What is the GDL?
The Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) is a one-year ‘conversion course’ for those who wish to become a practicing lawyer but have not studied a bachelor’s degree in Law (LLB) or have studied a different subject at undergraduate level. This article will run through what it includes, why you might choose it and why it could be a good option for your career.
What does it cover?
The course covers all the academic content that is required by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Bar Standards Board and the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX). It will span the course of an academic year (usually 30-36 weeks when studied full-time).
The subjects covered are known as the ‘Foundations of Law’ and, at a minimum, will cover the core subject areas: Contract; Tort; Public Law; Equity & Trusts; Land Law and Criminal Law, as well as including some study of EU law.
Universities may also offer optional modules, as with the LLB, though this is much less common due to the already high workload of studying all core subjects in one single year. At many universities, GDL students have at least 17 hours of contact time a week, with extra sessions scheduled as needed. This is far more than most students experience at an undergraduate level!
Some universities will also require a dissertation, though this is not standard. For example, at Swansea University, students are required to submit an independent piece of legal research on Welsh devolution of around 4000 words, though topics vary depending on the university.
One other subject that universities may choose to include is agency, recommended by the SRA but not required. This may be taught in the same teaching block as Contract Law, or as a separate seminar in its own right.
While the GDL is a much more intensive course than an undergraduate Law degree, many students do choose to work part-time on top of their studies and this can be invaluable for showing law firms that you have commercial awareness. However, with lectures and seminars on every day of the week, most choose to work only casual hours on weekends and evenings.
Who can apply?
The GDL is aimed at anyone who either did not know that they wanted to go into law early on, were not able to do so when choosing an undergraduate degree, or anyone who is looking for a change of career. It is also very popular with mature students who may be changing careers, and as such always attracts a broad age range and students with a range of backgrounds. Occasionally, it is used by lawyers who are already qualified in another jurisdiction, but now wish to practice in the UK.
Pros and cons
While it is often rumored that law firms prefer those who have studied the GDL for their wider experience and commercial awareness, there is little substance to support this view. Like with any course, you will only be successful upon graduation if you are willing to put in the effort required.
Work experience and grades are still as vital for postgraduates as they are for undergraduates: this is one of the key disadvantages of studying the GDL. Such an intensive course means there is less free time to organise and apply for placements, and these must be done within one year rather than three. This time pressure means that you should only consider the GDL if you are willing and able to commit to the organisation required. That said, part time study of the GDL is increasingly becoming an option offered by many universities.
The second large disadvantage is that no funding is available from the UK government for the GDL. The course is considered professional rather than academic, and as such no loans through Student Finance are available for the course. Most students will choose to self-fund the GDL through savings, working or professional development loans from a selection of banks. Many universities will offer partial scholarships, but the cost of the GDL can range from £6,000-14,000. A possible funding option is to secure a place for a training contract with a law firm willing to fund the student through both the GDL and LPC, though these are incredibly competitive.
These aspects aside, the GDL remains one of the best options for those who have already studied a non-law degree or have been out of education for an extended period of time. Increasingly, there are alternative routes to law available through on-the-job training or apprenticeships, but for many the GDL remains the quicker option.
How to apply
You can apply for the GDL through a website called the Central Applications Board (https://www.lawcabs.ac.uk/) which is, in some ways, similar to the UCAS undergraduate system. It will ask for basic personal information, grades and work history and the details of one referee who can support your application. It is best to choose a teacher or someone who has overseen your academic achievements for this, who you know will write a thought-out reference on your behalf. You then need to submit a personal statement of 10,000 characters: you have a lot of freedom in what to write in your personal statement, but at a minimum you should cover your work experience, academic grades, why you want to study the GDL and why you think you are a good candidate. It only costs £15 to submit an application through this system, and you can choose three universities to apply to in one year.
After the GDL, many will choose to go straight on to study the Legal Practice Course (LPC) to fulfil the requirements to become a practicing solicitor. Alternatively, there is the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), for those who wish to become a practicing barrister.
However, many will choose to go straight into the workforce, often as a paralegal or another role within the legal profession. Currently, becoming a paralegal is a good option for building a relationship with a firm who may then consider you for a training contract at a later date.
Additionally, a small proportion of GDL students may choose to pursue academia, with Masters in Law (LLMs) becoming increasingly available as part of the LPC or as a standalone in another legal subject. Following on from a Masters, your options are still open to go into the legal profession or pursue further study in the form of a PhD.
How to prepare
If you are seriously considering the GDL as an option then you may be feeling a little overwhelmed about the volume of information you are expected to learn, especially if you have been out of full-time education for some time. There is a lot that you can do to prepare, with a number of great resources available and suitable for people that have never studied law before. If you are unsure about whether the GDL is for you then having a look at some of this reading might help you decide if you are passionate about learning the law:
Letters to a Law Student by Nicholas McBride is a frequent recommendation, and is invaluable if you are still on the fence about studying law. Written in the format of a potential law student writing to ask for advice, McBride details anything you would want to know, from legal basics to study tips. This is aimed more for those considering law as an undergraduate degree, but still has all you need as a starting point.
What about Law? by Catherine Barnard is also commonly recommended for good reason. This covers much the same as Letters to a Law Student, but with more detail about legal basics rather than university life. You might prefer this option if the idea of a book written in letter format seems a little choppy to you.
For a general study guide, I have found the Palgrave Studying Law guide to be extremely useful. It covers the specific skills you will need on the GDL, from how to read and cite cases to how to write your essays well. While this book is short, it covers the general skills needed, but is not a substitute for actual lectures!
Reading the news regularly is another great way to be commercially aware and stay on top of current legal issues. This a great resource because it is not as time consuming as a book. I personally love the Economist Espresso app, which provides 5 exciting or important short news stories and market reports every morning; however, this does cost £2.50/month if you do not have a standard Economist subscription (check with your university, as they may provide this for you). Alternatively, BBC news is a great free option, as is iPlayer’s World Business Report. If you are currently at university, you may have access to other subscription services such as the Financial Times.
Another great free resource is UK Law Weekly. It is a great podcast which details one case each week, explaining the facts of the case and any interesting law behind it. While there is a lot of legal language, it is an accessible starting point for beginners and really highlights the practical side of law.
Fiction is often overlooked as a learning tool, and while you should not model your legal career on Harvey Specter from Suits, legal terminology is used in a way that is easy to pick up. Shows like ‘The Good Wife’ do a good job of representing the benefits of large legal firms, but do tend to gloss over the downsides. This article offers a great discussion of what these TV shows accurately reflect.
It doesn’t have to be TV or movies either; legal thrillers are a great way to learn if reading is your entertainment of choice. I am currently reading The Litigators by John Grisham, which is a great depiction of a more high-street sized law firm with more relatable characters than those from Suits.
If you have plenty of free time and fancy a challenge then you could have a go at these questions from Cambridge University. Each exercise has a companion piece of writing for you to review after you’ve given it a go - you might be surprised at how much you already know about the law.
If you are thinking about the GDL, it is worth researching your choices of university closely before applying. Most have open days specifically for those thinking of studying law, and finding a university that suits you can have a huge impact on your studies. It is important that you consider your options carefully if you want to go into law, but really, the bigger question you must answer is whether you are passionate enough about learning the law to really enjoy an in depth study of it. You also need to think about whether you are willing to enter such a competitive industry. However, if you are looking for an academic challenge and the thought of applying to dozens of law firms doesn’t faze you, studying the GDL is a rewarding experience that can begin a long career in law.