Published in 2018 for use of University of St Andrews students wishing to pursue a career in law in England and Wales.

Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)

GDL: The Basics

  • Must be completed by all non-law graduates wishing to qualify as solicitors or barristers in England or Wales. No prior legal knowledge is necessary

    • Effectively ‘converts’ a non-law degree into a qualifying law degree

    • Employers do not make a distinction between LLB and GDL applicants (Half of all solicitors in England and Wales did not study law)

  • Completed within a year if studied full-time or two years if part-time

  • Programme: approximately 45 hours a week of study including workshops, lectures, tutorials and independent learning

    • 7 core modules: contract law, criminal law, equity and trusts, EU law, land law, public law and torts law

    • Written exams at the end of the academic year form the bulk of the final grade. Other assessments (eg. academic essays, written problem questions and practical preparation for classroom debates) throughout the year also count to the final grade

  • Fees: range from £5,000 to £11,000 a year. Courses based in London are usually more expensive

    • Funding options available include sponsorship from a training contract provider, scholarships from universities, Professional and Career Development Loans (PCDL) or part-time employment

  • NB: Will be replaced by the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) in 2020 for future solicitors (See below for further information). Will continue to be a requirement for non-law students pursuing a career at the Bar

How to apply:

  • Applications for the full-time GDL must be made through the Central Applications Board

    • There is no formal deadline as law schools now recruit on a rolling basis - apply at the earliest convenience

    • Entry requirements include a UK degree of at least 2:2 in any subject and a good command of both spoken and written English. Relevant work experience may be taken into account when applying to the more competitive institutions

    • Many law schools now offer January fast-track courses (lasting 7 months) in addition to traditional September starts (lasting 9 months)

    • BPP University (1,584 validated places) and University of Law (2,280 validated places) are the two biggest institutions

  • Applications for the part-time GDL must be made directly to the individual provider you wish to study with

Qualifying as a Barrister

Chambers Student

Chambers Student

Barrister: The Basics

  • Specialise in litigation and advocacy, offering specialist legal advice and holding exclusive rights of audience in the courts or at a tribunal

  • Most specialise in one area of law, such as family law or company law. The type of work varies according to the area of law (eg. criminal barristers spend most of their time in court representing clients, while commercial barristers spend most of their time in chambers advising or negotiating contracts)

  • Duties: conduct legal research, advise and represent clients at hearings, prepare court documents, mediate and negotiate settlements and construct complex legal arguments

  • Most are self-employed, affiliated with a set of chambers which specialise in certain areas of the law and share administrative services

    • Some are employed ‘in-house’ by large organisations, such as the Government Legal Service

  • Inns of Court: ‘Call’ a person to the Bar and provide training, guidance, mooting and social networking opportunities, as well as generous study scholarships. All barristers must join an Inn

    • There are four Inns: Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple

  • Bar Council: Oversees the barrister profession and is responsible for representing, supporting, advising and offering services to barristers

  • Bar Standards Board: Monitors and regulates the training and conduct of barristers, also deals with conduct related complaints

Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)

  • Must be completed by future barristers, as the necessary link between the GDL and pupillage

  • Completed within a year if studied full-time or two years if part-time

  • Programme: heavy emphasis on face-to-face teaching, with oral skills classes and written skills tested through unseen tests and homework

    • Core areas: civil litigation and remedies, criminal litigation and sentencing, evidence and professional ethics

    • Skills assessments vary by each provider, although there are standardised and centralised exams (consisting of multiple choice and short answer questions) for civil litigation, criminal litigation and ethics

  • Fees: range from £12,000 to £19,000 a year. Courses in London are more expensive

    • Funding options available include scholarships from the Inns of Court, postgraduate students loans, professional student loans, pupillage drawn-down and institution bursaries/competitions

How to apply:

  • Applications must be made through the Bar Student Application Service

    • First-round applicants can apply from mid-December until mid-January, while clearing-round applicants are accepted from April until the end of January

      • First round offers are released in March. Applicants who have not received an offer from their first three preferences in the first round will have their lower three preferences considered in the second round

    • Up to six programmes (full and part time) can be applied for. There are nine providers at locations in London, Bristol, Cardiff, Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. Prioritise your favourites to avoid disappointment

    • Entry requirements include a qualifying law degree (GDL or LLB at 2:2 or above), completing the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT), fluency in the English language and joining an Inn of Court. Evidence of commitment to the profession (eg. mooting and work experience) is also highly regarded


  • A one-year period of training, required to qualify as a practising barrister

  • Usually undertaken with a set of chambers. Sets typically have two pupils, although numbers can vary anywhere from one to five

  • Pupils work full-time under the supervision of an experience barrister and are assessed throughout the year, after which they can apply for a tenancy with the chambers

    • They are expected to master advocacy, negotiation, drafting and research skills during their training

  • Split into two 6-month periods called ‘sixes’

    • First ‘six’: pupils shadow their supervisors and assist them as necessary. Typical tasks include undertaking research and drafting skeleton arguments

    • Second ‘six’: pupils handle their own cases and clients, with full rights of audience in the courts

    • Formal appraisals are conducted at the end of each ‘six’ to gauge progress

  • Two courses (advocacy training and practice management) must also be completed during the year

    • Both courses are run by the Inns of Court and often occur during the first six

  • An offer of tenancy is made at the end of the year, in which the set invites the pupil to join their chambers as a self-employed practitioner

How to apply:

  • The central application system is the Pupillage Gateway

    • Applications open in January and close in February (one month window), with offers being made by sets in May. Vacancy adverts start to go live in November

    • The majority of offers are made following completion of the BPTC

    • Applicants must specify their education, employment history, scholarships/prizes and other experiences, in addition to answering questions such as ‘Why do you believe you will make a good barrister?’ and ‘Why do you wish to join this set of chambers?’ (typically 200 words maximum)

  • Some chambers run their own application schemes, although still advertise vacancies on the Pupillage Gateway

    • Deadlines and application methods vary among non-Gateway sets

  • Most sets run two rounds of interviews

    • First is usually a sit-down interview with a few barristers, focusing on a topical legal or ethical question, or discussing current legal issues

    • Second is typically an interview in front of a large panel from the chambers, focusing on a contract/statute or legal case study (given in advance)

Work experience: Mini-pupillages

  • A period of shadowing and assessment within a set of chambers, crucial in the pupillage application process

    • Pupils observe barristers in chambers and court, exposing them to the fundamentals of the job. The programmes, and degree of involvement, vary according to the ad hoc affairs of the chambers

  • Typically last between two and five days and are usually unpaid, with some being assessed

    • Assessments include written work (eg. pupil being instructed to analyse a set of papers that is then discussed with the supervisor) and feedback on the quality of queries or overall manner

  • Court visits, judge marshalling and mooting trials are also excellent ways to gain work experience in the field

How to apply:

  • Applications must be made directly to the set of chambers offering the vacancy

    • Applicants are usually second-year law students and above or GDL students and above, as sets generally prefer students who are further along in their law studies and have a demonstrable interest in a career at the Bar

      • There is no hard rule, however, and you can apply at any point in your studies

    • Minis are usually available during term-time

    • Exact criteria varies with individual chambers - check their websites before applying for accurate information on deadlines and the application process

      • Most sets require a CV-based form, or a cover letter and CV

Qualifying as a Solicitor

Chambers Student

Chambers Student

Solicitor: The Basics

  • Provide legal advice to clients on personal, business or individual rights issues

  • Advise on the steps needed to proceed and then manage a case or deal until its conclusion. Act as first point of contact for clients, referring to barristers for a second opinion or specialist advocacy when necessary. Some (solicitor advocates) hold rights of audience, ie. speaking on behalf of clients in court, following specialist training

    • Split into contentious (resolving disputes) or non-contentious legal work

  • Duties: draft and negotiate contracts and legal documents, provide specialist commercial and legal advice, conduct legal research and interpret complex points of law

  • Most are employed in private practice, within law firms (increasing seniority, international opportunities)

    • Others are employed ‘in-house’ in commerce and industry, or within local and central government, court services, charities or armed forces

  • Career progression within law firms is strictly hierarchical: trainee solicitors, junior associates, senior associates, partners

  • The Law Society: Supports and represents solicitors whilst promoting them within the legal profession

  • Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA): Regulates law firms, solicitors and other employees

Legal Practice Course (LPC)

  • A vocational course that must be completed before a training contract

    • Designed to bridge the gap between academic study and training in a law firm, providing a practical foundation for a training contract

  • Typically takes seven months to complete if studied full-time

  • Programme: both knowledge and skills based, with heavy emphasis on workshops, continued assessment, independent research and group discussions

    • Consists of two stages: core, compulsory subjects (eg. business law, property law and litigation) and optional, vocational electives (eg. family law, employment law)

    • Assessments are usually open-book exams and written assessments

  • Fees: range from £11,000 to £16,000. Courses in London are more expensive

    • Funding options available include training contract providers, Career Development Loans (CDL), law school scholarships or part-time work

How to apply:

  • Applications for the full-time LPC must be made through the Central Applications Board

    • There is no formal deadline as law schools now recruit on a rolling basis - apply at the earliest convenience. Students can apply to three courses

    • Most applications open in September and remain open until just before the course begins. Providers may make offers to students immediately, as they are notified weekly of new submissions

    • A letter of reference is required and should be obtained early. An SRA check on character and suitability (eg. criminal convictions or evidence of cheating in exams) is also required

  • Applications for the part-time LPC must be made directly to the individual provider

Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)

Chambers Student

Chambers Student

  • New two-part ‘superexam’ that all solicitors must pass at the point of qualifying, due to be introduced in Autumn 2021 by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)

    • Will replace the GDL and LPC, although the LPC will continue to be recognised until as late as 2032

  • Programme: Taken at the start and end of a two-year period of practical training respectively

    • Stage one (SQE1) will cover legal knowledge

      • Will cover the seven foundations of legal knowledge

      • Assessments will be split into two exams (multiple-choice questions and written assessment)

    • Stage two (SQE2) will test practical skills

      • Will assess client interviewing, advocacy/oral communication, case and matter analysis, legal research and written advice, and legal drafting

      • Assessments will include practical exercises (eg. mock interviews) on two areas of law

    • Qualifying legal experience (QLE) will not be assessed

  • Requirements: university degree (law or non-law), passing the SRA’s character and suitability assessment, passing SQE1 and SQE2 stages and having two years’ qualifying legal experience (QLE)

    • Makes it possible for paralegal experience, volunteering roles and placements through university to count towards legal experience requirements

Training Contracts

  • A two-year period of working at a law firm, required to qualify

    • Essentially an apprenticeship in law

  • Trainees gain practical legal experience, under supervision of mid-level to senior associates or partners, in three distinct areas of law. Transactional and contentious experience is required

    • They typically spend time in four ‘seats’ in different departments (six months in each) and are allocated departments according to preferences or firm requirements

    • There are also often international or client secondment opportunities available

  • Commonly completed in private practice, but there are also government, commerce and prosecution contracts up for grabs

  • Trainees are assessed through appraisals, with formal meetings with supervisors often taking place at the end of each set, and must complete the Professional Skills Course

  • It is not guaranteed that a firm will retain you on qualification (Around 80% of qualifying trainees stay at their firms)

How to apply:

  • Applications must be made directly to the graduate recruitment teams at law firms

    • Many firms look to fill contracts two years in advance, requiring an application usually at the end of fourth year or summer before the GDL

    • Application deadlines are typically set in either December/January or June, although firms sometimes do not wait until after the deadline to begin reviewing applications

    • Exact criteria varies with individual firms, although most set a minimum requirement of a 2:1 degree. Ensure each application is tailored specifically to a firm and demonstrate a strong enthusiasm for the law

    • Type of law, location and size (eg. regional, international) are all important factors to consider when choosing which firms to apply to

    • Most firms run two types of interviews: competency based and commercial awareness (case study/article) based

Work experience: Vacation schemes and insight days

  • Vacation schemes: periods of work experience, usually lasting one to two weeks (although they may be longer)

    • Most schemes occur during the summer, although some firms offer Easter and winter vacation opportunities as well

    • Firms in London may pay up to £400 per week, with those outside London paying closer to £200 per week

    • Firms also use these schemes as a way to secure training contract recruits - they look for a good fit both academically and socially, reviewing how you fit in and conduct yourself in the work environment

      • Most firms conduct training contract interviews at the end of vacation schemes, with some firms now exclusively recruiting trainees from their vacation scheme

  • Insight days: short opportunities, specifically for first or second year students, to visit a law firm and gain initial experience in working at a firm, typically lasting one or two days

    • Most insight days are held around Easter time

    • Open/insight days are great for building relationships with firms, gaining insight into their working culture and understanding more about the work they do, and may help lead to vacation schemes and later training contracts

  • Work shadowing and pro bono work are also excellent ways to gain work experience in the field

How to apply:

  • Vacation schemes: Applications must be made directly to the graduate recruitment teams at law firms

    • Most applications open in Autumn. The biggest deadline is the 31st of January, as most deadlines are in December and January

    • Applications usually consist of a CV and cover letter

  • Insight days: Applications must be made directly to the graduate recruitment teams at law firms

    • Most deadlines are around the end of February, although this varies as firms can often host several insight days throughout the year

    • Applications usually consist of a CV and cover letter

Alternative Careers in Law

Other career opportunities

  • In-house lawyers: know the ins and outs of the company, with work varying from employment issues to drafting commercial contracts

    • Around 500 companies offer in-house training contracts, including the BBC, JP Morgan, BT and Mercedes Benz

  • Law centres: specialise in social welfare law and reform, advising and representing disadvantaged members of the local community in areas such as discrimination, education, employment and immigration

    • Newly qualified solicitors and paralegals are usually taken on

  • Government Legal Service: draft new legislation and advise ministers and policy makers within various government departments

    • Training places (≈50) are offered via a Legal Trainee Scheme, in either HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the Government Legal Department (GLD) or the National Crime Agency (NCA)

  • Crown Prosecution Service: review and prosecute criminal cases following police investigations, advising on criminal law, evidence and criminal charges

    • Training places (≈30) are offered via a Legal Trainee Scheme

  • Local government: advise elected council members and senior officials on issues such as employment, administrative law, property and commercial contracts

    • Trainees are usually graduates, who undertake seat rotations by shadowing solicitors and gradually building up their own caseload

  • Paralegals: support solicitors and barristers by conducting legal research, carrying out office administration and organising case files and documents in preparation for court

    • Many graduates seek paralegal experience while looking for a training contract or pupillage, or as a part-time role alongside their legal studies

  • Legal executives: specialise and qualify into one or two particular areas of the law, with similar duties to solicitors

    • The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) offers level 3 and 6 CILEx qualifications, as well as graduate fast-track diplomas. Three years of qualifying employment must be completed for a portfolio of work-based learning

  • Career options also include working in the Army Legal Services (ALS), HM Courts & Tribunals Service, Law Commission or Legal Aid Agency (LAA), or as a patent/trade mark attorney, compliance officer, barristers’ clerk or legal secretary

Helpful Links

Letter from the Authors

Dear aspiring lawyers attending St Andrews,

Navigating the complex legal landscape and finding the right career path can often be a challenging and daunting prospect for non-law students. We hope this guide can act as an introduction to U.K. (England and Wales) law for students of all disciplines and at all stages of their academic careers. We wish you the very best of luck in your pursuits and a great future in law!

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.

Kind Regards,

Lydia Peterson and Danielle Stobie