Just to be sure I start off on the right foot, I do not wish to dissuade anyone from a legal career in Scotland. It has a highly respected legal system and has a superb standard of legal practice. It is a great country to live, work and study in, and many people do and will continue to have very fulfilling and successful legal careers there. However, not everyone wants to stay in Scotland. Bearing in mind the age at which students often make the decision to study law at a Scottish university (I was 16 when I applied through UCAS) and how the experience of university can broaden your horizons, students shouldn’t feel that their options are limited if they decide that they would like to go elsewhere.
From my experience, students who decide to leave Scotland do so because they don’t see themselves living there permanently for various personal reasons. In addition, some are attracted to an area of legal practice which is limited in Scotland, for example, niche areas such as medical law, and feel their chances would be better in London.
Moving to England isn’t a decision to rush as qualifying as a lawyer there will take up at least 3-4 years once you’ve completed the GDL conversion course, the LPC or BPTC and then a training contract or pupillage, but it is an exciting opportunity and not as difficult (or unusual) as it may seem at first.
England has a bigger legal market, which gives you more options both at the start of your career and as it progresses. Of course there is more competition for jobs, but there are also more opportunities. What motivates you may depend on the route you intend to take. If you are interested in becoming a solicitor and are looking for mid-sized to large commercial firms, then England offers a wide choice. This is not only in terms of the firms themselves, but also the number of locations. London’s legal market is unrivaled in the UK, but Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool are also large legal hubs. More options mean you have more scope to balance the lifestyle you want with your career aims.
If a career as an advocate took your fancy in Scotland, you may well be attracted to the more direct process of joining the English Bar. In Scotland, you are required to qualify as a solicitor first by completing the Diploma in Legal Practice and your two-year traineeship. You must then complete a period of pupillage or devilling (which may well be unpaid). In England there is a more structured route into the profession, although it is fiercely competitive, so don’t consider it an easier option!
London’s legal market is unrivaled in the UK but Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool are also large legal hubs.
After completing your qualifying law degree (either an English LLB or a GDL) you can go straight into the Bar Professional Training Course (formerly the Bar Vocational Course), which is a year-long programme where students learn the practical skills required to be a barrister. The next stage is to secure a pupillage which is tough but, as many chambers are members of the Pupillage Gateway, there is a structured application process
Do not think that if you decide not to continue your legal career in Scotland that you wasted four years of your life. That is not the case at all. First, your legal training in Scotland will give you an advantage during your conversion year in terms of your depth of understanding of the subjects. Although there are discrepancies, much of the law in Scotland and England is similar and often the same result is achieved, just by different routes. I have found that having the perspective of Scots law allows you to engage more with some of the provisions of the English law you encounter. For example, mens rea in criminal law is slightly different between the two jurisdictions. England has a subjective approach, which is criticised for requiring judges to give juries technical guidance on how intention can be proved. Scotland has an objective approach which allows the courts to treat intention as an ordinary word. Having knowledge of both jurisdictions allows you to understand the criticisms and also the possible solutions.
Second, coming from Scotland, you will have two years of Honours-level study, whereas most English students will have one. Your Honours courses are what really prove your ability to think critically. The skills and self-discipline that you gained from two years studying at that level, on top of two years at Ordinary level, will certainly not put you at a disadvantage.
The downside of qualifying in England is that it will take you an extra year. As a degree in Scots law is not considered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) or the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to be a ‘qualifying law degree’, you have to complete the GDL (formerly known as the CPE). This is a year-long course where students learn the foundations of English law through eight core subjects. Any graduate is eligible to apply for this course so most of the students have studied a non-law undergraduate degree and now wish to convert to law.
Applications for the GDL are made through the Central Application Board. On their website you can find a list of the institutions that run the course as well as information regarding the application procedure. There is no deadline for GDL applications, though it’s advisable to check with the institutions you apply to just to be safe.
The silver lining is that you will very likely be able to obtain exemptions from the majority of the subjects studied as most are considered similar enough that you are not required to repeat them. Although nothing is guaranteed and each application will be considered individually, it is possible to gain exemptions from contract, criminal, tort, European and public law and only take property law, trusts and equity and English legal system (though this is not a full module). This means you will (at most institutions) only have to pay for a fraction of the course. Secondly, and more importantly, you will have a lot more time on your hands that you can use productively. It gives you time to bulk up your CV with work experience, mooting, volunteering or a part-time job. To secure a training contract or a pupillage, you need to invest a considerable amount of time in gaining experience that can be hard to fit in when you’re studying full-time. Your conversion year is essentially a gift! Use it wisely.
You will need to apply for exemptions from either the SRA or the BSB, depending on which route you want to go down and bear in mind that you will likely be required to apply for these before you enrol on your GDL course. The SRA application is straightforward in that you are only required to register and apply online. You need to send a copy of your law degree certificate and an original degree transcript.
Getting exemptions from the BSB is a little more complicated and rather expensive. An application in respect of a non-qualifying law degree costs £550. You are required to provide evidence of having already studied the subjects you are seeking exemption from. In addition to your transcript you will need to provide evidence such as exam papers, a syllabus and list of cases and statutes for the course, a module description and evidence of teaching hours for each subject. The evidence must be from the year that you took the course and you will also need your university to certify that all the information is correct. The form is available on the BSB website, but I recommend reading the guidance very carefully to make sure you haven’t missed anything. It is a time-consuming process so start gathering your evidence as early as possible. If you persevere and get the exemptions it will be well worth your time. It may be worth calling the BSB before you start on this mission, just for the reassurance that you have the right paperwork to begin with!
It is worth mentioning that it is possible under the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme to become dual qualified as a solicitor in Scotland and England. If this is something you would be interested in then get in touch with your firm to talk about the possibilities. Firms who have offices on both sides of the border may already have a system in place to accommodate this.
If you want to qualify as a lawyer, but for whatever reason Scotland isn’t for you, then the GDL is an option that would definitely be worthwhile. The extra year is certainly not a sacrifice that will harm your career path and, if anything, it shows that you can take responsibility for your own learning and that you are not afraid of a challenge.