I’m one of the Crimson consultants and a recent graduate from Oxford, and I completed the BA Jurisprudence. It was my first degree, but I’ve worked with second-undergrad people on the course and I’m familiar with the dilemmas you described, as well as employer expectations. I’ll take each of your queries in turn!
1. Doing law as a second undergrad vs GDL
If your goal is to become a qualifying lawyer, either path is viable. Do note that regardless of which path you take, you will still need to take the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) if you intend to qualify as a solicitor or barrister.
That being said, there are a few pros and cons to each, and I’ll go through them one by one.
Cost: If you’re doing a law degree at Oxford or Cambridge as a senior status student, you can do the degree in 2 years instead of 3, which will save you at least one year’s fees. There’s no question, however, that doing a GDL is a cheaper option since it’s a 1-year programme (though you should also take living costs into account).
However, if you have already secured a training contract or pupillage, it’s likely that your law firm/chambers will pay for you to do the GDL and the LPC/BPTC, so if your intent is to become a practicing lawyer, it’s worth thinking about whether to apply directly for a training contract or pupillage first. The firms and chambers are usually happy to take on non-law students on their vacation schemes/mini-pupillages, and if you prove competent, they will offer you a contract and pay for your law school fees, so it’s a far more cost-effective strategy!
Programme: Doing a GDL is shorter and saves you time, although you should keep in mind that it’s a very rigorous one year programme. You’re essentially packing the seven core modules of a law degree into a single year, which means you’ll be doing a lot of work in a short space of time, and it can get stressful. The teaching style is different as well, so the scope of the courses will be a little less broad than a LLB, but it is often more career-focused. If you have not yet secured a training contract or pupillage, you may also want to fill your CV with activities such as mooting, which will take up more time in a compressed year.
Alternatively, doing the law degree at Oxford or Cambridge opens up slightly more breathing room over 2 years, but note that if you do the senior-status BA at Oxford, you won’t have any choice in your modules. This is because in addition to the core modules, Oxford will require that you do a compulsory module in Jurisprudence (that’s legal philosophy), and you’ll need to ‘catch up’ on the modules in Constitutional Law and Criminal Law that most undergrads finish in the first two terms of the first year. Most colleges will also ask you to begin your BA in the final term of what would ordinarily be the first-year of the BA programme, so effectively it’s a 2 and 1/3 year course, and you will join the other undergrads after they have finished Constitutional and Criminal Law. From my understanding, the Cambridge Tripos is structured a little more flexibly so you may get room to take options outside the 7 core modules, but it will be no less stressful, since you’ll still have to compress what most people do in 3 years into 2.
Ultimately it’s a question of what you think you’d want in your legal education - broad vs career-focused - and how quickly you want to get your qualification.
Career prospects: From my understanding, firms don’t have a hard preference for either qualification. In any vacation scheme, you will encounter both law students as well as non-law students who will later go on to take the GDL. The only discernible difference is that the law students may have a slight headstart on the work since they’re somewhat familiar with the subject matter, but that lead quickly evaporates because the work involved in legal practice ultimately differs considerably from the academic work in law school.
In that respect, choosing the GDL over the law degree poses no real disadvantage to your prospects in a law firm. The main disadvantage in doing a GDL is that it is mainly a qualification for non-law graduates to practice, and has little utility beyond that. So if you have any doubts at all about being a practising lawyer, it’s worth thinking about whether the investment is worth it. Bear in mind that it gives no guarantees of getting hired at a law firm, so since you’re still at university, I would seriously consider applying to a vacation scheme first and getting a firm to sponsor you if they offer you a contract. In addition, some jurisdictions outside the UK may not accept a GDL as a formal qualification for legal practice, so it’s also something to think about if you intend to qualify for practice in a foreign bar at any point in the future.
The main career advantage in doing your law degree at Oxbridge is the university environment, since law firms and chambers tend to come down for networking and drinks events, and this will give you a chance to network and speak with partners/associates. The disadvantage is that it is still much more expensive/time-consuming, and can be a stressful experience - taking finals in Oxbridge can be a very difficult affair! And there are no guarantees - you’ll still need to put in the work of applying and researching firms to stand a chance in the crowded legal market.
No matter which you pick, you will still need to apply for vacation schemes or pupillage to have a strong chance of breaking into a legal career, since many firms hire from their schemes.
2. Switching degrees
I wasn’t from Cambridge, but from my understanding, it’s possible to combine law with another degree. Keep in mind that it’s not always a straightforward process - it depends on your supervising tutor’s willingness to allow you to switch. I highly recommend giving a call to the Admissions Office of the college you have in mind, because the process of switching can differ considerably between colleges. If you intend to do this, it’s worth considering taking a subject with a shorter Part I, because you’ll need at least two years to do the seven core modules in the law degree. From my knowledge, most people switching to law do so after taking a social science or humanities subject - Social/Political Science, History, English, etc. are some of the common subjects taken by people who switch, since there are some similarities in subject matter. But it can vary - there have been instances of people switching from more distant subjects!
In Oxford, this process is difficult and will depend very much on your tutors and the rules of the college you’re in. Although the process differs between colleges, usually your supervising tutor must be willing to let you go, and the receiving tutor (of the subject you’re switching to) must be willing to accept you. Switching may also depend on capacity, because tutors will need to consider how to fit you into the teaching arrangements for their existing cohort of students. This is a process beset by a number of administrative difficulties, and you may be asked to take the year out and reapply, if too much time has passed in the academic year and you’ve already missed a number of tutorials for the subject you intend to switch to. It’s not an easy process by any means, so I’d think carefully before deciding on this.
3. Admissions criteria for senior status programmes
If you are applying to Oxbridge as a senior status student, you will probably be judged primarily on the merit of your first degree. This is because colleges will want to be sure that you’re able to cope with the high load of work in a shorter period of time. To be a competitive applicant, a first is usually required, but a strong 2.1 accompanied by good references may also stand you in good stead.
Work experience will count insofar as it demonstrates a level of interest in the subject, but ultimately it will not matter as much to Oxbridge tutors as your academic grades, unless you’ve already spent a lot of time out of school. Nonetheless, demonstrating interest through law-related activities will give you things to write about in your personal statement!
4. Reputable places to study the GDL
If you have secured a training contract, most firms will require that you do the GDL in the London campuses of either BPP Law School or the University of Law. Some firms also have special arrangements with the GDL/LPC providers, usually for enabling their trainees to take certain modules together or complete the LPC at an accelerated pace. If you don’t have a training contract/pupillage yet, these options are worth thinking about, but I should note that I’m not as familiar with other GDL providers, and my advice would be to secure a training contract or pupillage first.
Good luck with the decision - I know it’s a lot to think about! Drop me a note if you have further questions.