Things I wish I’d known during my LLB - Undergraduate Law Degree
A common saying of mine when talking about professionals in any field is: “people forget what they didn’t know, when they didn’t know it”. I use this when talking about lecturers or bosses who have failed to teach the basics, assumed knowledge, and requested something of you above your current level of understanding. For me, this was a regular feeling during my undergraduate Law degree (LLB).
For most of my LLB, I felt that I had missed an email that told everyone all of these basics: simple things like how to work WestLaw, or what a Vac Scheme was, or the difference between a solicitor and an advocate. You may read that sentence and scoff at my ignorance. How could someone not know these things? Well, I don’t come from a family with a legal background. In fact, I am part of the first generation of my family to go to university. I was one of around ten people in my year group of 100 to go directly to university from secondary school. I was one of two people to achieve straight A’s in my exams. I went to an underfunded school, in an underprivileged area. I also had to work while completing my degree and due to some mis-communications and a boss who refused to accommodate my class schedule, I missed the majority of induction week, having been put on a full-time shift pattern. So maybe I did miss the lecture where everyone suddenly gained the understanding that I felt I was lacking throughout my degree. I doubt it though.
The hard truth is that some people start a law degree with more knowledge than others. As a result of this constant feeling of being out of the loop, I would like to make sure that as few people as possible encounter this feeling when starting their LLB. I would therefore like to use this opportunity to detail a few things that I wish I had known at the start of my degree.
But before I do that, I will give a brief summary of who I am and where I am now. My name is Heather Gibson. I graduated from the University of Glasgow with a first-class LLB in 2020 and I completed the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice with Distinction at the same institution in 2021. I then returned to the Diploma as a staff member for one year. For the academic year of 2021/22, I worked as an ‘Intern’ on the Glasgow Diploma, helping with the organisation of materials and administrative tasks. At the end of June 2022, I completed my time there and started as a Legal Executive at a medium-sized commercial firm, where I will start my traineeship in September. I have just been elected as a non-executive committee member of the Scottish Young Lawyer’s Association and I hope to enact some positive change in the profession through this role.
Having encountered Law School from both a student and staff perspective, I like to believe that I have a good understanding of the system and I hope that this means I am able to give some sound advice to future or current students. I also am glad to say that the feeling of confusion that I felt during most of my LLB did gradually fade and I can now reflect on these feelings having come through the other side of them. I hope you find these tips help you to take a step out of the haze that is starting Law School too…
1. Apply yourself from the beginning
As a first year at Glasgow, I frequently heard the phrase ‘D3s get degrees’. I know not all universities give alpha-numerical grades but the principle is probably reiterated across all campuses - scraping a pass is fine because for first and second year, that’s all you need. While this is true, if you want to progress onto the Diploma and eventually into legal practice, it is not sound advice.
Currently, Diploma providers offer places to students based on their grades in the core modules set by the Law Society of Scotland. These are the subjects that most students sit in their first and second year of study. One of the most frequently asked questions by applicants to the Diploma is whether they are likely to be offered a place if they had low grades in first year. Unfortunately, the answer is that you will be ranked lower on the admissions system if you have lower first and second year grades, regardless of whether you received a first-class honours, a 2.1 or a 2.2. The good news is that if you have low grades for a particular reason, like an illness, mental health issues, or the occurrence of a major or traumatic event, these can be considered on your application. This is so that applicants are not disadvantaged when they have mitigating circumstances.
However, for the majority of applicants, these mitigatory circumstances do not exist and therefore it is best practice to try your best from the get-go. One of my biggest regrets in my degree is not taking first-year more seriously. If you are able to, study and do your reading. Plan and prepare where you can but be kind to yourself while you do. University is a new style of learning so it is inevitable that you won’t be getting the A's that you are used to from secondary school. Diploma providers are aware that you need time to adjust but accepting scraping by does not stand you on good stead to progress in your career. Whilst no one expects you to be achieving straight As in your first and second year, laying the foundations of a good study routine will stand you in good stead for the next four years.
2. Focus on subjects you enjoy
This advice is easier to follow when you reach third and fourth year, but studying something that you genuinely find interesting is a lot easier than studying a topic that you find drier than the desert. When you do get to choose the areas that you would like to study, try to choose something that you at least have a vague interest in even if that area flies in the face of the area of practice that you are likely to end up in.
I only ever took one commercial law class in my third and fourth year and I am completing my traineeship at a commercial firm. While firms may ask you why you haven’t chosen a certain class, what they really care about is that you are achieving the 2.1 that they are looking for and it’s much easier to do this when you enjoy the content of your classes.
I have a very fortunate skill of finding interest in pretty much anything. Whilst I know not everyone can do this naturally, I do feel a positive mind set can make the first and second year core courses more interesting. While you don’t have the privilege of choosing your subjects, try to find ways that make a topic more enticing. Simple tactics like colour coded notes and making Power Points rather than just reading from a textbook really helped me to engage more with subjects that I didn’t find intellectually stimulating. Make the most of what you have and try to keep yourself entertained. You will need it for those long study days when your contracts and your competition blur together.
3. Go to law fairs
When I first started university, I didn’t like the prospect of putting myself out there. I hated the uncomfortable feeling of talking to strangers and had no desire to put myself in a room full of them and voluntarily talk about law. There was probably a level of imposter syndrome to this. I knew I wanted to pursue a legal career but, having had no legal knowledge previously, I had no idea what that looked like.
One of the best skills you can learn at university is how to put yourself out there. Law fairs are a great place to get that initial understanding of application processes, traineeships and other possible career avenues. If the prospect of going to something like a law fair makes you nervous, I encourage you to bite the bullet. At the least, you will come away with a few useful leaflets about firms you may want to apply to in the future and a couple of free water bottles, or notebooks (law firms love to tempt students with freebies). At the best, you will leave with some great tips about an application process and some new connections that could be helpful in the future.
4. Vacation schemes
The first time I ever heard of a vacation scheme was in my third year while I was on my year abroad. I was face-timing a friend and they mentioned being stressed about looming vacation scheme application deadlines. I asked what a vacation scheme was and she looked at me in horror. The next few weeks were spent frantically writing last minute applications for any firm whose deadline had not yet passed. By some stroke of luck, I managed to get accepted onto a vacation scheme with a corporate firm. I wasn’t offered a traineeship from it but it did give me a very useful insight into legal practice and sparked my interest in pursuing a career in litigation. It also gave me invaluable experience, which I have been able to use and reference in interviews.
For those who, like me, had no idea what a vacation scheme was - it is a short work experience at a law firm, during which you meet trainees and learn about the firm and its working environment. Usually vacation scheme participants are given an automatic traineeship interview and some firms hire trainees exclusively through these programmes. They are a great way to get your foot in the door and get to know a firm. You usually apply for vacation schemes from the end of your second year to the Christmas season of your third year and will complete the scheme in the summer between your third and fourth year. For those who are not quite at that stage yet, keep an eye out for open days. Some firms do networking evenings, during which they open their office to students and give them an insight into the firm. These are great to show your interest and will be useful for the inevitable question: ‘Why our firm?’ in an interview.
5. Get involved in clubs and challenge yourself
If I was to choose one thing that I would change about my university experience, it would be not getting involved with clubs and extra-curricular activities. I attended the university boxing club a few times but never enough to become properly involved in it. Before I went to university, I told myself that I would join the hockey club, having played in school and that I would join the drama club, having attended classes throughout my life. I started every academic year by telling myself that that would be the year I started mooting. I never did any of these things. I hadn’t quite grown out of the fear of what other people thought of me and so I worried that if I joined these clubs, people would have something to say about it. I realise now how ridiculous this is and I implore everyone starting their academic journey to find a society or a club that they are interested in.
Challenging yourself to take up a new activity or meet new people is one of the best things you can do to develop your skills. I only learned this after university, when I embraced things that I enjoyed and started rock climbing, a sport I had never done before but always wanted to try. Universities offer so many opportunities outside of academia and you have four years to make the most of it. Whilst your studies and responsibilities should take priority, it is important to find something that you can do purely for enjoyment. Make friends outside of your course and make the most of the university experience. You will only get it once.
6. Ask Questions and Speak Up
One of my biggest frustrations in tutorials was sitting in silence after the tutor asked a question. Whilst this issue got marginally better by fourth year, I was still shocked by how often it happened. I remember sitting in a class across from a person who never said a word for the whole year, but had endless notes on her page. She clearly understood the content but would never contribute to class discussion. I understand that people can be shy and public speaking is not everyone’s forte but the legal profession is one in which you need to interact with people. Try to view small group tutorials as a safe space to practice this and to openly admit when you are confused.
My philosophy in class was that if I was confused by something, the likelihood was that someone else was too. A tutor is there to make sure you understand the course content. There is nothing wrong with admitting when you don’t know the answer. We don’t want to be wrong or to sound silly if we ask a question, but it is far better to be wrong in a class and to stand corrected than to be wrong in an exam because you didn’t clarify. Being able to say ,’I don’t know’ has given me the confidence in my working life to ask for clarification when I don’t understand a task and to not let that need for clarification cause me to believe that I am stupid.
Understand that you have achieved a lot by getting into a law degree in the first place. You are there to learn. Don’t be afraid to do just that.
As I’ve already mentioned, it is important to prioritise your studies and any other responsibilities you have, but bear in mind that that is not all university is. In amongst all of the stress and confusion are also some of the most fun and exciting times of your life. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Other people’s understanding and experiences have no bearing on your own. Finding your feet during the undergraduate can be an uncomfortable process, but with a little bit of perseverance you will eventually get there. If I can, you absolutely can too. Good luck!
Heather is part of SYLA's non-executive committee and can be contacted via Linkedin.
By Heather Gibson
Legal Secretary and Future Trainee Solicitor 2022
Views expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Scottish Lawyer.