So You Want to Qualify as a Solicitor?: A Guide for Converting to Law
Note: while regulations are subject to change, the information below is up-to-date at the time of publication.
There are many reasons to not pursue law as your first degree: the course is challenging and committing to a career at 18 years old is a daunting prospect. However, if you have studied (or are studying) a non-law undergraduate degree you are hardly at a disadvantage. You can offer employers more varied experience, greater maturity, and a different perspective. Transitioning to a career in law can look pretty different depending on where you want to practice and where you are from. This offers an overview of converting to law from the experiences of an American aiming to qualify in Scotland, comparing it to the processes in England. It also briefly touches on educational requirements for aspiring lawyers wanting to qualify in the United States and Canada.
In Scotland you will be required to complete a:
Graduate Entry LLB; followed by a
Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP)
The Graduate Entry LLB is a two-year programme. This is a full LLB degree, without the final two honours years. Law courses in Scotland require all modules necessary for professional qualification to be completed in your first two years of study, so you will be doing the same modules as ordinary first and second years (although graduate-entry students are typically offered their own tutorial groups). Regardless of the area you intend to specialise in, all students are required to complete courses including Criminal, Family, Property, and Commercial Law.
The DPLP is the second component of your studies. It must be completed prior to commencing a traineeship and remains valid for five years. It focuses on practical and professional skills. Most universities run these with continuous assessment, although the University of Edinburgh offers the only programme with exams and is generally thought to be more intensive.
If you are interested in becoming an advocate in Scotland, you must first qualify as a solicitor and complete a traineeship. Some abridged “Bar traineeships” may be available, but it is often advisable to gain some professional experience and build a reputation and clientele before making the transition to the Bar.
It is worth noting that Scotland, as a jurisdiction which combines common and civil law, prepares students well for further study and practice in other mixed jurisdictions. The legal system is particularly similar to Quebec, Louisiana, and South Africa.
In England you will be required to complete a:
Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL); and then a
Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)
The GDL is a conversion course, rather than a full law degree. It is a one year programme which includes subjects such as Contract, Tort, Land, and Equity and Trusts Law. This course is also offered online. Even if you complete a Scottish Graduate Entry LLB, if you want to qualify in England, you will still have to complete a GDL. Many core areas of law retain remarkable differences in the two jurisdictions (particularly Land, Criminal, and Equity Law), even if areas such as commercial law have largely been brought in line to facilitate economic cooperation.
The LPC is the English equivalent of the DPLP and is intended for aspiring solicitors. If you want to become a barrister, however, you need to undertake a BPCT instead.
However, the education and training route for solicitors is set to change in the near future with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). This is meant to make testing standardised and more accessible to non-law graduates and more diverse candidates. Preparatory courses are being offered for this which look quite similar to the GDL. Phasing this in has been rocky, and there is quite a bit of controversy around it. It is worth stayings up to date with developments in this area.
In the United States you will need to sit a state Bar Exam in order to practice law. The prerequisites for sitting the Bar vary by state. One common option for internationally educated lawyers is to sit the Bar in New York. However, the requirement for doing so is a three-year law degree, so it cannot be done immediately after converting to law in the United Kingdom. One way to achieve this is to complete the Graduate Entry LLB and then a Masters of Law (LLM). By completing this in the US in particular, you have time to familiarise yourself with the legal system and study for the Bar.
In Canada the requirements also vary by province. In Ontario, for example, you can convert by taking a number of exams prior to training/articling, but these are self-taught, open-book exams and you can gain exemptions for some subjects which are largely equivalent to one another.
Training and Securing a Contract
In both Scotland and England, qualifying as a solicitor requires a two-year traineeship. While smaller and local or boutique firms may recruit at varying intervals, most large commercial firms operate on a two-year cycle. Internships will be offered in the summer before your final year of law school, with successful interns securing training contracts for two years in the future (giving time to finish legal studies and the DPLP/LPC). The recruitment process for internships is competitive, with many firms requiring psychometric testing and assessment centre days in addition to traditional interviews. Many firms also have direct-to-traineeship applications if you have not completed an internship with them in the past, and several also require further assessment after the internship. A potential benefit to training with a large commercial firm is that many will sponsor your DPLP/LPC tuition fees. Some may do so retrospectively if you have completed it before securing your traineeship.
This recruitment cycle is a key point to note if you choose accelerated study and do not want to take any further time out. In Scotland, you will want to start applications for internships immediately in your first semester of the Graduate Entry LLB, often without much experience of law or understanding of the industry, in order to secure a placement before your final year. To secure a contract in England, you will need to apply in your final year of your undergraduate degree.
It is not uncommon for people to have a gap of a year or two between studying and beginning a training contract. Some firms may offer future trainees paralegal work, or advertise vacancies with clients. Some people will choose to undertake Masters degrees or embark on a gap year.
Qualifying in Scotland can be particularly difficult for international students. If you do not secure a training contract in accordance with the schedule above, you can run into some trouble. Securing a Tier 2 general work visa is dependent on salary. The minimum salary required for solicitors (as per Appendix J of the Immigration Rules which is subject to regular change and adjustment) is £32,800 for experienced workers and £24,000 for new entrants. However, trainee salaries in Scotland can be pretty low (the Law Society recommends a minimum of £19,500). As this is significantly lower than what is required, even taking into account the “new entrant” rate exception, it limits your choices to larger commercial firms. It is worth conducting research on salaries through resources such as LegalCheek and Glassdoor.
Ensuring you can take advantage of the new entrant rate exception is important. You must either:
Be under 26 on the date the application was made;
Be exempt from the Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT) under the post-study work provisions (meaning you cannot take any breaks between studying and training - you must be on a valid student visa and have achieved a recognised degree when applying for your work visa);
Or ensure the RLMT was met under the provisions for new graduates jobs or internships.
Pay in London will generally satisfy the immigration requirements, and many people who are not successful at securing a Scottish training contract pursue a GDL and apply to City firms.
Graduate Entry LLB Year 1 (apply for placements)
Graduate Entry LLB Year 2
Undergraduate Degree (apply for placements in final year)