International students: possible routes to qualification

Qualifying as a lawyer in the UK can be a confusing process as an international student. The route to qualification that’s best for you will depend on where you are in your education and which jurisdiction you’re qualified in, so it’s important to be informed before setting out to become a lawyer.

  • Last updated Sep 20, 2019 12:23:50 PM
  • Emma Finamore

 1. If you are a pre-university student

If you have not yet attended university and you are applying for a course at a UK university or law school, remember that factors such as your nationality and the academic level of your course may indicate the required documents for an application. 

The following documents are required to apply for an undergraduate law degree:

• Higher school qualification (A-levels or equivalent)

• Your grades from previous education

• English language proficiency

If you are a non-EEA or Swiss national and are coming to the UK to study, then you must apply to the Home Office for a visa permitting you to do so. In most cases, you will need to obtain a Tier 4 (General) visa. You must be sponsored by an education provider licensed by the UK Home Office to apply for a Tier 4 visa.

Once this is organised, you can follow the graduate route to qualification in the UK: taking either a law degree or another degree followed by a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), followed by the Legal Practice Course and a period of recognised training known as a training contract.

After you have successfully completed the academic and vocational stages of training, you can apply to be registered with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). This registration is referred to as the roll of solicitors in England and Wales.

Once registered, you can apply for your first practising certificate. This entitles you to practise as a solicitor, and it's at this stage you become a member of the Law Society of England and Wales.

Apprenticeships represent an alternative to the traditional graduate route to qualification, and it's now possible to qualify as a solicitor this way. International students are allowed to take apprenticeships in the UK. However, remember that an apprenticeship is considered a regular job by law, so certain restrictions may apply to you as an international student.

 2. If you’re a law graduate in a different jurisdiction

Overseas law degrees are not recognised by the SRA as qualifying law degrees. If you have a law degree from an overseas institution, you can in some circumstances apply to the SRA for a Certificate of Academic Standing in order to skip the GDL and qualify for direct entry onto the LPC or BPTC. 

If you cannot obtain a Certificate of Academic Standing, you must enter the profession the same way as domestic non-law students: via the GDL.

After completing law school, you must complete two further years of training within a law firm: a training contract. 

Students who have completed a full-time degree in any subject (not just law) from an overseas university qualify for entry onto the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), after which you can complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) if you want to become a solicitor, or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) if you want to be a barrister. (In addition, foreign lawyers following the QLTS—which is explained in further detail below—who have successfully completed the LPC are entitled to apply to the SRA for full exemption from the multiple choice test). 

Bear in mind that from September 2020 everyone wishing to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales, including overseas candidates, will be encouraged to take the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).

3. If you’re a qualified lawyer in a different jurisdiction

If you are already a qualified, practising lawyer in your home jurisdiction and want to work in the UK, then you can use the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) as a route to qualification in the UK.  

The QLTS has vastly expanded the number of jurisdictions from which lawyers can cross-qualify. The QLTT was only designed for EU and Commonwealth citizens, but the QLTS can be completed by individuals from many more jurisdictions including Russia, China and several South American countries. Unlike the old system, the QLTS no longer requires applicants to have two years' experience practising English or common law. Instead, they undertake a series of assessments.

 From 2021 the QLTS will be replaced by the SQE, a two-part exam to be taken by anyone who wants to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales. This will change things for both domestic and overseas candidates, as overseas lawyers will need to pass this exam to practice in England and Wales. 

Next article: Living in the UK 

If you're currently on the hunt for a Training Contract or Vacation Scheme, head over to our Law Jobs section. 

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