Is it better to do Law as an affiliated/senior status student at Oxbridge or to do a Law conversion course?

What are the advantages to studying Law as a second undergrad degree compared to doing a Graduate Diploma in Law? Are the fees and extra time as an undergrad worth it at Oxbridge if my goal is to become a qualifying lawyer (as well as a History student)?

What are the most reputable places to study for a GDL if the former option isn’t possible? Does reputation matter when it comes to conversion courses? Do people with Graduate Diplomas in Law have job prospects equivalent to typical LLB students?

Alternatively, what sort of degrees would it be appropriate to switch from if one were studying under Cambridge’s tripos system? According to their website, it’s possible to combine Law with another subject one-year/two-years after commencing study, extending the course to a four-year degree in some cases. Do colleges look down on requests to switch degrees? Would it be folly to apply for a degree in Philosophy with the intention of switching to Law, and do many people do stuff like this?

just wonderin’

Also, what sort of criteria are looked at when judging candidates for a senior status program in Law (at Oxford and Cambridge)? Do they still look at A-Levels and GCSEs or is it the quality of one’s degree that matters (e.g. getting a first, a 2.1, etc.)

What can I do as a student already at university to make myself more competitive for Oxbridge Law admissions? Is work experience in the law valued much?

Hi anonymous58,

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.

Oh boy, what a full answer – thanks!

I did have one follow up question though. How difficult is it for graduates in non-law courses to transition into law-related academia, and how often does this happen? Law seems like the sort of subject where a undergraduate degree in the same discipline is needed for further study, since a course in law (I assume) will probably cover more legal topics in greater depth than something like the GDL which, as you say, is for students who wish to be lawyers, not academics.

I guess I should also ask how often practicing lawyers decide to move into academia. Do many professors practice law before becoming lecturers? And if they do, how many of them do you think do non-law degrees and then the GDL? Most universities seem to list professors with PhDs and LLMs or similar, but would these degree programs accept a student whose only legal qualification was the GDL?

Sorry about the number of questions. I just found your last answer was immensely helpful :slight_smile:

Thanks for the compliment - happy to help! As before, I’ll split the questions into two nice segments.

1) How difficult is it to transition from non-law courses/GDL to a law masters/PhD?

The good news is yes, there are graduates in non-law courses who transition into law-related academia. LLM courses in the UK do consider the GDL, as long as you’ve done exceptionally well (though I’m not sure about US law schools’ stance on the GDL).

For instance, Oxford’s admissions criteria for the BCL (its LLM equivalent) clearly states on the website:

‘In the absence of an undergraduate degree in law, candidates may be admitted with a postgraduate diploma or master’s qualification in law at distinction level.’

Likewise, Cambridge’s LLM admissions criteria (also taken from the website) also states:

‘The Cambridge LLM Admissions Committee will consider applications from those whose first degree is not in Law provided they have substantial relevant professional legal experience or have obtained a professional legal qualification with the equivalent of a First Class result. However, a first degree in Law is the preferred preparation for the Cambridge LLM.’

The caveat to this, of course, is that while a GDL may be an accepted credential for applying to LLMs, it doesn’t guarantee you admission. If you’re targeting the top law schools, your competition will likely be a string of law graduates with glittering CVs and recommendations, and they’ll have had three years to demonstrate their law-related competence. In contrast, you’ll have one year to prove yourself, and you’re going to need to be a truly outstanding student - as the criteria above states, you’ll need a Distinction in your GDL, and you’ll need recommendations and preferably work experience to back you up. So the short answer is that it’s not impossible, and I do know people who’ve accomplished this feat - but it won’t be a walk in the park.

I’m not familiar with anyone who’s gone from the GDL straight to a law PhD, so take this next piece with a pinch of salt. But as a rule, PhD admissions are usually more competitive than masters programmes, since the faculty is more likely to award you fellowship money and expect you to do some undergraduate teaching. However, if you already have a LLM, you should be eligible to apply for a law PhD, assuming you have the standard suite of strong grades, good recommendations, research publications, etc. Some law PhD programmes do take graduates from other disciplines who are conducting law-related research, but this is a lot rarer - research the schools’ admissions criteria to determine their stance on this.

2) Longer-term prospects in academia

As for how often practicing lawyers move into academia - some do, but it’s by no means compulsory to practice first. There are a number of law professors who choose to practice law before becoming academics. It’s not always essential for an academic career, but some law professors start out in practice before deciding that their interests are better suited to research. In other cases, it provides a career edge; PhDs with work experience do sometimes find that the experience complements their research and gives them a leg up in the competition for limited tenured positions, particularly if their work experience was significant/valuable. I don’t personally know any academics who started out with the GDL - but that could be because the GDL wasn’t an option back when most of these (older) professors began their university studies.

On the flip side, there are plenty of professors who don’t practice at all, and go straight into academia. Some professors did law as a second degree (particularly the ones who studied in the US/Canada). Some fields, such as public and international law, are more difficult to practice in the traditional sense since they’re not the bread and butter of most firms/chambers. There are also professors who specialise in private law who have law degrees and PhDs, but little or no practice experience. And interestingly, there are also research fellows in law faculties who have no law degrees, but are working on areas that relate to law - legal philosophers, criminologists, researchers on international law/relations, or media law and policy (there are, in fact, a few examples of this in the Oxford Socio-Legal Studies division).

To think about your question in a broader sense, you might want to consider the reason why you’re pursuing a law qualification. Is it strictly for practice, or are you more inclined to academic research? Would other degrees help achieve your aim of going into academia? Bear in mind that either way, your choices aren’t necessarily closed completely - you just need to keep the pros and cons in mind!