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Legal Education in the United Kingdom
Published January 2011
Legal study remains strong in the nation that originated the common law system. This article outlines the process of becoming a barrister or solicitor in the United Kingdom and explores rankings of the UK’s top law programs.
Law in the UK
Unlike in the US, where law is solely a postgraduate pursuit, many UK students study law as undergraduates, earning an LL.B. or a B.A. Others study a different undergraduate subject and then pursue a one-year conversion course—called the “Common Professional Examination” (CPE) or “Graduate Diploma in Law” (GDL)—that covers the basic areas of law: torts, contracts, criminal law, public law, equity and trusts, and European Union law. Next, aspiring lawyers must complete a one-year practical training course, followed by a period of on-the-job training.
The United Kingdom still maintains a distinction between barristers, those who advocate for clients in court, and solicitors, who advise clients directly and do not usually appear in court. After their undergraduate law degrees or conversion courses, aspiring solicitors complete a Legal Practice Course. Some law firms cover candidates’ LPC costs under training contracts, but many students incur significant debt to pay their own way. Would-be barristers take the Bar Professional Training Course. A mix of private law schools and public universities offer the LPC and BPTC, and some law firms send all of their trainees to one institution. Though top universities do not offer these training courses, some do confer LLMs.
After the requisite academic and vocational courses, solicitors and barristers pursue different training periods before qualifying for independent practice. Solicitors complete a two-year training contract with a law firm, while barristers undergo a one-year pupilage with practicing barristers. Placement into both training stages is competitive, with the number of applicants far outpacing available spots.
A Note on Practicing in the UK
For those who hold foreign law degrees but want to practice in the UK, the situation is complicated. The UK actually has three legal systems, with separate laws for England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. US-trained lawyers can generally work in the UK without any additional qualifications or training, as long as they only advise on US law—typically in a finance-related capacity.
Becoming qualified to practice UK law is more involved. In England, would-be solicitors with at least two years of common law practice experience can take the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test. Those without work experience must complete a two-year training contract. To qualify as a barrister, foreign-trained lawyers must have passed a bar exam and completed three years of common law court experience. A lawyer would also need UK work status and must obtain a pupilage in a barrister’s chamber—no easy feat.
Scotland has two sets of transfer tests for lawyers wishing to re-qualify: one for solicitors qualified in other UK jurisdictions, and one for EU lawyers. Those trained or qualified in other countries (such as the US) should contact the Law Society of Scotland for guidance on their qualification processes. In Northern Ireland, solicitors looking to transfer jurisdictions must submit an application that certifies their good standing and experience in a common law country; those whose applications are accepted usually have to complete a course and apprenticeship period. As in England, becoming a barrister is much more difficult.
Big law firms are becoming increasingly international. Many of the top US-based firms have offices in London or have combined with British firms, as in the recent merger of Hogan & Hartson and Lovells to form Hogan Lovells. Similarly, a multitude of British firms—including four of the five prestigious “Magic Circle” firms—have expanded into other countries. For American lawyers who want to work in the UK, the best route may be to work in a US office of a multinational firm and then request a transfer to a British office. Likewise, some solicitors who started their legal careers in England are now practicing in the US, especially in New York.
Law School Rankings
Due to many of the differences noted above, UK law rankings are a different animal than their stateside counterparts. Aspiring lawyers do not earn J.D.-type advanced degrees, and students who have studied law since beginning university complete training and vocational courses alongside people who have done a one-year conversion course after an unrelated undergrad degree or first career.
To clear all stages of the credentialing process, a would-be lawyer should have a strong academic record: a First-Class undergraduate degree is ideal, although a 2:1 (Upper-Second Class) is usually competitive and a 2:2 (Lower-Second Class) might not sink an otherwise sterling resume.
Potential law students should keep all of the preceding in mind as they consider the following tables, which rank undergraduate law programs. Please note that these rankings are produced by British media outlets, and that this article solely attempts to aggregate and analyze their information.
Long considered a newspaper of record, The Times publishes some of the most widely-followed university league tables in the United Kingdom. Law is one of the sixty-two subjects individually ranked.
Student Satisfaction: Based on responses to the National Student Survey (NSS).
Entry Standards: Uses Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data on the examination scores of entering first-degree students. Each A-level earns 120 points, with lower qualifications earning fewer points. This metric reflects the average total exam grade totals of all new students.
Research Quality: Based on the Research Assessment Exercise, which measures the level and impact of faculty research at British universities.
Graduate Prospects: The percentage of those enrolled in full-time study or employed in jobs that typically require a university degree.
Source: The Times
The Complete University Guide
Published in conjunction with The Independent, the Complete University Guide (formerly known as “The Good University Guide”) publishes an overall university ranking table and subject tables. Their relatively simple formula works as follows:
Student Satisfaction: Based on fifteen questions from the National Student Survey.
Research Quality: Uses the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, which measured the quality and impact of faculty research.
Entry Standards: Uses HESA data on the examination scores of entering first-degree students. Each A-level earns 120 points, with lower qualifications earning fewer points. This metric reflects the average total exam grade totals of all new students.
Graduate Prospects: Measures the percentage of students engaged in employment requiring a university degree or enrolled in further full-time study.
Source: The Independent
The Guardian—one of the most widely read newspapers in the UK—ranks universities overall as well as in a variety of subject areas. The following subject table ranks law courses based on eight metrics.
Overall Satisfaction (5%): Based on the National Student Survey (NSS).
Student Satisfaction with Teaching (10%): Based on four questions from the NSS. Measures how staff enthusiasm and skill, as well as the course’s level of intellectual stimulation.
Student Satisfaction with Feedback (10%): Reflects the helpfulness and clarity of grades and other feedback, according to the NSS.
Value Added (15%): This controversial and somewhat complex metric compares the qualifications of incoming students with the level of degree they eventually earn. Universities that produce more 1st and 2:1 degrees than would be “expected” given their incoming calibers of student are rewarded.
Expenditures per Student (15%): Divides the amount of money spent to teach a subject by the number of students in that subject. Excludes academic staff salaries to avoid redundancy with the Student-Staff Ratio category.
*The preceding metrics are standardized, so that the highest-performing institution in each category receives a score of “100” and other schools receive a lower, proportional total. The following three categories are reported in their original numeric forms.
Student-Staff Ratio (15%): Compares the number of teaching stuff with the number of students.
Entry Scores (15%): Measures the qualifications of entering students in terms of the “tariffs” assigned by the Universities & Colleges Admissions Services based on exam scores and other criteria.
Career Prospects (15%): Based on the proportion of graduates who find full-time graduate-level employment or enroll in full-time postgraduate study.
Source: The Guardian
A Picture of Overall University Reputation
Because of the different credentialing systems, overall undergraduate university prestige matters significantly more for UK lawyers than it does for their US counterparts. This is especially true for those who complete an unrelated undergrad degree and convert to law. Charon QC, a British law blog, half-jokingly states the hiring philosophy of fictional law firm Muttley Dastardly LLP:
The chart below lists overall university rankings for each institution that appears in the top twenty-five of all three subject tables above. Note that many top-flight British universities, like Imperial College London and St. Andrews, do not have law faculties.
Canadian Law School Rankings
Canada: University of Toronto Faculty of Law
Canada: University of Alberta Faculty of Law
Canada: Dalhousie Law School
Canada: McGill University Faculty of Law
Canada: University of Ottawa Faculty of Law
Canada: Osgoode Hall Law School (York University)
Canada: UBC Faculty of Law
IE Law School- Northwestern Law Executive LLM Program
IE Law School- Master of Laws (LL.M.) in International Practice
Legal Education in the United Kingdom