Graduate Diploma in Law

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Whether your undergraduate degree is in history, biology, cheesemaking or TikTok studies, you can still come to the law via a one-year conversion course, traditionally known as the Graduate Diploma in Law or GDL.

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like change, then look away now. Back in the winter of 2016/17 the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) announced major plans to scrap the GDL and LPC for those wishing to become solicitors and completely reshape the route to qualification. The plans involve the introduction of the Solicitors Qualification Examination (SQE), a two-part ‘superexam’ to be taken at the start and end of a two-year period of practical training respectively. The first students are set to sit the SQE in 2021, from which point the GDL will effectively become defunct for aspiring solicitors. But if you have already done the GDL, are doing it now or are starting it before summer 2021 then you can still follow the old route into the profession. The old system will be completely phased out by 2032, the SRA tells us. Click here to read more about the SQE.

The first stage of the SQE will cover much (though not all) of the current GDL, so the information below may still be of use to you in that respect. It certainly does provide a clear outline of what the course entails For the time being, the GDL will continue to be a requirement for non-law students pursuing a career at the Bar as a vital step before doing the Bar Course (previously known as the BPTC, this now has different names at different providers).

The basics as they are now

The GDL is a one-year course which non-law graduates aiming for a career as a solicitor must take before doing the obligatory Legal Practice Course (LPC). In effect it ‘converts’ your non-law degree into a qualifying law degree – for that reason it is sometimes also known as the ‘conversion course’. It was previously called the CPE (Common Professional Exam), and some employers and law schools may still use that term along with PgDL (Postgraduate Diploma in Law).

Because techniques like textual analysis, research, logical argument, and written and oral presentation can be acquired in a whole range of disciplines, from English lit to zoology, legal employers tend not to make a distinction between applicants with an LLB and those who take the GDL route. Around half of current solicitors – and half of trainees – come from a non-law background and did the GDL.

The GDL is essentially a crash law degree designed to bring you up to the required standard in the core legal subjects that are typically taught in the first two years of an LLB – that's two years condensed into one. Taken full-time it lasts a minimum of 36 weeks and can demand up to 45 hours of lectures, tutorials and personal study each week. It's possible to take the course part-time over two years, and you'll find course providers offer a surprisingly wide range of flexible study options, from distance learning to weekends and evening-only classes. 

The GDL is essentially a crash law degree designed to bring you up to the required standard in the seven core legal subjects that are typically taught in the first two years of an LLB. 

The standard requirement for admission is a degree from a university in the UK or Republic of Ireland. It is possible for non-graduates to get onto a course if they’ve shown the requisite drive and determination, and have exceptional ability in some other field. Previously, candidates from overseas needed to apply for a Certificate of Academic Standing from the Bar Standards Board or Solicitors Regulation Authority before enrolling on the GDL. Now individual providers decide whether to admit overseas applicants. 

Assessments tend to be written exams taken at the end of the academic year. These make up the bulk of your final grade, so make sure you're prepared. Most GDL providers offer their students the opportunity to take mock exams throughout the year, and while these are generally optional, it’s a good idea to get as many as you can under your belt. If nothing else, they give you an indication of your progress and the chance to receive feedback from tutors. Other assessments and essays completed during the year can count for up to 30% of your final grade, so don't underestimate their importance. Coursework allows for a degree of flexibility, meaning students can write about areas that aren't necessarily explored in depth on the course, such as copyright or competition law. Depending on the institution, there is more or less emphasis on academic essays, written problem questions and practical preparation for classroom debates.

Because the institutions that offer the GDL vary in perceived quality, approach and composition of their student bodies, it's well worth doing your research before you apply. City Law School and Nottingham Law School are renowned for offering more academic courses, thought to be ideally suited to students headed to the Bar. By contrast BPP and the University of Law are packed with plenty of City types and place special emphasis on helping you gain practical legal skills. 

Be aware that an increasing number of City firms are appointing a particular law school as their preferred provider.

Be aware that many City firms have appointed a particular law school as their preferred GDL provider. What this means is that individuals who've won a training contract with that firm are asked to undertake the course with a certain provider. It does not mean that doing the GDL with a certain provider will get you into the firm's good books. (However, going to that provider might give you the chance to attend certain events or mingle with peers who have a training contract with your chosen firm, which could give you a leg up.) If you have your heart set on doing your training contract with a certain law firm, do your research and find out whether they have a preferred provider before you apply to the schools. 

There’s a huge amount to take in, so you need to be disciplined. Try to work out a study timetable early on, and stick to it. Don’t count on being able to catch up, as time will fly by. You’re there to learn a set curriculum, not to think outside the box. That said, it's important that you gain an overall understanding of how the law works, so avoid studying each subject in isolation. Perhaps the best use of your creativity is to come up with amusing ways of remembering case names. Above all else, attend classes! Especially if you've already secured a training contract before starting the GDL, as some law schools will report on attendance (if asked by your future employer). 

The seven foundation areas of law

As a practising civil lawyer, you'll apply your knowledge of contract law on a daily basis as it underpins nearly every single legal relationship. Students start by studying the rules that determine when an agreement becomes legally binding and enforceable, and which formalities are required to create a contract. You’ll then move on to study what terms are permissible and find out what happens when you omit to read the small print. You’ll hear about the doctrine of misrepresentation, mistake and duress, and you’ll find out what your remedy is when an art dealer has neglected to tell you the Jackson Pollock masterpiece you’ve just bought is actually the product of his son’s finger painting. Armed with your knowledge of the Sale of Goods Act, you may be tempted to bring any number of small claims against the high-street retailers whose products fall apart the minute you get them home. 

Broadly defined, the law of tort is concerned with remedying wrongs committed by one individual against another via the civil, rather than the criminal, courts. Beyond this very sensible definition hides one of the most intellectually challenging and stimulating courses on the GDL. The law of negligence is the big area of tort, so expect to spend most of the year grappling with it, but the course also covers wrongs ranging from defamation to private nuisance. While studying tort you'll hear stories both comic and tragic, with cases ranging from gruesome botched operations to rogue snails in bottles of ginger beer.

Reading the papers, you could be forgiven for thinking the law begins and ends at crime. Studying criminal law will allow you to discover the reality behind the storylines. The syllabus takes you through assault, battery, sexual offences, criminal damage, theft, fraud and homicide. Also covered are the liability of accomplices, attempted offences and the defences available to those accused of committing criminal acts.

Whether your interest is in policy or the gruesome things that people do to one another, the crime course should provide plenty to engage and surprise.

Whether your interest is in policy or the gruesome things that people do to one another, the crime course should provide plenty to engage and surprise. Overall, the subject follows a logical pattern and doesn’t hide many difficult philosophical concepts. You will find out early on that you always need to prove both actus reus (the guilty act) and the mens rea (the guilty mind) in order to establish an offence. Follow this structure religiously and you can’t go wrong. By the end of the course you’ll also be in a better position to explain why killing someone is not necessarily unlawful, or why you could be guilty of theft without actually making off with somebody else’s property. 

Public law
Public law is a course that includes the study of constitutional law, human rights and administrative law. If you have no interest in politics, you may find the whole subject a little obscure, but with Brexit at the top of everyone’s agenda and the Human Rights Act often in the press there’s no better time to study this fascinating subject. The course normally kicks off with an analysis of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, covering such abstract notions as parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, the royal prerogative and responsible government. Those of a political, philosophical or historical bent will feel right at home. If you don't fit the description, Google 'Dicey' and see where that takes you.

You’ll also be taught about the Human Rights Act, learning about things like freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial.

You’ll also be taught about the Human Rights Act, learning about things like freedom of speech, the right to a fair trail and how much force the police can use when they throw you in the back of their van. There's also judicial review, the process by which individuals with sufficient standing can challenge the decisions of public authorities. Those who don’t enjoy the theoretical feel of constitutional law should appreciate the more practical nature of judicial review. 

Equity and trusts
The equity and trusts course provides an introduction to the fundamental principles of equity, an intriguing area of law that calls upon the idea of conscience to remedy injustices brought about by the application of black letter law. Generally thought of as the preserve of those with their hearts set on the Chancery Bar or private client firms, equity actually pervades all areas of law.

You'll learn snappy equitable maxims, be taught about the creation of gifts and trusts in the family context, and see how injunctions can help recover misappropriated funds. You’ll hear about adulterous husbands trying to set up secret trusts for their mistresses and illegitimate children, or wealthy eccentrics attempting to set up a pension for a beloved pet. Past students report that there's a mathematical side to this module and that the complex nature of some of the concepts promotes a creative way of thinking. 

Land law
The land law module will teach you everything you need to know about the ownership of land, starting with the startling realisation that all of it ultimately belongs to the Queen. Many students may find the subject off-putting to begin with because it uses archaic, mind-numbing jargon and calls on concepts such as overreaching, flying freeholds or overriding interests. Give it time and you’ll find the topic has practical implications for your everyday life, including tips on how to handle a dispute with your landlord or how to arrange your first mortgage. The course will also take you through the basics of conveyancing and how to acquire interests in land such as easements or covenants, before going through the detail of how those interests operate.

It uses archaic, mind-numbing jargon and calls on concepts such as overreaching, flying freeholds or overriding interests.

In addition to remembering loads of cases, you will be required to memorise countless statutory provisions on creation and registration of interests in land. Don’t wait to familiarise yourself with the most important sections of the Law of Property Act: start creating flowcharts and checklists early on and you will laugh your way through the exam. As with most topics on the GDL, you will need to gain a good overall understanding of land law to be able to deal with specific matters, so don’t bet on revising selected subjects for the exam. There can be important overlap between them, particularly with equity and trusts.

EU law
Despite Brexit now having taken place, the EU and UK remain economically and legally intertwined and EU law remains part of the GDL syllabus. Students become familiar with the institutional framework, foundations and underlying principles of the European Union before going on to explore certain areas of substantive EU law. Big subjects include the free movement of goods and workers, competition law and the freedom of establishment. The whole thing represents a fascinating mix of politics, history, economics and comparative law, featuring some of the most tongue-twisting case names you're likely to come across. How all this will change years on from Brexit is anybody's guess, but in any case, the integration of EU and UK law will surely have a profound effect on this part of the syllabus going forward.

In addition to the core subjects certain GDL providers, particularly those with a City slant, offer optional classes designed to ease your passage into the corporate world. These may include additional lectures or seminars on company law, intellectual property and international law. Most also organise mooting competitions and pro bono work. These should give you an early opportunity to try your counselling and advocacy skills and find out if a legal career is really for you, particularly if you’re headed for the Bar. A number of providers have degree-awarding powers allowing you to upgrade your qualification to an LLB, either upon successful completion of your GDL and LPC or after a summer or online course following the GDL. Unlike the GDL, the LLB gives you an internationally recognised accreditation. 

How to apply

All GDL applications are made online through the Central Applications Board. Remember, there's an application fee and it’s worth getting your application in as early as possible if you have your heart set on a particular institution, particularly as LawCabs needs your referee to respond before your application is passed on to the schools you’re interested in. Many law schools now offer January fast-track courses (lasting seven months), as well as traditional September starts for their GDL programmes (lasting nine months), and so the application timetable has been reformed to accommodate this. Replacing the old process involving first and second round offers, law schools now recruit GDL students on a rolling basis.

The application forms for courses beginning in 2022 will be available from October 2021 and commencing early November applications will be sent to law schools who may then make offers to students. The later you apply the more flexible you may have to be about where you study. Applications for part-time courses should be made directly to the providers. If you intend to do an LPC or BPTC at a popular institution you might stand a better chance if you choose it for your GDL, as many providers guarantee places to their GDL graduates.


Elsewhere on this website you can find a GDL providers table, detailing course fees and other useful information.


Your next step
>>> the Legal Practice Course
>>> the Bar Professional Training Course
>>> the Solicitors' Qualification Exam