In law, a conversion course is an academic course of study (and the related exams) required for an aspiring lawyer with a non-law degree. For example, if you’ve achieved a BA in History and want to pursue a career as a solicitor, you’d need to complete a conversion course (then the SQE and QWE) before going any further.
Conversion courses are designed to bring you up to speed with all the content taught during a three-year law degree. These courses, however, are much shorter (and thus more intense) – the most condensed versions can last 8 months while, with part time study, they could take up to 2 years.
Naturally, these courses are typically viewed as challenging. Students usually have three attempts to pass each module, after which point they will need to re-sit the entire conversion course. The percentages required to pass are usually around 40%, but to achieve high marks (such as a distinction), you’re looking at 70%+. Achieving particularly high grades is sometimes also met with some form of reward if you’re being sponsored! If you’re not being sponsored through law school, working hard to achieve the top grades available is an excellent way of demonstrating your academic strength when applying to opportunities post-law school.
These courses are often provided by specialist ‘law schools’ (such as BPP or the University of Law) as well as a handful of more traditional universities. Based on the chosen institution, these courses can be offered via in-person teaching, remotely, or a combination of both. Most of these providers will be asking for at least a 2.2 in your degree (or equivalent qualification).
If you’re progressing through law school via some form of sponsorship (e.g. a training contract from a law firm), they’ll often make many of these decisions for you (typically they may pick the law school, put you onto an accelerated 8 month course and cover your fees).
The GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law) has historically been the essential conversion course that non-law graduates would complete at the start of law school. This program includes a basic introduction to key legal concepts, and includes the standard seven compulsory modules of:
The course isn’t cheap – a full-time GDL preparation course can cost between £8,000 and £13,000 depending on your chosen provider. These costs can be partially covered by scholarships (e.g. via a training contract from a law firm sponsoring an aspiring solicitor, or via a Bar scholarship from an Inn of Court sponsoring an aspiring barrister). The law schools themselves offer scholarships too (be sure to check with each individual institution). As already stated, it will last between 8 months and two years depending on the intensity of study chosen.
The route for solicitor qualification has recently changed – from the LPC (Legal Practice Course) to the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Exam). There are a number of differences to be considered when choosing which path is right for you (candidates still have a choice between the two if they started a law course before September 1st 2021).
However, the specific effects of this change on the non-law route (specifically on the conversion courses) are worth noting. The SQE hasn’t technically replaced just the LPC itself – it’s replaced both the LPC and the GDL which you’d usually complete beforehand. As a result, SQE candidates don’t actually need to complete a conversion course anymore (all that’s required is a degree – in any subject). Barristers do still need to complete a conversion course.
In reality, though, jumping straight from a non-law degree into the SQE is unlikely to end well – the gap in necessary knowledge will be apparent immediately (for this reason, many training contract holders are still being asked by sponsoring firms to complete a conversion course regardless of their optional nature). Consequently, the law schools developed new (optional) conversion courses that have come into place instead of the GDL – the most well-known of which is the PGDL (Postgraduate Diploma in Law). Despite all this complexity then, we have ironically arrived back in a place where many candidates will still be completing a two-year stint at law school (with their first year a conversion courses and their second year a professional qualification course) – but the specific courses have changed from the GDL and LPC to the PGDL and SQE for aspiring solicitors.
The PGDL is similar in many respects to the GDL – both are ultimately designed to bring you up to speed with the core content you missed in a law degree, including the seven foundational areas of law. Both are also offered in a variety of formats, and have similar price ranges. However, the PGDL has been designed specifically with the new SQE qualification in mind, and so provides more focus on topics that are likely to resurface in the SQE exams (especially SQE1). For example, Company Law was not compulsory on the GDL, but is for the PGDL (since that topic plays a large role in the SQE).
It’s also worth noting that the PGDL is not the only conversion course now available – courses offering masters, such as those titled ‘MA Law (Conversion)’ have sprung up recently, too. The key thing to remember here is that each institution will title their courses slightly differently, so it’s important to work out what you’re actually being offered at each (and the relevant pros and cons). For example, BPP’s route to achieving the PGDL is sometimes labelled as the ‘Law Foundations Course’. Thorough research comparing what’s on offer (and what suits you) is strongly advised.
In short, the PGDL and GDL are both forms of conversion course taken by non-law graduates looking to qualify into legal careers. The GDL has traditionally been the expectation, whereas the introduction of the SQE route has changed things for solicitors, who can now qualify without a conversion course, but will often still choose to complete one – the PGDL (and numerous other courses, such as MA Law Conversion courses) rose to fill that void. Aspiring lawyers deciding on which route is best for them should naturally consider the obvious factors (cost, mode of study, institutions offering the course, etc), but must also keep an eye on what they plan to do next, since the most important difference between the GDL and PGDL remains the fact that the PGDL was designed with the SQE in mind, whereas the GDL has historically suited the LPC. Both courses, however, are reliable and recognised ways for aspiring lawyers with a non-law background to begin their career.
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