You may have heard the much-repeated statistic that City law firms recruit half of their lawyers from non-law degrees. Historians, linguists, philosophers, economists, theologians, scientists, mathematicians and even medics – step into almost any commercial law firm in London, and you’ll find lawyers who began as one of above. As a fellow non-law student, you may be interested to know how exactly this is possible. Well, let me share my experience.
My immersion into the world of City law began in earnest last summer, just before I started my second year studying history. Back in year ten, when work experience was still compulsory, I spent a week at a regional solicitors firm. This, to be quite honest, was the extent of my contact with “commercial law” – at least before university. All of this changed quite rapidly during my second year, when I made it my mission to figure out if commercial law was the right fit for me.
Before we proceed, let me answer the pertinent question: “how can you become a qualified lawyer if you did not study a law degree?”. The answer is that in the UK it is possible to convert into law through the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). This is a one-year conversion course that teaches only the core modules of a law degree. Almost all City law firms will cover the tuition fees for the GDL, and also offer a generous grant for living expenses. Following the GDL comes the six or nine-month Legal Practice Course (LPC), a vocational qualification that must be completed by all aspiring solicitors (regardless of degree background). The final step is the two-year training contract. During this time, a trainee solicitor will work in at least four different departments in a law firm, before picking one to qualify into.
Last Michaelmas, as I sat with the Cambridge University Careers calendar open on my laptop, I remember thinking “oh my!”. It was a clear-cut case of information overload: a seemingly never-ending list of law firm dinners, career presentations, and commercial workshops unfolded before me. If I could speak to my former self (or any non-law student in the same position) I would say this: “don’t worry”. When you begin researching commercial law, it can be difficult to know exactly where to start or how to distinguish between the myriad of law firms that exist – the Magic Circle firms, the US firms, the firms with no overseas offices, the firms focusing on finance, or the ones specialising in corporate work. This variety is a good thing though: it means you have choice.
Perhaps the most important step in this whole process is to get informed. Though overwhelming at first, the abundant resources and frequent events organised by both the Careers Service and the Law Society proved invaluable to me. There were three types of event that I used to guide myself through the rather nebulous universe of commercial law. First, I made full use of the Solicitors Event (an annual law fair) by talking to the Graduate Recruitment teams from every commercial law firm that caught my eye. Second, I attended a selective handful of firm presentations and firm sponsored dinners. This was a chance to learn about the quirks that differentiate firms from each other, and to chat to individual lawyers about their day-to-day work. Lastly, I squeezed in a few skills workshops, which are hosted by the Careers Service in conjunction with different City firms. These offer an interactive insight into a) what “commercial” law means in practice, and b) how to get your foot through the door.
Armed with all my newfound knowledge, it was time to start applying for work experience. For first year students, City law firms offer short insight programmes that last a few days or less. For second or third years, there exists the much-coveted and highly competitive “vacation scheme”. Vacation schemes are internships (lasting up to a month) offered by commercial law firms during the winter, spring, or summer vacations. They are the single best way to road-test the profession, and to experience a firm from the inside. It is also possible to secure a training contract (in other words, a job) at the end of the internship. However, applying for a vacation scheme is an arduous process, there are no two ways about it. There’s a lengthy written application, then a series of online critical thinking tests, and finally, an intense assessment day. That’s how it goes with most City firms, though the specifics vary from firm to firm. Like with any job, the application process is time-intensive and requires much thought. It is better to send 8 or 9 applications, customising each one, than to fire out 30 without tailoring them at all. In hindsight, what was my best move? It was making the most of the networking opportunities at events hosted by the Law Society and the Careers Service. The events I attended in Michaelmas were more than just informative; they allowed me to develop valuable connections with the firms I later applied to. In the end, I was offered vacation schemes at a US firm and a Magic Circle firm. With one, the Graduate Recruitment team remembered my face from our previous discussions during the law fair and also one of their dinners. With the other, I had participated in one of the firm’s skills workshops and was able to discuss this in depth during my interview. It pays to get informed.
Fast-forward to the beginning of this summer. I had juggled the application process alongside my studies, survived the hellish marathon of Part I History exams, and made it through the madness that is May Ball week. It was time to do a vacation scheme, or two. Vacation schemes are essentially a two-way interview. The firm assesses your performance (though a written project, group presentations, and a final interview), while you determine if the firm is somewhere you could picture yourself working and/or thriving. Of course, this is all aided by the array of socials organised for vac-schemers – from sushi-making, to sunset tours on the London Eye, to speed-boat rides on the Thames. But the scheme is more than a glorified summer camp; it’s a useful decision-making tool to determine whether you want to be a commercial lawyer, and if so, where to start your career. During my two schemes, for instance, I was able to learn about one of the biggest ongoing insolvencies in Latin America, draft my first ever contract (albeit a very short one), and research a cutting-edge area of EU law to answer some technical questions from an investment bank. Experiences like these confirmed my interest in commercial law, which offers an appealing blend of intellectual rigour, business savvy, and a genuinely global outlook. The next question, therefore, was where to do my training contract. Based on their marketing materials, City law firms sometimes appear almost indistinguishable. As such, vacation schemes are a chance to put aside the flashy brochures, step through the glass doors, and get of a sense of what exactly goes on inside. Spending a few weeks in the office meant, for lack of a better phrase, “soaking in the culture” of the different firms I was at. By being observant and asking the relevant questions, I discovered subtle (and some not-so-subtle) cultural differences between firms. This played a major factor when deciding which training contract to accept, and I am sure it will for you too.
So, my mission was successfully completed. The learning curve was steep and the effort required was not insubstantial, but the process as a whole has been fulfilling. Over the past year I have overhauled my understanding of what commercial law entails, road-tested the profession in an actual work setting, and figured out the first step of my future career. Using the resources available through the ever-helpful Law Society and Careers Service, you too can crack into the world of law as a non-law student. (Terms and conditions may apply.)