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Qualifying law degrees and law conversion courses

If you are thinking of studying law, you might ask what IS a qualifying law degree? Simply put, it's one approved by the regulators for the legal profession for each nation in the UK. It provides the foundations of legal knowledge required for a career in law. If you have a degree in another subject, you can take a law conversion course (in England and Wales) or a graduate law degree.

Below, we answer questions about qualifying law degrees and graduate law courses – and look at types of university law courses in England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

Further specific vocational qualifications and in-work training are then needed to practise law. Find out more in our pages on how to become a solicitor, become a barrister or advocate, or become a chartered legal executive. Or find out more about working in these roles, in a career in law.

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What is a qualifying law degree (QLD) or law conversion course?

It is a law degree or course that includes the core knowledge required for trainee lawyers by the regulators for the legal profession. There are regulators for different types of lawyer in each of the UK's three separate legal systems: England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Each regulator decides the training required to qualify as a lawyer for their profession (solicitor, barrister etc). In practice, the first stage of training (the 'academic stage') is usually the same for solicitors and barristers.

Broadly, courses must cover the foundations of legal knowledge and teach skills such as legal research, whether on an undergraduate degree or law conversion course. We look more at the foundations of legal knowledge below.

Degrees may be designated LLB – Latin for Bachelor of Law – or sometimes BA or BSc if combined with another subject such as Criminology or languages. Courses may be studied full-time, part-time or online and via distance learning. In some areas, law degrees with foundation years are available for those who don't initially meet entry standards.

Qualifying law degrees can take from two to four years – and in England and Wales, the intensive graduate law conversion course packs it all into one year. However that gives little scope to explore areas of interest. On the other hand, longer courses cost more.

In some cases there is a list of approved courses (as in Northern Ireland) or a regulator approves training providers (as in Scotland). In England and Wales, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Bar Standards Board (BSB) are moving to a system where courses are no longer formally approved. Instead, as these changes progress, students should check with the university whether the course meets the requirements for training as a barrister or solicitor in England and Wales. Jump to find out more about the changes after 2020 in England and Wales.

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What are the foundations of legal knowledge?

In England and Wales, the foundations of legal knowledge are:

  • The Law of Contract – the legal details and regulation of contracts.
  • Law of Torts – e.g. losses caused by another’s actions, including negligence.
  • Criminal Law – relating to crime and the punishment of offenders.
  • Constitutional and Administrative Law – laws governing how the country is run.
  • Land Law (Property Law) – including rights of way and boundaries.
  • Equity and Trusts – principles of fairness where one person entrusts assets to another.
  • EU Law – laws relating to all member states of the European Union.

Northern Ireland also requires the Law of Evidence, which can be taken as a separate exam if necessary.

Scotland has a separate legal system, as stipulated after the union of Scotland as part of Great Britain. Here, a qualifying law degree must satisfy the Law Society of Scotland’s Foundation programme guidelines. Prospective barristers may also need to take exams required by the Faculty of Advocates. Check the required subjects with the university where you hope to study – it must be a university accredited by the Law Society. If you want to practise law elsewhere in the UK, there are combined English and Scots law degrees.

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Does it matter if your first degree is not a law degree?

The short answer is No. Good grades in a first degree are vital – whether in law or not. For prospective barristers or advocates, a 2:2 is the absolute minimum required (2:1 in Northern Ireland). In all cases, better grades mean a better chance of getting the in-work training you'll need to finish qualifying as a solicitor, barrister or advocate.

So it's best to choose a route you think you'll do well in. However you'll need to factor in the extra cost of having to do a graduate law course after your first degree – and there will be vocational training to follow that, too.

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Can I become a lawyer without a degree?

In England there are alternatives to university courses, with degree-level apprenticeships available for solicitors and chartered legal executives. Chartered legal executives can also qualify via in-work training courses with CILEx (Chartered Institute of Legal Executives). In Scotland it is possible for those who work in the legal sector to take the required legal exams towards becoming a solicitor, before going on to the vocational training. However this is not a common option.

However, if you want to become a barrister (or advocate in Scotland), you must start with a degree. It doesn't have to be a law degree, but you will need to get good grades.

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Guide to studying law at university

If you want to find out more about studying law at a university, you can go to our Guide to Studying Law. Written by the Admissions Director at the University of East Anglia's School of Law, it includes tips on university applications and more...

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Other careers after a law degree

What if you decide you don't want a career in law, after studying a law degree? You'll still be able to excel in a wide range of professions, including academia, media, business, politics and banking.

A law degree develops transferable skills in areas such as communication, research and analysis, problem-solving and decision-making. It also requires students to work under pressure and manage time well. The jobs you could consider include management trainee schemes, public sector administration, working in finance or journalism, or qualifying as a company secretary.

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Changes after 2020 in England and Wales

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) currently recognise qualifying law degrees and law conversion courses for England and Wales, by agreement with the Bar Standards Board.

After September 2020, the SRA intends to change the requirements to become a solicitor, introducing the two-stage Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). For the new pathway, trainee solicitors will need a degree or equivalent, to pass the two SQE exams, gain substantial recognised work experience (which can be part of their degree) and pass SRA's Character and Suitability requirements.

As part of these changes, both the SRA and the BSB will be moving away from regulatory involvement with law degrees or graduate law courses, and will no longer specify their content. It is expected that law degrees will prepare prospective solicitors for the new SQE exams, and they may also include the in-work experience required. At the time of writing, it is not known how graduate law conversion courses will be affected by these changes, but the SRA anticipates a range of preparatory courses for non-law graduates taking the SQE. For prospective barristers, the Bar Standards Board has said that a qualification covering the seven foundations of legal knowledge will still be required, whether in a law degree or non-law degree followed by further graduate or postgraduate study.

Find out more about the SQE on our page on how to become a solicitor. The Bar Standards Board is also reviewing their vocational training; see our page on how to become a barrister.

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Studying Law At University 

Types of University Law Degree in the UK

For graduates with a first degree in another subject:

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Undergraduate qualifying law degrees in England and Wales

Qualifying law degree (QLD) courses are currently recognised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), on behalf of both the SRA and the Bar Standards Board (BSB). They must include the seven foundations of legal knowledge, English legal systems and legal research. Each subject must be passed and the degree completed in six years, whether it is full-time, part-time or by distance learning.

On completion of a qualifying law degree, graduates can start the vocational training to become a solicitor, become a barrister or become a chartered legal executive.

Exempting law degrees in England and Wales

In England and Wales, there are also four-year exempting law degrees (ELD). These combine a QLD with the vocational Legal Practice Course currently required for solicitors, or more rarely the Bar Professional Training Course required by barristers. These qualifications are designated as a masters degree.

Six universities offer the exempting law degree: Huddersfield, Northumbria (for both solicitors and barristers), Pearson College London (validated by University of Kent), University of Central Lancashire, University of South Wales and the University of Westminster.

Graduates from exempting law degrees can go straight to the in-work stage of training for their branch of the profession.

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Undergraduate qualifying law degrees in Northern Ireland

A list of ‘recognised law degrees’ is available on the Institute of Professional Legal Studies website; this is the body responsible for vocational legal qualifications in Northern Ireland. Included are courses in England and Wales, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland – but NOT the LLB in Scots Law.

As elsewhere, degrees must be completed within a set period of time and all core subjects must be passed.

Degrees from Northern Ireland’s two universities (Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University) are approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board, allowing graduates to progress their legal career in Northern Ireland or in England and Wales. Do remember there are changes after 2020 in England and Wales.

Graduates then continue with vocational training to become a solicitor or become a barrister.

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Undergraduate qualifying law degrees in Scotland

The LLB in Scots Law must be taken with one of ten universities accredited by the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates. Some universities offer ‘dual degrees’ in both Scots and English law.

Subjects specified by the Law Society must be taken as part of the degree to progress onto vocational training. Be aware, entry to the vocational course is assessed on the grades gained at first exam sitting. Advocates also require subjects specified by the Faculty of Advocates.

Advocates and solicitors both complete the same vocational qualification and a period of in-work training as a solicitor, before the path of advocates diverges. Find out about becoming a solicitor or becoming an advocate in Scotland.

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Applying for a qualifying law degree

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Law Student In Library

Below are the options for graduates with a first degree in another subject.

Graduate qualifying law courses in England and Wales

Courses are currently approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), acting jointly with the Bar Standards Board (BSB). They must cover the seven foundations of legal knowledge along with English legal systems and legal research. Each subject must be passed and courses completed within the required timeframe.

Non-law students have the option of an intensive law conversion course (CPE or GDL), senior status or graduate LLB degree, or conversion LLM (Masters of Law), outlined below. These may alter with the changes planned after 2020 in England and Wales.

Law conversion course (Common Professional Examination or Graduate Diploma in Law)

The seven foundations legal subjects are packed into a one-year intensive course, or two-years via part-time or distance learning. The CPE can be designated as a Graduate Diploma in Law to fit with university academic qualification frameworks. 

Applications for full-time course are via the Central Applications Board. Part-time candidates usually apply direct to the relevant institution.

Fees range from £5,266–11,500 depending on the institution and resident status of students. International students can expect to pay more.

Senior status or graduate LLB degree, or conversion LLM (Masters of Law)

Two-year senior status LLB degrees are more in-depth than a one-year conversion course – but also more expensive. They include the seven core foundations of legal knowledge but also have elective modules, allowing students to explore their interests and understand law in a socio-economic and political context.

Masters courses include two-year qualifying law degrees and one-year conversion courses open to non-law graduates. They open up the prospect of loan funding, but bear in mind that further vocational qualifications are required in order to practise law.

Applications for courses that include a GDL/CPE conversion may be through the Central Applications Board for full-time places. Applications for courses designated as undergraduate courses (senior status LLBs) are submitted via UCAS. Otherwise please approach the institution directly to apply.

Fees range from around £6,000 per year to the maximum tuition fee level (in 2017, £9,250). International students can expect to pay more, up to £17,450 per year.

Graduates of the above courses can begin vocational training to become a solicitorbecome a barrister or advocate, or become a chartered legal executive.

Funding law conversion courses

  • Some law firms take graduates as trainee solicitors and fund their part-time study towards a law conversion course (e.g. Graduate Diploma in Law). These positions are rare and very competitive. 
  • Prospective barristers can apply for a scholarship for the Graduate Diploma in Law from one of the Inns of Court. Students do not need to be a member of these societies before applying. Scholarships are generally awarded on merit: good grades from a first degree are essential.
  • Otherwise masters-level courses may open up the option of a postgraduate loan, depending on eligibility. Students should consider this option carefully: becoming a solicitor or barrister is highly competitive, and good grades from a first degree will still be essential. Loan funding can only apply to one course of study and further vocational qualifications are required to practise law.

General entry requirements for graduates

  • A minimum of a 2:2 in a UK or Republic of Ireland degree; some providers require higher grades. 
  • Overseas applicants require equivalent qualifications; those wishing to become barristers should apply to the Bar Standards Board for a Certificate of Academic Standing.
  • Overseas students from non-speaking English countries will have to provide evidence of English Language ability (find out about English Language Tests).
  • For law conversion courses, providers may accept applicants with ‘equivalent means’ (eg training via the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, CILEx). Those hoping to become a barrister should first apply to the Bar Standards Board for a Certificate of Academic Standing.

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Graduate qualifying law courses in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, a qualifying law degree includes eight core subjects. These are the seven foundations of legal knowledge as required in England and Wales, plus the Law of Evidence. If required, the Law of Evidence can be taken as a separate exam.

Non-law graduates can take a two-year senior status or masters law degree in Northern Ireland, or otherwise a ‘recognised law degree’ from elsewhere in the UK. These include some two-year senior status qualifying law degrees and two GDL courses.

A list of recognised law degrees is found on the website of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies (IPLS) at Queen's University Belfast. The IPLS manages all professional training for barristers and solicitors in Northern Ireland.

Fees for courses vary, depending on the type and length of course. The two-year MLaw at Queens University Belfast is £7,000 per year (2017/18), with the option of a postgraduate loan depending on eligibility.

Once completed, the next stage is vocational training for both solicitors and barristers at the IPLS. Entry to the vocational course for barristers requires a minimum of a 2:1 in a degree.

Find out about more about becoming a solicitor or becoming an barrister in Northern Ireland.

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Graduate qualifying law courses in Scotland

Scotland has a separate legal system and therefore the fundamentals of law differ. Graduates can take a two-year accelerated degree in Scots Law, at a provider accredited by the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates. Currently offered by eight institutions, it leads to an ordinary degree in Scots Law. There are also graduate-entry degrees in Scots and English law.

Subjects specified by the Law Society must be taken as part of the degree to progress onto vocational training, assessed on the grades gained at first exam sitting. Advocates also require subjects specified by the Faculty of Advocates.

Entry requires a 2:2 from a first degree or, more commonly, a 2:1, and applications are via UCAS for full-time courses.

Fees are liable for Scottish students where the LLB is taken as a second degree; these can range from £5770 (online) to £9000 for 2018–19 entry. Scholarships may be available.

In Scotland, advocates and solicitors all complete the same vocational qualification and a period of in-work training as a solicitor, before the path of advocates diverges.

Find out about becoming a solicitor or becoming an advocate in Scotland.

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Updated JUNE 2018.