More than forty institutions now offer the Common Professional Examination (CPE) or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) conversion course for graduates of non-law subjects - and it’s proving a popular move. In this feature Grania Langdon-Down looks at how the process is working out for some converters.

A safe bet?

Sue Clarke, head of post graduate careers at Nottingham Law School, says they have seen a significant increase in the number of students taking the GDL, particularly the part time course, which is more likely to include people who are already working.‘Law is seen as a safe bet in a recession,’ she says. ‘But those thinking of doing the GDL should consider their choice of provider very carefully as rates of employment afterwards vary widely.

’It is important to ask for figures on how many students who go on to do the LPC secure training contracts. If they are doing the part time GDL, it is important to find what level of support there is; how much is available online; whether there is a dedicated careers adviser. Fees shouldn’t be a determining factor but there is a wide range.’

The cost at Nottingham Law School is about £6,500 for the GDL and £9,500 for the LPC. In 06/07 nine out of ten students who completed the full time GDL and then went on to do the LPC obtained either training contracts or pupillages and eight per cent paralegal work.

Age and background

Clarke says: ‘We get people from all walks of life wanting to convert to law. It really depends on the transferability of the skills you have acquired in your previous career and what you hope to achieve in the law.‘Firms are increasingly flexible about the age and background of trainees. Commercial firms in particular say to us they like to recruit older trainees up to 35 but I also know of people in their fifties with training contracts.’Jane Chapman, director of academic programmes at the College of Law, says they are getting increasing numbers of mature students on the GDL.

Overall, they have about 1,400 students on the full time GDL and more than 370 on the part time course across their six centres. They also run an open access undergraduate law degree with the OU which has 3,500 students.She says that, on the GDL last year, ten per cent of students were aged 26 to 30 and five per cent were aged 31-plus.

‘We provide lots of advice tailored to mature students. What we stress is make the most of your maturity – your experience is saleable. Some mature students are surprisingly reticent about their previous experience but it provides them with a different set of skills to offer employers to someone straight out of university.

‘It is tough for mature students but it is tough for everyone. It is important to try and get a placement while you are studying, though they can be as hard to find as training contracts, and it is worth offering your services for free if you can’t get a paid one.’When an older student gets an interview with a law firm, she advises raising the issue of age.

‘If you are 45 and the person who is going to be in charge of you is younger, then make it clear it isn’t a problem. Also emphasize how you are used to juggling work, studying, family, successfully.’

Routes to qualification

Unlike America, where students cannot study law as an undergraduate, there are no hard and fast rules in the UK about whether firms prefer law graduates or other graduates. Professor Gary Slapper, director of the OU’s Centre for Law, says: ‘If you perform very well on a conversion course and the LPC, not having a law degree will not be seen as a disadvantage; it can sometimes be advantageous for a practitioner to have another branch of life experience beyond the law.’

At Birmingham-based Wragge & Co, current, future and former trainee backgrounds include a pharmacist, an army office and a record producer. Michelle Byron, the firm’s graduate recruitment adviser, says: ‘We have recruited trainees from all different backgrounds at all different stages of their careers.

Each has something different to offer - what we look for is potential, for people with a commonsense, problem-solving approach to work who show adaptability, enthusiasm and ambition.

‘For someone who is applying for a training contract who has not done a law degree or started their GDL, it is important that they look at their experience and identify transferable skills and how they can differentiate themselves. It is also advisable to get some legal work experience. This all helps when answering that difficult question why law?’

Taking the plunge

For Martin Seaman, 32, deciding to convert to law after a genetics degree and a career as a medical representative for a pharmaceutical company, was not a ‘Eureka’ moment.

‘It was a gradual process from talking to my wife, who is a patent attorney, and to friends who are barristers and solicitors. Law impinges on everyone’s life and I want to play a part in advising people of their rights.’He did a part-time GDL with the BPP Law School in Leeds. ‘It was excellent, with lots of support and advice, and very flexible, which is important when you are funding it yourself.’

He is now studying part time for the LPC and hopes to get a training contract with a high street practice. He has done some work experience in criminal law and is now applying for a placement with a personal injury/clinical negligence team to see if he wants to work in an area which could draw on his background in the drugs industry. Emma Pemberton, 26, has a degree in German and business studies and works full time as a personal assistant for Wakefield company Killgerm Group, which distributes public health pest control products.

Her company has sponsored her through her part time GDL and now her part time LPC, both with the BPP Law School in Leeds. ‘It is important not to underestimate how hard it is,’ she says. ‘I talked to others who had done the GDL and they said it was the most difficult post graduate course you could do – and they weren’t joking. It is very academic. The LPC is also very challenging but it is more practical.’

However, I would definitely recommend qualifying as a lawyer this way. It is tough but you cannot put a price on commercial experience – I just hope employers will see it that way.

Making the transition

For Graham Gowland, the transition from radiographer to trainee solicitor with a top US law firm, has proved a ‘baptism of fire’.

Gowland, 38, began his training contract at Mayer Brown with the finance team in September after converting to law via the Open University’s law degree and a part-time LPC at the College of Law in York. ‘In the current climate, it has been something of a baptism of fire,’ he says.

‘My supervisor is a derivatives specialist so the learning curve has been very steep.’He found the most difficult part of the retraining process was securing his training contract, due in part to the intense competition for places. He also felt his age was an issue: ‘Although no firm would say it publicly, I definitely got the impression that, for certain firms, my age was a factor in not proceeding further into the selection process.

’However, Steve Wiley, at 56, proves age shouldn’t be a barrier. He can list working in a bank, as well as a full time trade union officer, head of an employment rights unit with the CAB and director of a consultancy advising employers on employment law on his c.v. He studied part time for a law degree, qualifying in 1997. He joined a high street legal practice in 2007, where he is doing a part time LPC and where he has secured a training contract and he will qualify in 2010 aged 58.

Dr Aine McGeary is training with national laws firm Eversheds. ‘They were very encouraging about my plans to specialise in healthcare law. They encourage diversity in their trainees and recognise the advantages that a variety of backgrounds and experience can bring to the firm.’ HR director Lucy Adams says Eversheds are always keen to attract candidates who have changed their career path to pursue a career in law and at present offer training contracts to forty per cent non-law students.

‘Candidates who have experience of working life outside of a law firm often fair well with our more holistic approach to selection because they have more than just academics to offer.’

So is conversion for you? Graham Gowland has a final word of advice to anyone thinking of changing to law:‘Do your homework: read up as much as you can on individual firms and, if possible, try to gain a place on one or two vacation schemes, since these give you far more insight into the day-to-day life of a lawyer than any amount of promotional literature ever can.’

Further information

For more information and details of institutions offering conversion courses visit the Solicitors Regulation Authority website.