Feb 09, 2018

Written By Maudie Powell-Tuck, Editor, AllAboutLaw.co.uk

Undergraduate law degree classification explained

Feb 09, 2018

Written By Maudie Powell-Tuck, Editor, AllAboutLaw.co.uk

You may have heard people mention things like a “first”, “two one” or “third” in relation to university, but what are they actually talking about?

How are university degrees graded and how hard is it to get top marks? Well, let’s unpick the different degree classifications and what law firms are looking for...

What your degree grade means for your law career

In the UK, degrees are classified into five groups with a first class degree being the highest level and a pass the lowest.

Honours degrees are based on the average mark of the student throughout their degree; although often the first year does not count towards this final classification.

As a sidenote also, if you're currently looking at undergraduate options, take a look at our LLB Courses section or our advice on choosing a law school.

Degree classifications

The different degree classifications are:

What your degree grade means for your law career

In terms of a law career, the degree classification you achieve will make a large impact on your future and it will stay with you throughout your working life as a bench mark of your academic ability.

The majority of law firms look for candidates with a 2:1 degree grade or above – although it is not unheard of for some firms to accept candidates with a 2:2 degree grade.

Most candidates with a 3rd will find it very difficult to reach the interview stage unless they have mitigating circumstances. With a pass it is, unfortunately, extremely unlikely you will be considered for a role as a solicitor or barrister.

On many degree courses (although not all), the first year does not count towards your final degree classification. But that doesn’t mean that the first year isn’t important!

If you are applying for a training contract or vacation scheme in your second year, law firms will look to your first year marks to gauge your academic ability.

Acceptance on a vacation scheme or pupillage might be based on your first year performance.


First Class Honours

70%+ (Open University 85%+)

Although you could potentially get 100% it is very rare to see marks over 80. A first is the highest degree classification you can get and it was awarded to around 20% of final year full-time undergraduates in 2013/14.

This mark requires sustained excellence throughout the degree; graduates holding such a qualification clearly stand out from their counter-parts.

Upper Second Class Honours

60-69% (Open University 70-85%)

The upper second class degree is the most common degree qualification (50% of full time students graduating in 2013/14 did so with a 2:1) and has been for some years.

This is the minimum educational requirement that the majority of the larger graduate employers will be looking for.

In order to achieve and maintain this degree grade you will need to work consistently throughout your time at university.

Lower Second Class Honours

50-59% (Open University 55-70%)

The lower second class degree is the second most common degree classification and 24% of undergraduate degrees awarded in 2013/14 were at this level.

It’s sometimes referred to as a “Desmond”, although to be honest I have never heard anyone under the age of 30 describe it as one!

This is slightly below the level the majority of firms are looking for; however, it is not unheard of for candidates with a 2:2 degree grade to achieve pupillage or a training contract.

70% of other graduates will have achieved a higher grade than this, which means you’ll have to pull out all of the stops, such as with work experience, to compete for a graduate law role.

Third Class Honours

40-49% (Open University 40-55%)

A third class honours is one of the least common degree classification, with around 6% of full-time students graduating at this level. It may not be possible to follow the traditional route into law with a third given the level of competition for graduate place.

There are other alternatives, such as the CILEx graduate route to become a Legal Executive, working as a paralegal or one of the other alternative careers related to law.

Ordinary degree (e.g. degree without honours)


This is the lowest level of degree that you can obtain. Around 6% of students graduated with an ordinary degree in 2013/14. With this sort of degree, we really recommend talking to a career advisor at your university about your options.

It will be extremely hard to embark upon a graduate career in law.

In conclusion, your degree classification really does matter if you want to pursue a career in law. You’ll need to put in the library time and hard work to ensure that your degree classification won’t limit your career options, and make sure you mix in some legal work experience too!

All statistics were calculated using 2013/14 HESA figures: www.hesa.ac.uk

For further detail on undergraduate options, make sure to check out our LLB Courses section.

Image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org, 'Academic regalia of Harvard University'


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