chance to study specialist modules, such as the law of evidence and medical law, exposes law students to areas in which they might choose to specialise as a lawyer.
Increasingly, institutions are also offering students the option to study one or two wild modules drawn from another discipline, such as politics or history, over the course of their degree. Drawing some parallels with non-law graduates, this opportunity exposes students to other disciplines and variations in academic thinking, without compromising their detailed study of the law.
The barrister I spoke to made an interesting point when saying that the LLB route benefits from a huge legal academic infrastructure, including the opportunity for mooting, law fairs and vacation schemes. For non-law students, he nevertheless recognises that there are non-conventional routes to secure legal work experience and other opportunities.
The Citizens Advice Bureau often has places for volunteer advisors, among other roles, while a court may offer the opportunity to shadow a judge or work as a clerk. A whole variety of activities can be undertaken to demonstrate an interest in, and dedication to, the law, without being a law student or graduate.
So what does this advice mean?
Ultimately, it is your choice which path you decide to take.
Some students study law from the “get-go” out of a long-standing interest in the subject and a desire to explore it in depths unavailable to those on the GDL. Others may wish to broaden their horizons before committing to a career in law, if that is in mind when applying for university, and may even dip into legal subjects while studying.
In the UK, we are particularly lucky that students are not shackled by their choice of degree, having the opportunity to study for a GDL and therefore fulfil their aspiration of practising law, even if they haven’t studied a law degree. After all, Bastin notes that he’s met “fantastic lawyers who haven’t studied law”.
Young people have such a big decision to make in deciding what to study at university that it vital that, first and foremost, they choose a subject they truly enjoy. Pilbrow offered useful advice in this respect when he told me to “do what you want to do”, rather than picking a degree purely because you believe it to be useful. Draper echoed this sentiment when he advised students to “explore your academic horizons”.
Academic success should follow if you have chosen a degree which you believe to be of immense interest. To many chambers and law firms, strong academic grades and a developed skill-set dominate when considering a candidate’s chances of success of making it in the legal sector.