By Melissa Terzi
As a non-law student, it can be difficult to know how to get into law. But the fact is that you don’t need a law degree to be successful in a legal career, and the skills you gain from studying a non-law degree are extremely valuable if showcased correctly. Non-law students can simply take the law conversion course, called the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), which is seen by recruiters as completely equal to a traditional law degree.
The most important advice I could give you is to just start researching and learning more. The difficulty, however, is knowing where to start. In this article, I will be describing the non-law path, as well as providing advice from myself and from the graduate recruitment teams of more than 20 law firms I have spoken to. I am hoping this article will explain some of the key things that will be relevant to you as a non-law student trying to make it in the legal industry, and specifically in commercial law or the solicitor route in general.
First of all, the most usual path for non-law students is to do your degree (whatever that may be) and then to go on to do a law conversion. After your undergraduate degree you can also choose to do a ‘senior status’ law degree, a 2-year qualifying law degree for people who have already done an undergraduate degree, which is something that Oxford offers.
After a non-law degree, the route (until this year) has been to do the GDL, then the LPC, which is the Legal Practice Course. This is a one-year course that law students have to do as well. However, it was decided that from 2021, students who want to work in legal careers will need to do a two-part exam called the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). The SQE is a new system of exams that will be introduced in September 2021, which all prospective solicitors will have to pass to qualify. From 2021, it will no longer be required to complete a law degree or law conversion and the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
This does not mean that firms will ditch the traditional two-year training contract option; it simply means that the route into qualifying as a solicitor will be more flexible (and less expensive compared to the LPC), with many students now able to work as paralegals or legal assistants, which will allow them to qualify as solicitors as long as they then pass the SQE. Also, many law conversion providers such as the University of Law and BPP still provide a law conversion, which is more geared towards the SQE. In terms of lawyer recruitment, I’m sure law firms will understand the amount of flexibility provided to students and will accept capable students who have passed the SQE, no matter what or where they have studied.
So, what are some ways that we, as non-law students, can start to gain information about a career in law?
Events, Open Days, Internships
The first and most significant way that a non-law student can find out more about the legal profession is through attending events that are open for all, whether you study law or not. These events, specifically the ones held by law firms, are mostly in the form of open days, webinars, first year schemes, and longer (usually two-week) internships called vacation schemes.
First of all, it’s very important to remember that there is not a magical number of open days, events or internships you will be expected to complete, and there is also no magical number of things you should apply for. However, as a general rule, attending events like open days and first year schemes and longer experiences like the vacation schemes or other internships is a perfect way to really understand the firm you might apply to and might eventually qualify into.
It is really important that you understand the firm to some extent before applying. Firstly, because they will know if you aren’t really that interested in the firm, but also because you would want to know for yourself whether the firm will be right for you. Applying for firms can become quite automatic when you have done a few applications, and it can get to a point where you aren’t considering your personal reasons for choosing a firm and are just applying to as many firms as possible. It’s important to recognise that you should be applying for a firm for the right reasons. To understand which firms might be right for you, applying for and attending open days allow you to really distinguish between firms and to show the recruitment team that you understand what it is about the firm that you like, which applies to non-city law firms as well. Attending open days by city law firms will allow you to understand more about common practice areas that more local firms deal with, such as real estate, shipping, employment, family law and others.
The most essential tool I have been using to keep track of application deadlines is the Legal Cheek Deadlines page. This page is very helpful as it puts up deadlines for the vast majority of city firms. Another tool I use is Excel spreadsheets, where I can note deadlines, highlight urgent applications and see my progress through successful and unsuccessful applications.
Most firms offer open days or schemes that are specifically for first years (no matter what you are studying). In open days, you will find graduate recruitment teams and current trainee solicitors. These open days provide invaluable insight into the ‘culture’ of firms, a term you will hear quite frequently in open days or law fairs.
Some firms do non-law open days, or specific open days for underrepresented groups. Baker Mckenzie is a good example of this.
Even if you are currently in your second or third year, there are still open days to apply for (such as Baker McKenzie and Clyde & Co).
In addition to law fairs at universities, many websites and learning platforms arrange law fairs, such as Legal Cheek. You can gain similar opportunities through mentorship schemes like those provided by Rare Recruitment and Aspiring Solicitors, which give members monthly opportunities to attend exclusive talks and workshops with lawyers and firm representatives.
Attending speaker events or networking sessions by student societies will also allow you to meet firms and talk to firm representatives. Do not underestimate the importance of events such as these and make note of who you spoke to and what they said. The focus here should be on what you have learnt about the firm and what makes it different, and why this might lead to you wanting to work there.
For non-law students, there are multiple ways in which firms have arranged their vacation schemes. Some firms offer vacation schemes for penultimate year non-law students (which is what most law firms offer to law students); some for final year non-law students; and some offer the option to apply in either your penultimate or final year. Some law firms even have vacation schemes and placements specifically for non-law students. I would recommend creating a spreadsheet of the firms you would like to apply to, which will ensure that you are not missing any deadlines. Another important resource when applying to firms is Legal Cheek’s firm profiles, which are very useful for learning about a firm before delving into deeper research.
Completing work experience with local law firms and startups is very valuable as it will introduce you to skills necessary in a work environment. The Oxford Careers Service is useful as it helps students search for internships. Another tool is LinkedIn, where you can turn on job notifications to get notified for internships or opportunities in any area that you are interested in.
In a recent first year scheme, I asked the recruitment team, ‘What do you like to see in a non-law student’s application?’
They had a two-part answer to this:
The first point was that non-law students need to present clearly their journey into law and the process of how they became interested in it. So, as someone who does not currently study law or someone who has never studied law, it’s crucial to show the exact steps that led to an interest and passion for law. This can be difficult, as eventually you might feel stuck in trying to explain why you didn’t do law at university, but it’s good to remember that things like reading books, getting work experience and doing placements, engaging in wider discussions around law or business at school or university, or personal contacts or relatives who are lawyers, are things that you can talk about. But at the end of the day, you really just want to be honest about why you want to do law, which might just require some digging into the reasons (beyond a good salary) you want to do law. For the vast majority of people, money and the prestige that comes with being a lawyer are not the only reasons for going into the legal industry, and this is something you must be prepared to discuss both in written applications and in interviews.
The second part of the answer was more of an observation, and it was that non-law students sometimes did not possess the confidence of having legal knowledge (which mostly comes from studying law), which nonetheless, almost never meant that they didn’t have the skills necessary for a legal career. The essential advice here is that a non-law student should feel confident that they also bring something to the table, and whilst they don’t have all the legal knowledge yet, that knowledge gap will close after the student has done a law conversion.
Becoming a lawyer as a non-law student is definitely possible, and if this is the career for you, don’t let your undergraduate degree choice limit you. Frame your degree as an academic interest and law as your dream future career. Present this along with your knowledge of the profession, and you will become a solicitor in no time!
Please do get in touch if you have any questions!
Melissa is an access officer at OWLSS, and is about to start her final year studying Music. She hopes to pursue a career as a solicitor working in commercial law, with marketing as a career backup.