The debunking of a myth: The Graduate Diploma in Law

The GDL is scheduled to be replaced by the SQE from September 2021. At the time of writing, the GDL is still an academic requirement for non-law graduates wishing to qualify as a solicitor.

While attending numerous law fairs last autumn, the Lex team was struck by the number of students voicing uncertainty and concern about the law conversion course and how candidates who have sat it may be perceived by employers. This article will hopefully offer a bit more information on what the conversion course is, and calm fears that it may be anything other than a respected, well-worn pathway into the legal profession.

Though the legal industry is undergoing considerable changes by offering different routes for young people to enter the profession, the most common route to solicitor or barrister status remains the tried-and-tested pathway of getting a good degree and enrolling at a law school. On this journey, aspiring lawyers will pursue many fiercely fought-over opportunities to bolster their CVs, strengthen their skills and stand out from the crowd. From the initial steps of attending law fairs and conducting career research, to taking up voluntary work and applying for vacation schemes and mini-pupillages, there is a lot to consider. For the purposes of this article, however, we will begin by keeping it simple and focus just on the compulsory qualifications required, and the two main routes from graduate to lawyer.

Law graduates: Those who graduate with a qualifying law degree (QLD), which covers the essential foundations as required by the profession’s regulators, are ready to proceed straight to the ‘vocational stage’ of the process. At this stage, two different courses cater for the two different branches of the profession. Enrolling on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) prepares students for a solicitor training contract, while taking the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is the final preparatory stage required before commencing a pupillage to become a barrister.

Non-law graduates: For non-law graduates, an extra mandatory stage is required before one can enrol on either of the vocational courses described above. This extra stage is a course called the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), which must be completed before commencing the LPC or BPTC.

Now let’s explain the non-law route in detail…

What is the GDL?

The GDL enables non-law graduates to in effect ‘catch up’ on the legal knowledge developed by undergraduates with QLDs. All GDL courses must cover the seven key areas of law required for the LPC/BPTC. These are: contract, criminal, tort, equity and trusts, land law, European Union law and public law. Different providers vary in how they structure their syllabuses, and there will also be additional modules as part of the qualification, but this core content is mandatory for all.

The providers

Soon you will be hearing from two students who enrolled on the GDL, one of whom is pursuing pupillage while the other has a coveted Magic Circle training contract already in her grasp. First up, let’s hear from Jayne Jeffcott, former head of students at The University of Law which is one of the UK’s leading providers of specialist legal education.

Jeffcott believes that the GDL is an “incredibly valuable way to enter the profession.” She goes on to stress several ways in which taking the GDL route can be advantageous. When moving on to take the similarly-intensive LPC or BPTC, Jeffcott cites the “natural progression” GDL students will have taken: “the methodology of our practically-focused courses is engrained and very recent, so GDL students are used to the high volume of study and tend to hit the ground running far quicker than the Law graduates who come in.”

Beyond offering ideal preparation for the rigours of law school, GDL students should also be confident in the different skills and experience that they are able to offer. Jeffcott offers encouragement to non-law graduates, saying: “don’t be defensive about the fact that you haven’t done an undergraduate Law degree. Instead, stress how this makes you a different sort of candidate with different skills and an alternative undergraduate experience.” Nobody does the GDL on a whim, she adds, and “because of the cost and the work involved, the students who do the GDL tend to be focused and incredibly committed. Employers understand this.”

The employers

Interviews we have conducted support Jeffcott’s assertion, with employers keen to stress their appreciation of the GDL course.

Martin Pascoe QC, head of the pupillage committee at South Square chambers, tells us: “South Square greatly benefits, as do our clients, from having barristers with diverse skills and experiences because they have taken different routes to the Bar. A number of our barristers have degrees in law, some have taken non-law degrees and then sat the GDL and others have started their career in another sector before coming into the law. We select our pupils from a mix of backgrounds so the route candidates take to the Bar is not relevant. What is important for pupillage is an excellent academic record and the potential to become an outstanding commercial barrister.”

When asked if non-law graduate applicants could ever be at a disadvantage when applying for training contracts, a senior graduate recruitment manager says “no, in fact approximately half of our trainees did not study law as their first degree.”

Similarly, a Burges Salmon recruitment advisor also states that approximately half of the firm’s trainee recruits came through the GDL route, and elaborates on why such candidates are valued: “Studying a subject other than law can offer you different perspectives and helps to develop a variety of skills. In reality, once you start to practice law it is unlikely you will refer back to material that you studied in your law degree or GDL so for us it doesn’t matter which route you have come from. We like to have a variety of experiences and backgrounds in our trainee intake and students who have not studied law may have developed slightly different skills to law students.”

The students

Who are these students, then? Who enrols on the GDL, and why do they choose to do so? What are their thoughts on the course and how does it compare to their undergraduate studies? Again, these are all common questions heard at law fairs. Of course, the boring broad answer is to say that it varies according to each individual, but rather more helpfully we have spoken to two current GDL students to gather their thoughts.

James Fireman studied the GDL and is a pupil barrister at 42 Bedford Row. He studied Politics and International Relations at the University of Manchester and, explaining law’s attraction, says: “I really liked political philosophy and the moral debates. I liked the thought-provoking side of what is wrong and what is right. It offers a foundation for the moral arguments found within law and therefore I always felt that a career in law was an option.” James did a couple of mini-pupillages in his second year and this confirmed his desire to become a barrister, as it offered “a real insight into the ways in which a lawyer deals with their clients, and also the court proceedings themselves.”

As for the GDL itself, James stresses the intensity of the one-year programme: “It’s set out in a way where you can very clearly organise your time, but you have to be very organised and strict with yourself. It is all there for you and outlined step-by-step, but if you miss something you will have no idea what’s going on in the workshop. It’s very important that you keep up-to-date with what’s going on in order to make the most of it. This year I’ve had to be very organised!”

Hattie Jones completed a BA in Japanese a year early at Cambridge. Always interested in a career in law, she used that extra time wisely by sitting one year of the undergraduate law course. She then did a Masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Like James, she mentions the considerable demands which the GDL brings: “The work load is fairly time-intensive. The content is not massively complicated, and we go through it at speed so it is simplified down quite a lot. But there is a lot of work.” When asked what advice she would offer prospective GDL students, Hattie highlights one key difference with undergraduate level, saying that “the course itself is very structured in terms of working from manuals rather than the traditionally broader undergraduate approach.”

One common concern among students – at all stages – considering a career in law is that there is a ‘type’: a certain student with a particular background and a set of narrow experiences whom all recruiters want to see walk in through the interview room door. Those we have spoken to here suggest this is not the case. Employers value variety amongst their workforce, and students from different academic backgrounds are sought after. Jeffcott builds on this, saying: “Name a degree subject and I’ve probably taught them”. She cites English and History as two of the more common degree subjects but notes a rise in the number of scientists, linguists and mathematicians making the switch, along with career changers who have worked alongside legal professionals and been inspired to go back to school.

That switch is, of course, a big decision to make, and a considerable financial commitment for already debt-laden students to take on. While GDL fees have remained relatively constant in real terms, the tripling of undergraduate tuition fees has had a knock on effect and is likely to be a main factor in enrolment numbers for the GDL reducing nationwide. More than ever, those who do convert are sure of their decision and are completely committed to a legal career. Before making the commitment students will naturally have thought about their decision very carefully and have made it an informed one. An ideal starting point will be to head to your careers centre and, like the proactive students who prompted the writing of this article, your university’s law fair.

There is plenty of encouragement and support to be found for those planning to enrol on the GDL. Providers enthuse about the course and the calibre of students it attracts. Employers actively seek to recruit candidates from a wide range of backgrounds, and therefore value those who have obtained alternative academic tuition at undergraduate level. Students enrolled on the course have done their research, spoken to industry professionals and decided that, despite the extra costs a year of studying brings, the GDL is for them. If you are a non-Law undergraduate and want to become a solicitor or a barrister, the option is there for you.