Overcoming problem areas in academic qualifications

  • Last updated Jul 21, 2016 4:32:05 PM
  • Extract adapted from 'Working in Law' by Charlie Philips

Application systems across the legal profession are heavily focused on academic grades. The general requirements for most employers will be A grades at A-level and GCSE, at least a 2:1 in your degree, and at least a commendation on the GDL and/or LPC, or ‘very competent’ on the BPTC.

How earlier exam grades relate to legal practice:

Many legal employers require you to fill in an online application that won’t let you progress unless you’ve submitted a number of UCAS points, usually equivalent to grades AAB at A-level.

If you have to apply through one of these, then the reality is that there is no way around this if you don’t have the grades. Unfortunately, you don’t meet their eligibility criteria.

This isn’t to say that there are no potential employers out there for you. Work on getting the best possible law grades and combine these with legal work experience; you’ll find that this will help outweigh lower grades from life before law.

There are many excellent legal employers out there who may not have the marketing budgets of the big firms you’ve heard of, but who are no less capable of offering fantastic training and employment opportunities. Keep up your research and contacts and keep your eyes open, as there are plenty of opportunities out there.

Course providers will be less concerned at the odd lower grade on your CV, although you should still check eligibility criteria with the college or university where you intend to study to make sure you have what is required. Contact them if you are in any doubt, or discuss any questions or concerns you have with representatives of the course providers at a course open day.

A lot of people experience the occasional blip in their academic career, and you might feel as though your grades, while generally good, do not tell the whole story, or that some lower grades reduce the overall quality of your academic record.

Inconsistent grades at GCSE and/or A Level:

If your grades are good in some areas, but poor in others, then you should think about why this happened. Are there any reasons that properly explain why you did better in some subjects than in others? Can you work on this to prevent similar erratic results in the future?

Remember that a career in law requires hard work, focus, concentration and stamina (as well as a lot of exams!), so you may need to look at how you approached the exams in which you did not do so well. Ask yourself if you would do things differently now, and, if so, how?

The clearest and best way to demonstrate to an employer that you have what it takes for law is to do well in your law exams and assessments. This is entirely within your control, and with hard work and dedication, you will be able to get some very strong grades.

No A Levels:

This can be for any number of reasons; either you may have decided not to do A Levels, or you may have chosen a career path that did not require you to do them if perhaps some other experience or qualification was required.

This is not a barrier to entry to law, as there are qualification systems available to allow you to bridge these gaps.

In particular, CILEx provides a range of options to gain equivalent qualifications, which are recognised by legal course providers and employers. Legal executive work is some of the best legal work experience there is, and this can be used to replace A Levels, and to count directly towards qualification.

It is possible to replace a set of exam grades you might have missed out on years ago with alternative legal qualifications. When combined with good, practical legal work experience, this can be a very attractive offering to an employer. 

Mitigating circumstances:

Legal employers do take mitigating circumstances into account, if these have been indicated by an applicant.

It’s worth bearing this in mind, because all legal employers receive a high number of high-quality applications, and it would be perfectly possible for them to fill vacancies with the very best candidates, without even looking at people whose lower grades may be explained by perfectly valid reasons.

The important thing to remember is that an employer will only view as mitigating circumstances those situations that would genuinely prevent someone from performing to their optimum level through no fault of their own.

This can’t be used as a way to excuse poor performance because you had decided to concentrate on something other than your work, no matter how positive that other activity was.

If you had a choice as to how you spent your time, this is unlikely to be considered a ‘mitigating circumstance’. If, for example, a parent or other close family member was seriously ill or undergoing treatment while you were at university, then this may quite reasonably have prevented you from fully reaching your potential during your degree.

If you find yourself in this situation, then it is useful to include with your application a reference or explanatory statement from someone (preferably in a position of responsibility) who knew you at the time, as this will add credibility to your explanation.

If you have any doubts as to how best to present this on a CV or application, you should speak to your careers adviser.

Not getting a 2:1 or above in your first degree…

If you were not awarded at 2:1 or a First in your degree, then this will not generally prevent you from getting a place on the various law courses offered by most providers. Note, however, that the BSB requires at least a 2:2 before the GDL or BPTC in order for you to go on to qualify as a barrister.

In any event, you should check each course provider’s entry requirements before you apply. Use the CAB and BSB websites as a starting point.

Employers (law firms, sets of chambers, etc.) are inclined towards offering places to candidates at the higher end of the degree range. Like any employer, this is part of their remit to find the best people.

Measuring candidates by academic results is a relatively consistent method of reducing the risk of taking on people who might not be suitable for the role, but this can be a relatively rough and ready benchmark of aptitude. Legal training positions invariably require more than just academic ability; grades alone may not reveal the full picture of an applicant’s suitability.

 However, sometimes the requirement to have a 2.i is not always a hard and fast rule. Sometimes a candidate with a lower degree, but very good additional attributes on their CV, may trump another applicant with little to offer other than good grades.

You need to make sure that your CV is continually being improved, adding work placements or vacation schemes, and achievements in other activities as you acquire them.

A strong, updated CV demonstrates that your motivation and dedication count for more than one or two weak spots on the academic side. 

So how important is my academic history for a career in law?

Academic results are important in law, and you need to work hard to get the best grades possible in your law exams. These are directly relevant to your career, much more so than a bad GCSE grade in an unrelated subject years ago.

Aim high: try to get distinctions in all modules throughout your GDL, LPC and/or BPTC, and if you put the work in, you will do very well in at least some – if not all – areas.

Know your strengths

If your better grades match the areas of law you are interested in, then so much the better. This will make it much easier to sell yourself to firms or sets of chambers that may work in these areas. If you did well in areas you do not expect to practise in, keep an open mind.

If your grades indicate strengths in areas of law you had not previously considered, then this may suggest a relevant aptitude for these areas; and perhaps you should investigate career possibilities in these areas. 

Extract adapted from Working in Law 2013 by Charlie Phillips.

Working in Law 2013 (published by Trotman) is the definitive guide to getting a career in law for both graduates and non-graduates, giving advice on what to consider before applying for legal training roles, as well as providing details on what the different professional associations offer, the sectors they specialise in and how to obtain a training position.

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