MA Law Student Insight
Alexandra Fox graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2020 with degree in English Literature and Philosophy. She started the Masters of Arts in Law conversion at the University of Law, Manchester in September 2020. She is the Vice President of the Women* in Law Society, Manchester and co-host of the Legal Ladies Podcast. In June 2021 she will start working as an Administrative Assistant at a large firm in the Lake District before undertaking the Legal Practice Course in 2022.
What was your experience studying at St Andrews? How did you find your degree and what societies did you get involved in?
When I started my first year at St Andrews I was studying a Philosophy and Psychology degree and I was convinced that that was the path for me. I even remember sitting at matriculation and being told that I could take different modules in the first year which would make it easier for me to change my degree down the line. I sat there with my advisor and thought, “I am not going to change degree, what a waste of time”. But here I am, 5 years later, with an English and Philosophy degree that I switched to in my second year and currently studying a conversion into Law. Ultimately, I think one of the greatest things about St Andrews and Scottish Universities in general, is that there is this flexibility to change your mind. Inevitably, at the ripe old age of 18, it is a huge amount of pressure to have to choose what you are going to do for the rest of your life.
Personally, I loved my time at St Andrews; I met so many people from a multitude of places and I made so many friends who I can see being in my life for a long time. I know that many people think the small size of the town is a disadvantage but for me, I think it is one of its greatest qualities. You can meet and have conversations with people from so many walks of life and there is a sense of community among the students. There are so many societies and clubs where you are able to meet people. No matter where you go, you’ll find someone you know or someone with mutual friends.
I think that this has become increasingly apparent to me, especially having moved to a city. You do not realise how nice that is until it is gone. St Andrews has so many opportunities and I know that I did not take advantage of that as much as I should have done. I did some writing for STAR and I attended a couple of Law Society events but I made most of my friends from halls and lectures, so it was not as much of a priority for me to join clubs as it maybe should have been. However, I do not regret my time at St Andrews and how I spent it, but I do think that when joining the University of Law, and seeing the limited societies and opportunities for socialising, in comparison to St Andrews, that I was pushed to do more extracurricular activities.
What inspired you to convert to law after your degree? Has studying English and Philosophy supported you in this transition?
I was actually asked this in my last job interview and my go-to answer was that English and Philosophy is not the most employable of degrees, which to an extent is true. However, there are so many opportunities open to Arts graduates because of how versatile their degrees are. I have friends who have gone into marketing, journalism, teaching, and even politics, but these career paths just did not appeal to me.
I think, having studied Philosophy, I was interested in the relationship between morality and legality and the fact that the two are not as interchangeable as one might expect. There are so many things that a lot of people would say are immoral but are not actually illegal. I also found when studying Philosophy and English there were numerous discussions regarding perfect societies and how to create a utopia - would these necessitate a stringent legal system or would there be no laws at all? Personally, I believe that legality is intrinsic to society, without it there would be pure chaos - the modern legal system aims to create a reasonably fair playing field where everyone is expected to uphold the same standards to ensure there is stability in society. Of course, there are flaws within English legislation but it is constantly evolving and adapting to reflect the developing perceptions held by society.
Nevertheless, the most significant difference I found between the subjects, and one of the most prominent reasons for me taking the plunge into law, was the fact that Philosophy and English are largely theoretical - there is no right or wrong and there are few practical implications of philosophical thought. Conversely, law is entirely practical. There are real impacts of legislation and one can see actual change reflected in this.
Ultimately, the skills that I acquired from my undergraduate degree have served me incredibly well when studying a law conversion and have definitely aided the transition. Studying the MA as opposed to the Graduate Diploma in Law means that there is a high level of critical evaluation necessary- both English and Philosophy have given me these skills making it much easier to transition.
How did you decide between an MA Law and a Graduate Diploma in Law?
Both the GDL and the MA are incredibly intense courses where you must study the seven core law modules over the course of one academic year. These are: criminal, contract, equity and trusts, European Union, land, public, and tort.
One of the most obvious differences between the MA and the GDL is the ability to acquire a postgraduate loan for the MA and not the GDL. However, if you are not fortunate enough to gain sponsorship for the LPC, you will then have to pay for it if you choose to take the MA.
There are definitely more differences that many fail to recognise. One of the most prominent being the amount of critical evaluation necessary in the MA. When studying a GDL, your exams will consist of three problem questions. These questions will, more often than not, follow a pre-decided structure which you just need to adapt based on the question. But the MA also includes an evaluative essay section meaning you can do one essay and two problem questions or two essays and one problem questions. These essays expect you to evaluate legislation, case law, or legal structure. Ultimately, if critical evaluation is not your forte, I would say to take the GDL.
In addition, the MA requires you to undertake a dissertation (which is essentially what makes it eligible for postgraduate funding). This dissertation is largely unsupervised and in your first semester, you are told to choose which topic you want to write on, after only studying for a short time. Therefore, if you are considering the MA, I would recommend reading into different areas of law that interest you, especially if there have been recent legislation changes or notable cases, in order to have a general idea of what you want to write about.
Nevertheless, I have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the MA and the ability to research areas of law independently for my dissertation (I am focusing on the Divorce, Dissolution, and Separation Act 2020 and why it is a useful development to current divorce legislation). Overall, the modules are incredibly busy and full-on but also very interesting and compelling.
What are you looking to do after you complete the MA Law?
I have just accepted a job as an Administrative Assistant in a large law firm in the Lake District who, after 6 months, will decide whether to support me through a training contract and LPC. I always knew that city living was not for me, I grew up in a small town and then I chose to study in St Andrews, another small town.
I do think it is incredibly important to recognise that there are so many more opportunities available than working in commercial or corporate law in London or Manchester. Training contracts are famously difficult to come by with fierce competition for fewer and fewer places. The application processes are incredibly rigorous, with extensive questions and online testing before being invited to assessment centres and interviews. So many people think that this is the only path to qualify as a solicitor, but this is simply not the case.
A cover letter and a CV into small-town firms is a great way to start; as well as looking at opportunities for in-house training contracts or using CiLex. The new SQE is another brilliant way to qualify as it removes the need for training contracts and an LPC instead looking for qualifying work experience, which would include working as a paralegal. It is so important to research other routes into law. Ultimately after your two-year training contract or qualifying work experience, you can then work anywhere. If you want to work in a city, try and find a small firm that offers commercial law, for example, and send a speculative CV. As fantastic as these large firms are they are not the be-all and end-all and I would definitely advise anyone to look for more unique opportunities.
What extra-curricular pursuits have you engaged in and how have they supported your personal and professional development?
Coming from a non-legal background, I think it was incredibly important for me to research the legal field and the opportunities available to aspiring solicitors and barristers. It was during this research that I found there were huge discrepancies from the number of female undergraduates in comparison with female partners at large firms. At undergraduate level, 70 percent of students are female. However, at partner level, you see this 70/30 split again, but it is 70 percent of partners who are male. In addition, a Law Society survey found that the main barriers to female progression in law were unconscious bias, unacceptable work 0ife balance, and male-orientated routes to promotion. There have been moves over the past few years for more gender equality in law but there is still a long way to go. Therefore, four other MA students and I decided to start the Women* in Law Society - the first of its kind at the University of Law, Manchester, of which I became the Vice President.
Here, members are able to foster discussions and attend unique networking and Question & Answer opportunities hosted by women in the legal sphere. We have had a wide range of guests, including trainee solicitors, pupil barristers, and in-house lawyers who explain how varied their paths into law have been. This has been one of the most rewarding parts of studying at the University of Law this year, especially due to the Coronavirus restrictions. I have been able to meet a wide range of people from both in and outside of the University. Our Instagram page has received compliments from so many different groups, including the national Women in the Law Society and their founder Sally Penni MBE. We have also been shortlisted for several University awards including Best Society and Best Event; our President was shortlisted for the Big Heart Award and I have been shortlisted for the Committee Member of the Year Award, which is remarkable considering we only started in September of 2020.
While working with the Women* in Law Society, I was able to meet with the University’s Women’s officer who suggested we start a podcast for International Women’s Month where we explored themes relating to the female mind, body, and soul. But we enjoyed it so much that we decided to continue by discussing any relevant cases that had implications for women. Therefore, the Legal Ladies Podcast was born. One of the most prominent cases that we discussed was the R v. R domestic abuse case and legislation that has changed as a result of the ruling.
This has been such a fantastic opportunity that I do not think I would have had if it were not for the pandemic. Professionally, I have been able to have discussions and explore cases that I would not have done so during my studies. I would recommend to anyone considering a law conversion to read around the subject and listen to podcasts, such as ours, in order to build a depth of understanding.
Do you have any advice for students exploring law and considering a conversion?
I think one of the most important things that you can do would be to read around the subject. A few good books include Alexandra Wilson’s 'In Black and White' and The Secret Barrister’s two books. Try and gain commercial awareness as well. The Women* in Law Instagram has a list of places to develop your commercial awareness and tips for the next law firm application cycle. There are also numerous podcasts, websites, and articles that summarise commercial awareness and are worth spending the time exploring.
Another thing is that you should not hang your hat on legal experience because, ultimately, any experience is good experience. Working in hospitality or retail can give you so many transferrable skills and it is important to recognise them and write about how they would be relevant in a legal environment. Most of my classmates have not been lucky enough to secure a place on a highly competitive Vacation Scheme but identifying skills from part-time work is equally as valuable.
I would also say try and talk to as many people studying or practicing law as you can. Do not be afraid to connect with people on LinkedIn and ask them a question about their firm or their course. Most people would be very willing to help or offer advice.
If anyone has any questions for me, please feel to drop me a message via LinkedIn and I will do what I can to help!