1. Time is precious
The GDL is, essentially, a degree crammed into one year’s worth of studying, or, if you’re like me, two years of part time studying. The workload is undoubtedly intense and it will take up a lot of your time. Good time management is important, not just in making sure you can complete all that is required to finish the GDL with a respectable qualification, but also to factor in the other aspects of your life: seeing your friends and family, work, hobbies, sports, eating, relaxing and, of course, sleeping. I rely on Google Calendar to manage my life as I am able to access it online from all of my devices no matter where I am. It’s also very easy to block out sections of time and move them around to see what fits into my week. Paper diaries are wonderful and tactile, but they do not allow the freedom to move my various appointments around like a jigsaw puzzle, giving me the flexibility to reorganise my week in a moment. Make use of ‘dead space’ – I use my daily commute to listen to the Economist podcasts to catch up on my commercial awareness. If I’m driving I will listen to BBC Radio 4. Hunt out these opportunities for advancing and improving your skills and knowledge, at times when you’re not engaged in other activities.
2. Use the facilities available to you
One of my biggest regrets from my undergraduate degree is not using all of the facilities that were available to me. I think there were two main reasons for this. The first reason was that, given that I was attending university on a student loan, I did not feel I was paying for the experience, and so did not associate the facilities and services that my university offered with something that I was buying. Secondly, at the age of 18, I was much less assertive and trusted that the university were providing the best services they were capable of. The truth of the matter is that my undergraduate university provided poor quality support services and I knew no better. My current institution offers a wide range of support services that, not only help me through my studies, but work with me through my GDL to help me secure a training contract before I graduate. There are skills workshops, meetings with careers advisors, application review services, additional commercial awareness and employability modules, and cutting edge technologies. Given that I have saved the £10k (or thereabouts) to study at this University, I fully intend to get my money’s worth.
3. You are not alone
It is very easy to look at the students around you and see those who have done much better by already securing training contracts, vacation schemes, or may even be already working for law firms. In my first week, I met another student who had bagged a vacation scheme with a Magic Circle law firm. I assumed that this was well above my own reach, having studied at an ex-polytechnic with a less-than-desirable number of UCAS points. The following week, I spoke to this same student who opened up to me about having achieved poor grades at A Level and had very similar mitigating circumstances to mine. The odds are set against people like us, but hope is not entirely lost.
4. Remember your goals
It is very easy to get caught up in the academic aspects of the GDL course. The learning process is fun, and challenging in ways that can become addictive. If you find that you are fully immersed in your course, that’s excellent. If you are studying for reasons other than the thrill of learning, or to achieve something beyond the GDL as a qualification in its own right, be careful not to forget the end goal. If, like me, you are intending to train as a solicitor, now is the time for law fairs and vacation scheme applications. Make sure you set aside some time to apply to various select firms now, as applications for some winter schemes are closing sooner than you might think. Remember how valuable vacation schemes can be, and do not leave it until the last minute to get your applications in.
5. Use your day job to the best of your advantage
To crack the legal profession you need to show a commitment to a career as a lawyer and some previous experience using transferrable skills. Those of you who are studying part time are likely to have a full time day job. Think about the areas of your work where you can develop transferrable skills. Perhaps you manage people or projects? Is there a legal department in your organisation that you could spend a day with? Do you ever have the opportunity to engage in negotiation? All of these these experiences contribute towards giving you the edge against those aspiring lawyers who have come straight from school.
6. Learn to be resilient and look after yourself
No matter how organised you are, there will be times when things do not go to plan. Life is complicated, and busy lives more so. We may have children, suffer bereavements, have illnesses, or changes of heart. There may be times when we fall behind with our work or studying, have to take some time out, or let stress get the better of us. It is important to be mindful of stress and learn the best ways for you to manage it. Allowing stress to build in favour of working hard is fruitless. We learn less and perform at our worst under stress. If you learn to recognise when you’re under too much stress you can take the necessary steps to acknowledge it, make changes, and get back on track. Talk to your tutor, law school support staff, or friends and family about your feelings. If things begin to feel hopeless, you’re losing sleep, not eating, or worse, do not be afraid of speaking to your GP about the things that worry you. I rely on talking to others about my life to enable me to find solutions to problems and process my feelings. I also enjoy lots of regular exercise: time for myself where the focus of my thoughts are not mired in my GDL or work. Even a 20 minute walk in my lunch break can clear my head and give me the mental space to take a more optimistic fresh look at things.
7. Finally, never drink ginger beer from an opaque bottle