‘The Prestige Factor’: Queen Mary or Durham For Law?

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Last week I received this email from a student:

“The prestige factor” is a major concern for law students. Read my response below…


I asked Jack Harris why Queen Mary is good, and this is what he told me (via text):

“Only campus university in London – higher ranked law school [than Durham] – just become Russell Group – loads of pro bono opportunities – research intensive, hard-working but friendly atmosphere – academics can teach as well as research – great social life – warmer, have heard Durham can get quite chilly.”

On the basis of Durham’s reputation, and 7th spot ranking in the Guardian’s list of top university law schools (QM came in at 4th), it’s obviously a good place to study. Certainly, the law firm recruiters I know seem to like it. The fact that Durham requires its students to sit the LNAT exam – something QM doesn’t ask for – also gives it kudos.

The downside of a traditional place like Durham which is organised around colleges is that its alumni will always be scarred by the Oxbridge reject tag. Why go to Durham if you made it into Oxford or Cambridge?

QM, on the other hand, has a reputation for being deliberately different, with a strong emphasis on clinical legal education (studying law through conducting pro bono work). It may be that in reality what you learn is pretty similar to Durham, but perceptions count in law.

The other advantage QM has is its location in London. You’re right about the importance of making connections, and from my experience students who go to uni in London do better in that respect because they’re around where most of the action is.

So in London you’ll find that lots of tutors have links to top chambers and law firms, and that work experience is that bit easier to line up as a result. Plus the range of events you get to attend will be better, and the calibre of speakers at those events generally higher.

It comes down, then, to traditional prestige versus better exposure and contacts. The top regional outfits would probably prefer the former, while the London law firms and barristers’ chambers which pride themselves on their supposed progressiveness would be more drawn the latter.

The main thing, though, is to get a top grade at uni once you get there as the real differentiating factor these days is first class degrees. And to do that it helps if you go somewhere you fit in and feel happy. QM is notoriously hipster, while Durham is infamously Sloaney. Which is more you?


Want some advice on legal education or training contract/pupillage applications? Email


Adam Wagner

I wonder how many Chambers/law firms keep a copy of the Times rankings by job application sifters’ sides. I expect most of them just apply their own prejudices.

Consulting my own not inconsiderbale prejudices for a moment (and assuming I hadn’t read this article), I have a strong preference for Durham as it sounds more prestigious. That is based on no empirical evidence whatsoever – indeed, if you had asked me whether QM ranked above Durham in the Law School stakes I would have almost undoubtedly said yes.

Those prejudices are stupid but they are real, and I imagine shared by many a harried application sifter. I wonder what could be done to counteract them from an applicant’s point of view? Perhaps something in the covering letter (“I attended QM (ranked by The Times in 2012 as the 4th best Law School in the country”) or does that seem a little desperate?

The other bit of ignorance intertia which you are up against is that clients also may have the same prejudices, which makes them even harder to shift from the application sifter’s perspective. The argument might be that this candidate will “look better” on the firm/chambers’ website to prospective clients.

I think Alex’s response is a really good one, but I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question – unfortunately (or fortunatley, depending on your view) law is a conservative profession which will take a while to move with the times when it comes to snobby university prejudices. It’s not fair, but is’s probably true.



I agree with Adam, I don’t think recruiters have any particular preference between institutions within the same broad tier. Which is better this year out of Oxford or Cambridge? As pointless a question for most people outside the system as the one posed between queen Mary and Durham. It is only an issue where an institution has recently been “promoted” or where the law school significantly outperforms other faculties in a university. Otherwise, recruiters are likely to rank institutions on the basis of how well they know them and their own perceptions of them from when they were students (and possibly also on the basis of other recruits – I’ve come across a lot of good lawyers from Nottingham Trent in the past, I’ve no idea if it is still good but would be positively inclined to it on the basis of people I knew 10-15 years back).

The final advice in the article is probably the most useful – go to the place you like better and which suits you better and try to get the best degree you can. Otherwise you end up trying to pander to imponderable prejudices based on criteria which recruiters just aren’t that likely to be applying.



I despair. Be yourself. You can’t be no one else. If the Bar has an irrational preference for one over the other, that’s its problem. Would you really be happy working where you have to pretend you’re something you’re not?



Alex – I think I have to agree with Adam. From personal experience, I know more practising lawyers with degrees from Durham than QMU.

While QM has a good reputation for law, it still isn’t up there with LSE, UCL or Kings College in terms of the general rankings. Rightly or wrongly, recruiters would ask your reader why he didn’t go to one of those colleges instead. On the other hand, I doubt that recruiters would ask a Durham graduate why they didn’t go to Oxbridge…

What’s more, while QMU may have just become part of Russell Group, it’ll take most law firms about ten years to realise that, by which time, the reader will hopefully have secured his pupillage or training contract anyway.


Tom Laidlaw

I think the most important thing to consider here is which institution fits your personality. In order to have any real chance of entering the legal profession (if that is what you want) then you really have to get a 2:1 as a start. To do this you have to be comfortable with the place you are studying at and the people you are studying with. If you haven’t visited either university yet, do so ASAP. Do also read what is written about both places on to see what other students who are already there think of both places.
London has the advantage of being an exciting and extremely cosmopolitan city to live in and all of the advantages Alex set out above. HOWEVER it can be a very challenging and expensive place to live especially if you are leaving home for the first time. I know school friends who thrived in London and others who sank without trace, quitting after a term. Durham has the collegiate set up and it is a relatively small city so you will be out and about with lots of fellow students all in one place. However, you might find this feels like an extension of school.
Think about this and be honest with yourself as you will at one or other institution for 3 years.


Gianni Sonvico

As a student approaching the end of my time at QMUL I can’t praise it highly enough. What we lack in prestige we more than make up in extra-curricular opportunities, location and atmosphere.

Having said that, only you can know what law department is right for you. Go to an open day at both and decide which is that better fit.


Liam Field

My 5th UCAS choice boiled down to QMUL or Durham, and in the end I went for the former.

It’s such a subjective question though. I’d liken it to deciding whether to play for Arsenal or Liverpool; it probably boils down to whichever has the best financial incentives.



I had a choice between two top 10 universities – one new and one old. I visited both and chose the one I felt more comfortable at. Listen to your gut instinct when you visit. University will be hard work but you’ll also have the time of your life. Life’s too short to worry about how others might perceive your choice. You might hate the course so choosing the city you’re happiest in is extremely important.



Choose the Uni that YOU want to go to. University is about the whole experience, not just about the job at the end. Think about the environment that you will be most comfortable in, learn best in and will give you the most enjoyable experience.


BPTC student

It seems to me that more and more chambers (if you’re hoping to go down the Bar route) mark pupillage applications institution-blind, ie. someone goes through and blanks out the undergraduate degree-awarding institution before they’re passed on to the pupillage committee. The top marks therefore go to the applicants who have firsts. Having said that, take a look at the most recent five or so tenants on any chambers’ website and you’ll still find it dominated by Oxbridge and the perceived ‘better’ universities…



At the undergraduate level (and possibly LLM level) – go for Durham.

The comment about the Oxbridge reject tag – is baseless.

The academic rigour and prowess of studying law under English legal academic tutelage rather than under a mixture of foreign qualified lawyers/lecturers who do not always have the necessary experience and understanding of the UK/London legal profession, and therefore lack the contacts, gravitas and the sensitivity of how the UK legal profession thinks and operates, as well as how English common law functions both in the UK as well as globally – is a crucial factor.

Furthermore – QMUL is at Mile End; an unattractive and unhealthy part of London with a very depressing vibe. Whatever renovations have been done there, do not compensate for its unpleasant location.

Importantly, there is no exposure to law firms, barrister chambers or the London legal profession at their East End campus – none whatsoever.

The facilities and support services are also highly questionable.

The post-graduate campus is much smaller at Lincoln’s Inn Fields – but beyond that location, it is uncertain what closer professional contacts they really offer students, over Durham – to the London bar and the major London law firms, noting that most of the magic circle firms do not hold their careers fairs at QMUL at either campus.

There is clearly a reason for that. Law firms are perhaps the biggest ‘customer’ of law schools graduates. If the major law firms are keeping away from particular law schools despite their location – there will be a good reason for that.

Whilst Durham is based in the north, the magic circle and silver circle firms regularly travel to recruit graduates from there. Clearly the colder climate and location is not a factor. The atmosphere is also apparently very beautiful.

This doesn’t appear to happen at QMUL ; as stated above some of the biggest firms still leave QMUL off their careers fair list, whilst attending the other three major Uni of London law schools (Kings, UCL and LSE).

Location is thus totally irrelevant.

If the word ‘prestige’ is being equated to a concept of ‘quality’ then Durham is the without doubt the preferred choice for an undergraduate law student seeking to become a quality lawyer.



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