Law: applications, employability and careers
From the UEA Teachers’ and Advisers’ Conference, June 2015
Deborah Ives, Senior Lecturer in Employment Law and Admissions Director for the School of Law LLB programmes, gave a breakout session in which she talked about the way law degrees work, the things that make applications stand out, and the rewards of doing a law degree.
The University of East Anglia is the 8th best law school in the country this year according to the Guardian League Tables for 2016 and gets multiple applications for every place, enrolling between 120 and 150 students a year. So it is a competitive course to get onto, and it’s important to get those A level grades.
Ms Ives gave some critical advice for those writing their personal statements: “The most important thing? Don’t quote famous lawyers. I get about 1000 to 1200 applications and about half of them will quote some famous lawyer: Gandhi, Obama, etc. It doesn’t give the application any meaning.”
She said it’s vital to remember that the degree is not all about criminal law, something which many applicants fail to grasp – especially if they have done an A level in the subject. “A level law is mostly about criminal law,” she said, “but only 1/18th of a law degree. [A level law is] not necessarily an advantage but it can get students interested in doing a law degree.
“Applications are often all about crusading for justice, but a student who shows a wider appreciation of law in the world is more favourably looked on.”
In fact, there is no special A level route that leads naturally into law. She explained: “We don’t have a set preference in terms of subjects we want them to have studied. What we’re looking for is achievement. Maths and science students can be excellent lawyers. They are used to dealing with rule-based things and working through the logical stages of things. Language students also make very good lawyers. The key thing is being able to communicate. It’s persuasion.”
An applicant should show they have thought about how their experience in the real world relates to their ambition to study law. Ms Ives said: “What we look for is somebody who says they are interested in law, but how have they evidenced that? How have they demonstrated that? How have they furthered that interest?
“It doesn’t have to be in any kind of formal way. They don’t have to have done work experience in a solicitor’s office.” For instance, she said, it might be “volunteering to go on a police identity parade; being advocates on behalf of people for whatever reason, getting experience of [representing] somebody else’s circumstances.”
Working in retail is entirely relevant, she said, if the applicant “has taken the time to understand the legal implications of transactions, safety, rules about protection, etc.
“Musical or sporting achievements are also important but often overlooked. They show determination and a willingness to practice to improve.”
A good applicant will be “somebody who’s interested in the world around them and the rules that operate.”
What kind of character does she look for? “It’s intellectually quite rigorous so they do need to be quite bright and determined. And they need creativity: it’s a really important factor in becoming a good lawyer. Lawyers take a landscape of law and look for the loopholes – They ask: ‘What happens if…?’ The best lawyers are really creative in terms of their thinking.”
The value of a law degree
Ms Ives said that a law degree will not necessarily lead to a career as a solicitor or barrister, particularly in the wake of the recession (though opportunities for employment are recovering after the recession). A law degree can open doors into all kinds of other careers, she said.
“Everybody thinks it’s so vocational but it’s such a powerful degree because of the skills it gives you. We have a whole range of different employers interested [in our law graduates], because employers know they are going to have a good deal of intellectual ability and all those things a law degree will make them do: team working, time management, presentation skills.”
Choosing the right law school
Ms Ives said: “One of the things to look at when advising your students is not just the degree programme, which is pretty much the same wherever you go because of the professional regulation, it’s what else is there to look for to help them make a choice.”
Students should look carefully at what the course offers. “Are they looking for employability? A progressive modern law school will have good employability opportunities. Look at the staffing at the universities. Are they all academics, or do they also have lawyers who practice? If they are practising, their links with the industry are likely to be very good.
“Are your students looking for the opportunity to work within their law degree? We do lots of pro bono work within our Law Clinic. It may even be going into a tribunal and representing someone as an unqualified lay person. That kind of experience is invaluable for a CV where you need to differentiate yourself from other applicants with similar qualifications’.
“Do they want to get involved in that kind of practice working beside lawyers? They’re actually forming professional relationships and networks at a very early stage in a law career.”
“Those kinds of activities are really quite important, in terms of where your students want to end up. To get a good job later you need the academic achievement, but also the skills and experience along the way.”
Professional qualification routes
The standard route for a career in law is to study for the LLB – the Bachelor of Laws degree. This is normally a ‘qualifying’ degree which gives access to the professional stage of training leading to Law Society or Bar examinations followed by a training contract of two years (for would-be solicitors) or a pupillage year (for barristers).
However, the landscape is changing radically. Ms Ives explained that the system of the qualifying law degree for solicitors followed by a training contract is going to change to a competency-based framework.
The professional bodies are reacting, Ms Ives said, to “a wide disparity between the standards of the different courses that provide the professional training stage.”
So from 2017, the system will be different. However, Ms Ives said, “we don’t yet know who is going to assess competency and at what point the competencies are going to be assessed.
“Some of those competencies may be gained through work in private practice. But there may be scope for students who are doing an academic law degree to get those competencies from their university studies, to combine the academic stage and professional stage. We just don’t know yet what form the new qualifying regime will take.”
“It may be that the very top law firms will say: ‘We are still only going to recruit you if you have a very good academic law degree’ regardless of what other routes are available to qualification.”
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