Do you want to be a lawyer?
The first question prospective university students should ask is not the obvious one: should I do a law degree?
Regardless of how good the teaching and student experiences are at the top 20 law faculties in our table, qualification as a solicitor or barrister in England and Wales does not require graduates to hold a first degree in law.
Practising lawyers and some recruitment partners at top-flight City of London law firms are increasingly advising that students read other subjects, because doing so gives candidates a broader background and experience.
Having a first-class science degree, for example, will make a prospective candidate for a law firm’s intellectual property department much more attractive than a competitor who knows nothing but broad-based legal theory.
Indeed, one of the country’s foremost criminal law barristers, Courtenay Griffiths, QC, is refreshingly blunt on the point. “Why bore yourself for three years,” he told a legal affairs blog in a discussion about the merits of law degrees, “when you can bore yourself for one year and be in the same position?”
Griffiths was referring to the graduate diploma in law (GDL), which allows those with non-law degrees to cram for a year before moving on to the one-year vocational courses for the solicitors’ and barristers’ professions, the legal practice course and the bar professional training course respectively.
Of course, debt-conscious students should take note that indulging in a non-law degree will add to the astronomic cost of qualifying as a lawyer. Fees for the GDL in London at the two leading providers — the University of Law and BBP Law School — run to the best part of £11,000. After that, fees for the legal practice course stand at nearly £15,700, while the BPTC is even more expensive, at about £17,500 in London.
City law firms and some leading commercial law barristers’ chambers will underwrite some students, but for many the cost of qualification is becoming increasingly onerous.
Despite a growing school of thought that non-law degrees provide prospective lawyers with wider life experience, some traditionalists continue to argue in favour of a complete immersion in law as the best route to qualification. Leading commercial law firms and barristers’ sets still tend to recruit law graduates from Russell Group universities.
Yet there is another factor students should consider — the UK’s internal jurisdictional jigsaw. England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are distinct legal entities, and that is reflected in the requirements of their individual legal professions.
That means that for anyone aiming to qualify as a lawyer in England and Wales, it would be pointless reading law at Edinburgh University because its law degrees are not recognised by regulators south of the border. And the same applies to law degrees from another Scottish university in our table, Abertay.
In contrast, the four other Scottish universities on our list — Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Strathclyde — along with Queen’s in Belfast, offer law degrees that are recognised by the authorities in England and Wales.
Qualifying as a lawyer is complicated — but, of course, the financial rewards at the end can be great.
The offices of US law firms in the City offer starting salaries of up to £140,000 to a lucky few, but even the top domestic players in the Square Mile — which take on far more recruits — cough up very respectable starting salaries of about £85,000.
Ames is the editor of The Times Brief Premium