The open units scandal: Are law students playing the system and manipulating their degree results?

Legal Cheek investigates

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With the competition for jobs intensifying, law students know securing top degree results can be the career springboard they so desperately need.

They’ll do anything to make sure they get ahead: buying notes from successful graduates, trawling student rooms for revision hints and tips, studying past papers for exam topic patterns.

But maybe there is a way to bolster your degree result by doing, well, less work.

The intriguing approach is all about being savvy when you pick degree modules.

There are a number of compulsory undergraduate modules law students have to take if they want to use their degree to practise (tort law, contract law, EU law, all that jazz).

Beyond these, universities pretty much have free rein to set their own syllabuses; medical law, family law, human rights — these are just some of the many optional modules available to law students across the country.

Picking between them can be quite a challenge and there is, understandably, a logic to making the choice. Passion and interest for the subject, career options, timetabling and method of assessment are among the many factors to consider.

Another is how easy a subject is and, correlatively, how likely it is you’ll do well in it. It makes sense — why enrol on a transnational arbitration course no one has managed to pass in five years when you could take a criminology module for the same number of credits?

Uncontroversial so far; here’s where the modules game intensifies.

Legal Cheek has been told a number of law students have been strategically studying modules offered to them from outside of their faculty in order to work less and gain more.

Punting for these open units — or non-law modules as they’re also known — is a savvy move for a number of reasons.

First, some modules offered to law students are much easier than law school options, such as basic language courses. One recent graduate tells us:

Taking a module from another faculty made me realise how difficult law is.

Secondly, modules from other faculties are marked differently to law, where you’d be hard-pressed to score in the 70s let alone the 80s or 90s. Over in the maths or science department, for example, results in the 90s are achievable. The same is true in language faculties, where assessment can involve multiple choice exams. Our graduate continues:

I got a good mark in my open unit, having done half the work I would have done had it been a law module. Doing it this way gave me a lot of spare time to focus on my other modules, which I was very grateful for during exam period.

Take an open unit in beginner’s French, bag a result of 90 and suddenly your 52 in EU law doesn’t seem such a problem anymore. Sure, maybe a languages module doesn’t look as impressive as a high-level employment law option but, with thousands of applications to sift through, would prospective employers really notice, especially if you have a sound degree result? And — even if they did — you could always play the ‘I took this module to expand my language skills to make myself more employable to an international law firm’ card.

Whether you think this is a savvy way to boost degree results or a disingenuous way to play the system, it’s a reality in law schools across the United Kingdom. Bristol, Birmingham, Durham, Exeter, LSE, Newcastle, Nottingham and Southampton are among the law schools currently offering open units to their law students.

Legal Cheek is intrigued by this open units technique but slightly concerned it may cheapen the value of law degrees. The law schools listed, however, are quick to reassure us this isn’t the case.

Some of the universities note a student would only be able to take a module if it was, in Exeter’s words, “equivalent [in] academic level” to a law module or, in Newcastle’s, one “whose assessment is comparable” to law exams. Head of LSE law school Professor Jeremy Horder uses the phrase “academically suitable”. This seems fair, but then consider this extract from Southampton’s website:

Some of our courses also give you the option of taking a language module, which can count towards your degree. These modules cover ten languages and range from absolute beginner to near-native speaker level.

Spokespeople over at open unit-offerers Southampton, Exeter and Birmingham justify their non-law additions by appealing to the value of studying from a broad range of subjects. The former adds:

Any student attempting to gain advantage [by taking an open unit] would only see a relatively small impact on their overall mark, because of the limited number of credits attached to the module.

This may too be the case at some law schools, but again, please note that in Bristol, for example, a student taking full advantage of the open units on offer would graduate with 40 credits worth of non-law school knowledge under their belt — a law school dissertation is only worth 20.

The jury is out. Is jumping on the open-units bandwagon a harmless way to enhance your spectrum of knowledge while studying law, or a sneaky means of securing top law degree grades without really working for them?

Regardless of your moral standpoint, with the demand for training contracts and pupillages outweighing supply like never before, the modules you decide to study — and the grades you get in these modules — may be an important factor for employers, so choose wisely.

26 Comments

Anonymous

When 50% of lawyers could have studied a non-law subject such as languages or politics, I’m hard-pressed to see the issue with lawyers taking an open unit

(77)(1)
Anonymous

“Investigation”
“Scandal”
“Reporter”

I don’t think these words mean what you think they mean.

(44)(0)
HR individual

“but, with thousands of applications to sift through, would prospective employers really notice, especially if you have a sound degree result?”

Don’t be silly. Of course we notice.

That said, the implication that language modules are automatically seen as less valuable than law modules is categorically false.

(35)(0)
Anonymous

WTH! Where was this method when I was at law school?! I would’ve definitely got a 1st/high2:1 rather than passing by! ;(

(4)(11)
Anonymous

I don’t think this is making a mountain out of a molehill at all.

I went to a uni where you could take open units up to the value of 40 credits (so 1/6 of your overall degree). One of my friends didn’t get a 2:1 in a single law module (apart from a 62 in criminology and a 65 in feminist legal studies) and then got 91 and 89 in her open units (one basic German, one basic French) and it dragged her up to a 2:1 that she would not have got otherwise. It works people!

(15)(1)
Tyrion

Lots of people did this. I just wish I had played the game more myself. Also law modules are not all created equal. A good friend of mine got a 2.1 in the second year and proceeded to take tough modules (company, insolvency, finance, international trade) in the final year ending up with a 2.2 overall. Another friend didn’t get a single 2.1 until the final year when she took family law, criminal justice policy, law and feminism, juvenile justice and law & medicine. As the final year was weighted, she got a pretty good 2.1 overall and almost got a first in the final year. However I will say that law firms are not mugs. They know the score and neither has a city job today.

(7)(1)
Anonymous

Currently doing that at one of the aforementioned unis – I did well in my first year exams, but the language unit is so, so, so (etc) much easier I can’t believe they’re allowing it.

However, it should be said that the same applies for combined Honours, such as Law and French – people get 85s in the latter, whilst getting 2.2s in the former, and still get out with high 2.1s.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

Is this a joke? Every course has its easier and harder modules.

And although yes, higher marks are attainable in maths/science/philosophy than in other degree subjects (not limited to law — humanities subjects including MFL and other than philosophy in Oxbridge/RG rarely give out marks higher than the early 70s and into the 80s is practically unheard of) in order to be able to get these marks you do need to be pretty damn good. It’s not the case that someone with an average maths ability will get a better mark in maths simply because it’s possible to score 100% in the exam.

I do think that it is a problem that firsts are harder to get in law than in other subject. I did a humanities subject at Cambridge and then the GDL at City, and got a first in both. In my subject at Cambridge about 15% of people got firsts in finals, compared to about 5% of law students. Around 10% of the GDL students got firsts.

The GDL was definitely not “harder” than my degree – in fact a much less sophisticated level of analysis was required and getting a first meant simply churning out the lectures, naming the right cases in the right order, and making a couple of comments on each. It definitely required memorisation skills (not something to be sniffed at) and mastery of a very large body of material, but didn’t require any special intellectual ability.

However, it was clearly marked more harshly than the degree. I do think that’s a bit of a problem. It means that if you are a bright student who wants to be a lawyer and who has a chance of getting into Oxbridge/top RG universities you would be better off studying a subject other than law, simply because they likelihood of getting a first is higher. It also means that it is hard to distinguish between law graduates with 2.1s — some of these will be in the top 5-10% of their year (i.e. exceptional), others in the 50th percentile. Courses that give too few firsts just aren’t a good tool for measuring quality.

(18)(4)
BA (Cantab)

This was absolutely the case at Cambridge. Students with low firsts tended to be no more capable than those who got high 2.1s. The difference was that the former were more strategic in their module choices. Of course, one could argue there’s an intelligence in that strategy.

It was universally accepted, for example, that CSPS was a good third year module because it was so easy.

(7)(0)
Anonymous

Company law is notoriously difficult, due to shite teaching at my university.

Tanked it and almost got a desmond.

(5)(0)
Anonymous

what about LSE and UCL that will gross up the entire degree to first class once the student hits 70 for 4 modules?

on the other hand many other schools still do a hard average of year 2 and 3 modules.

(5)(1)
Bobby

As someone who studied at a redbrick and then LSE, to be fair mate its not that easy to smash 70 plus there. And I include many other subjects in that including the IR, Economics, History and Government departments, where law students often cross register. Where as a cheeky 78% in medical law, and then a solid 75% in both critical legal thinking and law & women, can do wonders for your average, particularly if you take them in the third year and they’re worth literally like 40% of your entire degree.

(6)(1)
Anonymous

That only applies to second and third year courses though – so it’s if you get 70+ in at least half of your modules. Not ludicrous.

Separately, none of the proper courses (i.e. courses other than Medical, Labour etc.) are that easy to get firsts in.

(3)(1)
Anonymous

It is why every firm I know of asks for module grades. Getting a very high mark in a non-law module but 2.2s in key law modules will be questioned.

(1)(0)
Anonymous

Qualify and get some good cases under your belt. Nobody cares about your results at uni.
Those disagreeing with this have no client following and are just another doc blozzer.

(3)(1)
Anonymous

I remember when studying history lots of people did foundation language classes to boost their grades. It’s not just law students who do it.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

This is not new and was the case when I did my first degree in science 20 years ago. 5 credits a semester were open and it was common knowledge which modules to take to get a high mark.

(0)(0)

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