How to survive the law conversion course as a career changer

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By Charlotte Tosti on


PGDL graduate and future pupil barrister Charlotte Tosti shares ten pointers with readers

The Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL), previously known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), is infamously difficult. Cramming a three-year law degree into nine months, on top of doing pro bono work to polish your CV and applying for training contracts or pupillage is guaranteed to shove aside any life you had outside the law. This boot camp-like conversion course gets harder the longer it has been since you were last a student.

When I began the PGDL in September 2022 after three years of not being at university, it suddenly hit me that taking notes in lectures, reading late into the night and fighting for a desk in the library were not things I could do as well as I did at 21. In most cases, the PGDL is going to be more onerous than your previous work or study, and it’ll take some time to get used to the grind.

Many advice posts on the PGDL tend to be focused on people who are fresh out of university, so here are a few tips I’d like to share as someone who did a full-time PGDL as a career changer, switching to law from my previous career as a freelance writer.

1. Go to lectures

Go to the lectures. Don’t listen to anyone telling you that the lectures are useless and you can just read a textbook on the sofa at home. Just try sitting at home reading an online textbook and see if you cover everything in the lecture within two hours. Unless you have an incredible processing speed and can resist the distractions of Twitter/Instagram/Reddit, it’s highly unlikely you will be successful. The more lectures you miss, the more you are going to fall behind.

Lecturers also have a habit of hinting at what is likely to come up on the exam and what they will not be assessing. They don’t reiterate these over email, so attending lectures will enable you to revise smartly and spend more time on what is likely to come up in the revision period.

It might be that you really don’t get on with the lecturer’s teaching style. If that is the case, then find a good textbook or revision guide, read it alongside the lecturer’s handout and make notes from that instead. But try to make that the exception rather than the norm. Going to lectures also gives you a sense of structure and routine. Starting the PGDL after working is already a big change — attending lectures and tutorials helps ease you back into being a student.

2. Make friends

Another reason to attend lectures is to make friends (when the lecturer isn’t talking, of course). You can bond over how little you understand about overriding interests in land law or how old you feel compared to the 18-year-olds that left the lecture theatre just before you went in and head to the pub afterwards. You need these friends to get through what is an intense, taxing and frankly dry course.

Initially, everyone has their guard up. The atmosphere feels very competitive, but in truth, everyone is just scared about the looming exams. You will, however, feel much less afraid about those exams once you know you’re in it together. Nobody can do the PGDL alone — one of my tutors admitted that PGDL students simply don’t have enough time to do all the work themselves, so find some friends and pool your resources. Sharing notes is key.

3. Go to tutorials

Tutorials are the one chance you get to ask questions about points of law you don’t understand and apply the law to exam questions in a small group. When I was revising for exams, I unexpectedly found myself looking back through notes I made in the tutorials. This is because questions asked in the tutorial handout are often like the ones that come up in exams — so attending them helps you save time in the long run!

My tutorial group consisted of people from all walks of life and they were just wonderful to have around. Our WhatsApp group was a safe space where we could ask ‘stupid’ questions and not feel embarrassed about it. I cannot stress how much solidarity with your course mates helps on this course, so stick with your tutorial group through thick and thin.

4. Make notes throughout the year

Make notes throughout the entire year. Try to write them on a laptop rather than by hand because you will be using the ‘Control + F’ function more than you have ever done in your life when you sit the exams. You don’t have time to flick through endless pieces of paper to find the case you need!

And note down every case mentioned in a lecture. You’ll need them even if they make no sense at the time. They will, eventually.

5. Set your goals in advance

Set your goals in advance. If you’re applying for scholarships, volunteering for legal charities, mooting and applying for training contracts or pupillage this year, you aren’t as likely to get a stellar result on the PGDL as someone who is just focusing on fewer things.

If this is you, think carefully about whether you need a distinction on the PGDL. If you do need a distinction, you should think carefully about taking on too much. Law firms and chambers will want to see if you can excel academically, so it may be best to focus on the PGDL and drop one of the things in the meantime.

The 2023 Legal Cheek PGDL Most List

6. Moot as much as you can

Moot, and moot as much as you can. Obviously, this is less relevant if you want to be a solicitor. But mooting really helps you put the knowledge you gain on the course into practice, and saves you time revising in the long term. Yes, you’ll feel old compared to undergraduate mooters, but spin it the other way and let it make you feel young instead.

It also doesn’t matter if you don’t win. Most people don’t win moots. I didn’t make it past the first written rounds of most of the external moots I applied to. But some mooting experience is essential if you want to be a barrister. And if you hate mooting, then you should probably reconsider if you actually want to be a barrister.

7. Reduce your working hours if you can

Unlike the youngsters on the course, you probably don’t live at home and need to work a little to pay the bills. If you can afford to go completely freelance and have weeks of no work at all, do it so you can spend more time focusing on the course. I had to work two days a week to afford to live in London alongside the PGDL and it was really rough even if I worked from home. But if it is financially impossible not to work, please know that working won’t disadvantage you when it comes to training contract and pupillage applications. If anything, employers will have huge respect for anyone who can get through the PGDL whilst working! It might also help to consider doing the PGDL part-time if you need to work more than two days per week.

8. Get a mentor

Get a mentor if you can! Find charities, organisations, or your alumni network for a legal mentor and lap up the opportunity. Young Legal Aid Lawyers runs a mentorship scheme, for example.

If you’re an aspiring barrister and you meet a barrister you like at a chambers’ open evening, why not ask them if they mentor. If not, on your bar course year, your Inn of Court will provide you with a mentor. But the earlier you can get a mentor, the better.

9. Allow yourself to feel stupid

Don’t forget that the PGDL is a vocational course, not an academic one. If you want to be a legal academic, it’s probably better to do an LLM rather than a crash course like the PGDL. If you feel like you barely know anything about the law compared to undergrads, that’s completely normal. Don’t listen to anyone who is confident that they know everything there is to know about the law a month into the course — they almost certainly do not.

Most people feel like they know nothing about the law on the PGDL. But I promise that at the end of the revision period, you’ll look at potholes on the road and find your mind drifts to the law of negligence. Potholes won’t ever look the same again. The law gets into your brain, eventually.

10. Allow yourself to sleep

Finally, don’t do all-nighters. It isn’t worth it. As you get older, sleep becomes more important. Get eight hours of sleep, you’ll need them.

Charlotte Tosti read history and politics at Oxford University before completing a master’s in philosophy at UCL. She worked as a parliamentary researcher and freelance writer before undertaking the PGDL at City Law School. She is due to start pupillage at Cloisters.

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