Traditionally in the UK, there have been two routes to practicing law: by becoming a solicitor or a barrister. To some extent the distinction between the roles has become blurred, but solicitors essentially provide legal advice for clients, whereas barristers tend to be used only for court work and specialist advice.
To become a solicitor or a barrister and practice law in the UK, you need to take either the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC, for barristers) or the Legal Practice Course (LPC, for solicitors).
The LL.M. is one of the most popular law degrees in the UK and indeed around the world, setting students up to work with Big Law firms, government agencies and NGOs.
However, it does not satisfy the academic stage of training in order to progress onto the LPC or the BPTC, so doing an LL.M. alone, while valuable, will not give you the right to practice law in the UK.
An alternative to the LL.M., then, is the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
"The GDL serves a very specific purpose: it enables those without a recognized law degree to embark on the BPTC or LPC programmes,” explains Peter Hungerford-Welch, associate dean in London’s City Law School.
"An LL.M. degree does not satisfy the requirements of the academic stage of training to become a barrister or a solicitor.
“An LL.M. is, however, a good way of increasing your employability, particularly if the result of your undergraduate degree is not as good as you hoped, or if you want to show evidence of interest in a particular area of law."
But there are big changes coming for those training to become solicitors in the UK that will make the GDL redundant for this career path.
Hungerford-Welch says: “When training for solicitors is replaced by the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), probably in 2021, the requirement for a law degree or GDL will go, though applicants will still be expected to have an undergraduate degree (not necessarily a law degree).”
The BPTC is also set to change from September 2020, with course providers given more flexibility in how they teach the course. However, the need to do a law degree which covers the key areas of legal knowledge, or (for non-law graduates) a GDL, will remain, says Hungerford-Welch.
LL.M. vs. GDL: the main differences
So the main difference between an LL.M. and a GDL is the qualification for BPTC or LPC exams. But there are other distinctions.
The GDL is perfect for those without much legal knowledge or a background in the sector. It’s known as a “conversion course” for those with undergraduate degrees not in law, as it provides a crash course in all aspects of law, usually full-time over one year. GDL students graduate with a diploma that is equal to an undergraduate law degree.
Because GDL programs are aimed at those without a background in law, their course content tends to focus on legal fundamentals. At BPP University, students receive a grounding in criminal law, contracts, the English legal system, torts and other subjects.
Compered to GDL programs, LL.M.s, on the other hand, are often for overseas students who are already qualified in their country or have just completed their legal degree there, says Mara Gardner, careers consultant for postgraduate law at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).
LL.M.s can also be customized so as to focus on a niche area of the law, though generalist courses do exist. For example, at QMUL there are over 22 specialist LL.M.s on offer, in subjects from commercial law to human rights law.
This means LL.M.s can be better for those set on a career path already, while GDLs are good for people considering many different career paths within law, in addition to being a barrister or a solicitor.
While an LL.M. does not qualify one to practice law in the UK, Gardner argues that the degrees are still valuable for overseas lawyers who want to work in the UK. “An LL.M. from a top law school helps them to take the first steps towards this goal by becoming more knowledgeable about the legal system here,” she says.
Whatever the award designation, successfully completing a university programme in law is a great achievement, says Leyanda Purchase, LL.M. student affairs director at The University of Law.
“Whatever your background, you are likely to make positive connections with a wide range of people from different industries, backgrounds and countries,” she says.
“This will improve your own personal network as well as your communication skills and self-motivation.”