Can I become a lawyer without a law degree?
If you don’t have a degree in law, there are a number of alternative routes into a legal career. There are also changes on the way, bringing more options for would-be solicitors.
At the moment, the usual direct study route into a career as a solicitor or barrister is a full-time qualifying undergraduate law degree (LLB), followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). If you already have a BA (Hons) or BSc (Hons) degree in another subject, you can study for a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) – sometimes called the Common Professional Examination (CPE) – and then go on to study the LPC or BPTC. You will need at least a 2:2 in your degree to study for the GDL, but many employers won’t consider you unless you have a 2:1 or First.
Another option is a Graduate or senior status LLB, but this does involve two years of study before you get to the LPC or BPTC. There are now also a small number of two-year accelerated undergraduate LLBs, but these aren’t yet offered by any of the prestigious universities that top employers prefer to see on CVs.
Fees and funding
Some students secure a job offer from law firms, which then cover their fees for the GDL and LPC. For would-be barristers, some Chambers offer advances on pupillage awards to help with funding BPTC. There are also some awards available from the Inns of Court. Many students fund their own courses. Fees for GDL will depend on where you study, but are in the range of £6,000 to £11,000. LPC will set you back between £8,000 and £15,000, and BPTC from about £13,000 up to an eye-watering £19,000.
Training contracts and pupillage
The LPC or BPTC isn’t the end of the story. To qualify as a solicitor, you need to secure a two-year training contract with a law firm or in-house counsel. Barristers have to successfully complete a 12-month pupillage in Chambers.
Finding a firm or chambers to take you through this final step towards qualification is extremely competitive, with more graduates than places available each year. Although firms don’t seem to favour those with LLB over the GDL route, opting to self-fund your studies is a gamble if you haven’t secured this next step.
If you’re beginning to think that the system could do with an overhaul, you’re not alone. The Solicitors Regulation Authority plans to shake up the way solicitors qualify as early as 2020. They propose a new two-part Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), to replace the LPC, along with more flexible ways of gaining Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). It’s worth noting that law and non-law graduates will both have to take SQE 1, then gain their QWE, followed by SQE 2. Law degrees could be restructured to ensure they prepare students for SQE 1, and any placements undertaken while studying can count towards QWE. Non-law graduates will have to prepare for SQE 1 after graduating, which will involve study. But precisely what this will look like isn’t yet clear.
Legal executive route
Another route to becoming a solicitor if you don’t have a law degree – or any degree – is to study to be a Chartered Legal Executive. You can then take some top-up courses, followed (at the moment) by the LPC. With A levels, you can start with the CILEx Level 3 Professional Diploma in Law and Practice, then move on to the CILEx Level 6 Professional Higher Diploma. Courses are flexible, so you can work while you study. You may even find a junior role with a legal firm willing to help fund your course.
As well as 4–6 years of study, you will need three years of qualifying employment. You can begin this during the final two years of your courses. Once qualified as a legal executive, you can decide whether or not you want to continue on to become a solicitor.
One advantage of this route is that the professional experience you can gain while studying means you don’t have to complete the elusive training contract. Under the proposed system, it’s likely that the CILex route will still meet the criteria for QWE and continue to offer a way to qualify as a solicitor without a degree.
A recent addition to the options, if you don’t have any degree, is the Legal Apprenticeship Scheme. You have to apply for a vacancy advertised by law firms rather than directly to the training provider or university. The scheme launched in 2016, but the first major intake is September 2018. Apprentices will study for an LLB and then the new SQE. The prospect of having your qualification paid for by your employer while earning a salary is attractive, and competition for vacancies is fierce. Entry requirements will vary depending on the firm, but most will demand A Levels or successful completion of a lower-level apprenticeship such as the level 3 paralegal or level 6 Chartered legal executive.
Whatever route you choose will require commitment and determination, but you’ll be rewarded with a challenging and well-paid career.