Duly noted – The journey to finding the right study method

Well, it’s only taken 6 months, but I’ve managed to work out how best for me to work towards my GDL. Trouble is, there are only a handful of workshops and lectures left to put it into practice. Despite this, I thought I’d write about my new method and why it’s been good for me, as well as how I arrived at it. The hope is, as it is with many of my blogs, that at least one person will read it and find it useful.

I began the year working very hard. I would prepare for my workshops by doing the reading in the Study Manuals that the College provides, highlighting and underlining as I went. I’d do all the prep activities and come to the workshops full of beans. I found, though, that I wasn’t retaining much of the information once I’d learnt it. The College is big on its students consolidating their knowledge, but having tried it a couple of times and felt that it didn’t help that much, as well as feeling that it left me short of time to prepare for upcoming workshops if I was looking back at the same time, I abandoned consolidation.

I carried on with this method of working until my January exams. I then found that I had very few notes from which to revise (which should probably have occurred to me earlier, I’ll grant you) and tried making them from the things I’d highlighted and underlined in the manuals. These notes were serviceable, but not exceptional, because I’d forgotten what was truly relevant as a result of the time between those workshops and making the notes.

I then resolved to take notes instead of merely highlighting the book. This I did diligently, taking umpteen pages of notes for every workshop, colour coding cases and statutory provisions for ease of reference, and building up a stock of notes at last. I was doing all of this before workshops, which was time-consuming, but I was finding it pretty useful. I found, though, that my retention didn’t really improve all that much, and my involvement in workshops decreased because I was looking through notes rather than listening or participating. The other factor was the time it was taking me to make my way through the notes. Some of the chapters in the manual are very dense and I was having trouble distilling the information into something that was manageable. I’d often take notes, only to find that the workshop taught me something different, or at least placed the focus on certain vital cases that weren’t given that focus in the text.

Given these factors, I decided to combine my two approaches. I decided to read the relevant chapters before the workshop, understanding the concepts and underlining the occasional (and I mean occasional) sentence. I’d then do the prep activities that the classes required, and take them along to the workshops. I’d make as many notes as I possibly could about structure and content in the workshop as I could, augmenting my conceptual understanding with the structure required by “GDL land” as the tutors refer to the course. Then, once the workshop had finished, I’d go to the library and make notes from the chapter, making my workshop notes complete using the Manual, but retaining the emphases that I’d been given by the tutor and allowing the tutors, rather than the book, to give the lessons.

I’ve found that my retention and understanding has increased, I’m doing the consolidation whilst not fighting with upcoming workshop work so much, and I’m able to make notes with the benefit of knowing what’s vital and what’s less important.

I’m not suggesting that this method is for everyone – everyone works and revises and learns differently. But I’d advise that students be as critical as possible of their own working methods. The course is very information-dense, and not working as effectively as you possibly can for much of the course can be a bit of a problem. Everything’s starting to come together now in my mind, which is good, and I think it probably would have done even without the change of working habits. But they certainly haven’t harmed the process.

I wrote in a previous blog about the importance of constantly evaluating your own performance and knowing how to get the best out of yourself. This is yet another example of where I think it comes in handy. People may disagree with this statement or my methods – but I know they’re right for me. Which is, after all, the most important thing.

Some FAQs answered for those considering a law conversion course

I recently received an email from someone I know who was thinking about converting his degree through the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), more commonly known as the law conversion course. He asked me some questions so that he could have as much information as possible on which to base his decision.

His questions were practical ones about the course, how I was finding it, and how I was funding it. They’re the sort of questions I wish I’d had answers to before I left university, and answers from a student on the course rather than from one of the course providers. I decided, having read and answered his questions, that to publish them might help others make a decision. My reply is extensive and, I’d like to think, thorough, but it won’t be comprehensive and my experiences will have differed from those of others, so please feel free to comment with your own thoughts and opinions if you have anything to add to the information.

The email I received read thus:

Hey Ashley,

I understand that you are currently taking the law conversion course. I’ve decided to look into it and see if it’s for me, and would just like to ask you a few questions about it, if you don’t mind?
Was it easy to get into with your degree?
Are you self-funding…and are most people on the course self-funding or are there lots of people already with law firms paying for them?
How difficult/intense etc is it, are you struggling or finding it a manageable challenge? Since we did similar subjects at the same uni I assume we’ve got a relatively similar skill set!
Are you in the process of applying for/have you got a Training Contract (TC)? From reading about it, this seems to be absolutely crucial yet also very difficult. How are you finding it and what would you do if you can’t get one? How easy do people seem to find it in general on your course, and do you need much previous law experience to help you get one?This is the one issue that really confuses me as I’m worried I wouldn’t be able to get a TC and hence waste a year!
Have you secured any work experience etc/ how difficult was that to achieve?

I know there are lots of questions, but any help will be really greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

A Prospective GDL Student

I gave the email due consideration, and thought about my experiences, both on the course itself and beforehand. I replied as follows:

Hi Prospective Student.

I’d be delighted to answer your questions.

1) The only true entry requirement is obviously that you hold a degree. Beyond that, if they have space available and you are able to afford the fees, you are likely to be accepted. By way of example, I know people who applied in March or April, well after the deadline for first round applications, to three law schools (which is as many as lawcabs.ac.uk allows you to apply to) and received offers from all three. The law schools were also still advertising places on the GDL well into September 2010 for the 2010/2011 Academic Year.

2) I am self-funding and so are many of my classmates. As I write, out of our class of 20, there are only 3 people who have secured funding already. I took a job straight from University, having thought that the training fees in law would be prohibitive for me, in order to work out what to do. It took me no time at all to realise that I didn’t want to do anything other than go into the legal profession, and so I used that year to earn the money for my GDL and apply for Training Contracts. There are ways to finance the courses – Nat West, for instance, do a specific “Professional Qualifications Loan” which some people here have taken up [11/02/2011 - I have just read that Nat West have withdrawn this scheme. For more details, click here] – and I will need to find a way to fund myself through the next stage if I do not manage to secure a TC this year. Whatever happens, though, the investment has been one worth making, as far as I am concerned. Some people said that it would be worth it back when I was worrying about it, but it seemed easy for them to say that, as they weren’t people who’d been through it. Taking the year to work gave me the perspective on my ambitions and the perspective on funding the course to be able to take the risk of funding it myself. I was surprised to find out how few people on the GDL have Training Contracts already.

3) There’s a lot of work for sure, but it’s manageable. I haven’t had any problems so far, although the volume increases between Xmas and the end of the course, with two pieces of coursework to do as well as the regular lectures and workshops (and revision for mocks). The trick is to keep on top of it. At uni I left most things until the last minute, even exam revision. With this, it’s impossible to do that; I think you’d quickly sink like a stone. So it’s just about being responsible and working consistently. Once you do that, it’s comparatively simple. Yes, our similar backgrounds are useful but law has so many disciplines in practice that it requires people from all backgrounds – the most common are social sciences, humanities, philosophy graduates, but there are two former musicians in my class as well. The course is open to holders of all kinds of degrees, so whilst your essay-writing skills may stand you in good stead, they’re not all that you need and they certainly won’t carry you through on their own!

4) I haven’t got a training contract yet, and am applying for them at the moment. In my opinion, the greatest importance placed on attaining a TC at the stage you’re at is in the funding. You obviously need to complete a 2-year TC if you want to qualify, but the immediate need is the money. If it’s possible to do the GDL and even maybe the LPC via another means of funding then I would do so. If you need to take a year or two to earn money to pay for it and apply for training contracts then that makes sense – I did it – but it helps to get on the path as soon as possible, in my opinion. The other important thing that a Training Contract gives you, though, is the security of knowing that you have somewhere to go after finishing your studies.

5) Firms like you to have experience because it shows that you have a commitment to law, but also because it shows that you know what to expect. [I wrote about this at length in my blogpost entitled "So, Candidate, why do you want to work at a City firm?"] More than just “any legal experience”, they want it to be relevant. They’re not looking for their trainees to know exactly what area they want to qualify into – and in many cases they prefer trainees not to know. But they’d like you to be sure that the type of law is what you want. For instance, if you’re applying to City commercial firms, having some work experience in a high-street family practice will only be useful up to a point. You can sell it on the basis of knowing you don’t want to work in that environment, but a big firm wants its candidates to be certain they want to work in the city world. It was explained to me recently that it costs roughly £250,000 to recruit each trainee at most of the big firms, so obviously for that investment they want to make sure, as far as they can, that the person is right for the job and will stay there for a while. The entire process is fairly arbitrary, I think, as what one firm wants, another firm may not. Also, it depends how the recruitment is done. Many systems are imperfect, especially in firms who give applications to busy lawyers to read.

6) Training contracts are, as I’m sure you know, recruited two years in advance when it comes to the big firms. They do this because that’s the amount of legal training that their students have to go through if they get them at the earliest stage. I know many people who have secured contracts with firms after they have started their training, and the years in between are not wasted, I can assure you! Sometimes the firms take their future trainees on as paralegals so they can gain experience and earn some money. Some take it as a gap year opportunity and go travelling, or undertake more study such as an MBA. Of course, there are also smaller firms who recruit for trainees from the pool of people who already have their LPC qualification, so even if you go throughout law school with no Training Contract, you may still be in a great position to apply to firms like that afterwards.

7) As I mentioned above, work experience is a real help when it comes to securing Training Contracts. In order to get the experience, though, sometimes you already need to have experience – it can be a bit of a vicious circle with Vacation Schemes in the City. My advice would be to write to law firms and to make as many contacts as you possibly can. Think of everyone who you know who might be able to give you some help or advice and ask them. Even if you don’t know anyone directly who can help, there are bound to be people around who can. Sometimes it’s useful to think laterally: for instance, most of us know people who have been divorced; ask someone for the contact details of their solicitor. Even if they can’t help you themselves, they may have contacts in the industry who are able to. Networking is absolutely vital. Recruiting firms don’t expect everyone to have extensive experience though, so don’t worry about filling a CV chock-full of it. Just enough to show that you have thought about the profession seriously will suffice.

I hope that this has been of help. If you have any more questions, you know where I am.

All the best,

Ash

Now, comprehensive though this may appear, it omits at least one major piece of advice that I wish I’d had – that of how to decide which provider to study with once you’ve made the decision to do the GDL. This is a difficult decision for many prospective students because of the dearth of information on the subject. The four major postgraduate legal education providers are BPP Law School, City Law SchoolKaplan Law School and The College of Law.

When looking to choose a university for your undergraduate degree, you can decide based on the surroundings, based on teaching league tables, on research, on course content, and many other factors. When the course content is identical, as it largely is with the GDL, the decision becomes more difficult. The majority of the information available comes from the providers themselves, rather than any independent source, and leaves a great deal to the imagination.

It’s difficult to make a wrong decision on this, and each of the major providers is regarded equally by most firms (some have agreements with a particular provider but studying elsewhere before securing a TC doesn’t preclude you from joining them in most cases). My advice would be to contact the providers and find out the full details of the teaching and any extra benefits: how many contact hours you would have, what materials would be made available online (are lectures recorded, for instance?), how big are the class sizes, what’s the careers service like, and so on. Then, once you have this information to hand, work out what is most beneficial for you. If you’re someone who can’t take notes easily in lectures, having recordings of them available online might be just what you need, for instance.

Once you’ve decided on a provider, you may find that they have more than one branch in the same city, as I found with the College of Law. Again, almost no information on which to base a decision over where to study exists, even less for deciding between the Moorgate and Bloomsbury College of Law centres than there was for deciding which provider to opt for. I chose the College because of their course structure, because I knew a larger number of people who had studied there than at any of the other providers, and because, if you do GDL and either the BPTC (the practical course for future barristers) or the LPC (the equivalent for future solicitors) with the College, you receive an LL.B at no extra cost and with no further exams, which is in contrast to other providers. I figured that if I didn’t get a training contract, I’d like to come out with an LL.B to show for my two years; if I secure one and the firm wants me to study for my LPC elsewhere, I’m happy to make that trade-off!

This was a personal decision, and the lack of information meant that it wasn’t built on the strongest of foundations, but I did as much research as I could and made my decision based on as much knowledge as I was able to acquire. I hope that through this post, some people will be able to be more certain of their options.

—————

As I said earlier, I am certain that I have missed some absolute gems of advice, and that people who have had different experiences to me will be able to provide valuable insights into other areas of the decision-making process. If you have anything to add, please do comment. Feel free also to comment in order to ask any questions.

An edited version of this blogpost was published on the AllAboutCareers.com website

Podcast with Charon QC

Over the Christmas period, I was approached by Mike Semple-Piggot, better known (by some) as Charon QC, and invited to join him for a podcast about my experiences on the Graduate Diploma in Law.

The podcast has been recorded and is now available by clicking on this photo:

The link to Charon’s blogpost, which has links to other Lawcasts in the series, can be found here.

I hope you enjoy listening to it!

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