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  • Writer's pictureHeather Gibson

Tips and advice for future Diploma (DPLP) students: A Student and Diploma Staff Member Perspective

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

The Diploma as a Student and a Staff Member

The Diploma in Professional Legal Practice - the final academic step in Scotland before embarking on your legal career. It is also a part of the route to qualification that can feel a little bit shrouded in mystery. When I applied for the Diploma, I had very little idea of what to expect from it. I had heard different things about different providers and had the impression that the course was a bit like Marmite: you either loved it, or you hated it, but I had no clue why. I started my Diploma at the University of Glasgow in 2020. My year was, unfortunately, one of the pandemic years that was completely online, but I managed to muddle through and achieve a Distinction. After this, I had a year to fill before starting my traineeship and so I applied to be Diploma Intern at Glasgow University. I was very pleased to find out that I was successful in landing this role.

Every year, the University of Glasgow hire two individuals who have graduated from the previous Diploma cohort as Interns. This is a one-year, full-time role which involves assisting the Diploma team and tutors with the organisation of materials, events and any other related tasks. It is a surprisingly wide ranging role and over the past year I have written legal scenarios for competitions, dabbled in graphic design, managed the Diploma social media accounts, learned how to actually work Excel, assisted with admissions, and responded to a lot of emails.

Having been both a student and a member of staff on the Diploma, I feel that I have a unique understanding of what the course involves and how to make the most of it. As a student I held views of the Diploma that swiftly changed as I gained a staff perspective. During the induction week at Glasgow, the interns give students their top tips for surviving the course. I hope to do something similar in this post, but with an extra year of hindsight, experience and understanding on top of what I thought I knew when I was just beginning my role as an Intern in the summer of 2021.

1. Take assessments seriously

One of the things I like about most Diploma providers is that there are no classic, sit-in, written exams. Most assessments are more practical and even if they are written, they involve drafting letters or court documents rather than being a memory exercise in which you apply case law to a series of problems. However, the practical manner of these exams means that some students don’t treat them as seriously as they would an exam at undergraduate level.

When you are given a time slot for an oral exam or have a deadline for a written piece of work, treat this as you would treat an exam date. Heed the advice of the Diploma staff when they tell you not to book holidays over Christmas or just after the second semester has finished. You are adapting to a new style of learning and while you may never have failed an exam before, you don’t know how you will take to each assessment. You may have a resit and these will not be rescheduled if you have booked a trip. Obviously, sometimes things come up. You may be unwell or have a family emergency, but as a general rule of thumb if you would be well enough to go to an undergraduate exam, go to your assessments.

2. Diarise

Not having sit-in exams is a relief in some sense and practical exams are certainly easier for most people. The work involved in the Diploma is not overly difficult after you get used to it. The struggle is keeping up with all of the deadlines. There is a lot to do and sometimes a lot of reading. Make sure to get a diary and make a to-do list with all of the relevant dates in it. It would be very easy to forget about a piece of coursework when assessments are due at the same time.When I was a student on the Diploma, I kept a list of everything I had to do and read for each subject, each week. I would then delete the item off of my list when I had completed it. I personally found it very satisfying to see my list get smaller and smaller, especially as I approached the end of the semester. I have carried similar practices into my working life and write a weekly to do list, which is colour co-ordinated. Diarising and planning is a great habit to start as early as possible.

3. Take Time to Yourself

As I said, there is a lot to do on the Diploma. However, it should not take up as much of your time as your Honours years of the LLB. If you are organised and focussed, you will be able to have a social life and time to yourself while completing the qualification. Make sure to schedule in this time and be gentle with yourself.

I found that some days I just wasn’t as motivated to work as others and I would rearrange my schedule so that I could have the afternoon off and away from my computer. You know yourself best, so make sure to listen to what you need. Sometimes it is better to push through and get something finished, and other times it is better to rest and come back to a piece of work with a fresh pair of eyes. I would make sure to schedule time outdoors and time for exercise each day so that I had done something that made me feel good daily. Find something that makes you feel good and make time for it in your schedule.

4. View the Diploma as a stepping stone

Before I started the Diploma, I had heard from a number of people that you either loved it or you hated it. I luckily was in the camp that enjoyed the new style of learning and found it made me feel more confident that I was capable of completing the work of a solicitor. I did have friend who found it more challenging, because they didn’t find the content as interesting as they had at undergraduate. If you are in the latter camp, a good thing to bear in mind is that the Diploma is just a stepping stone, or a necessary evil, depending on how strongly you feel about it. It is a short period of your life (between 6 to 9 months), that gets you one step closer to the career that you have already worked so hard for.

It is helpful to keep this bigger picture in mind when your motivation tank runs low and you need to dig deep for the drive to draft a client letter explaining inheritance tax, or complete a statutory form.

5. Put yourself out there

The Diploma aims to teach you a range of practical skills ahead of embarking on your legal career. However, I felt that I learned the most skills through getting involved in extra-curricular activities. Most Diploma providers offer the opportunity for students to get involved in client interviewing and negotiation competitions. As a student, you also have access to clubs and teams offered by the university that you are attending. I hugely recommend making the most of these activities.

I participated in both of the competitions offered by the Diploma and deeply enjoyed both of them. They gave me the opportunity to develop my teamwork and communication skills, gave me experience in areas that I will encounter in practice, and allowed me to step out of my comfort zone. I am a strong believer that the best self-development happens when you challenge yourself to do something that makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable. I highly encourage you to take the opportunities that you can at Diploma to do this. It is a safe space to learn, develop, and make mistakes.

6. Don’t overthink it

Wrapping your head around new principles is always difficult, and as law students and future lawyers, we have a tendency to scour through all of the information. In an academic setting, we always feel like there is something else lurking at the bottom of a page trying to catch us out.

I can tell you now, this is not true. No one creating or marking Diploma assessments wants you to fail. They want the content to be challenging because, as I’ve already covered, that’s how you learn, and the course isn’t a walk in the park. This, however, does not mean that they have purposefully made something more complicated than it needs to be. Every year, students over- analyse certain aspects of an assessment that are immaterial and get bogged down in the minutiae. Please understand, if anything, that the staff on the Diploma want you to succeed and if information is missing from a narrative or from an assessment, it is because it is not relevant. Trust that you are being taught the right content and know that you will be able to find the answer when you know where to look.

7. Getting an A isn’t everything

I have never met a law student who didn’t struggle with the transition from achieving A grades at secondary school, almost effortlessly, to receiving C’s and D’s in their first year of undergraduate. A lot of law students have never failed an exam and throughout university, you are taught to strive to achieve A’s and B’s.

When you arrive at Induction Week of the Diploma, leave these expectations at the door. It is still a good feeling to get high grades, and if you are motivated enough to strive for them, fantastic. Nevertheless, do not get upset if you are getting mostly C’s and D’s. These are passes and that is all you genuinely need. According to the University of Glasgow marking criteria, a D is satisfactory and a C is good. You have demonstrated everything that is expected of you by reaching this mark and it is still one to be proud of. This is a difficult thing to come to terms with but after a little bit of breathing and re-framing the idea in your head, it will click.

8. Be professional

On the Diploma, you work with and meet a lot of different people. Some of them you will know from undergraduate, and some you will never have met before. All of them, even your tutors, have at least an intention to work in the legal field, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Like a lot of sectors, the legal industry, especially in Scotland, is not large. You will cross paths with people throughout your career and first impressions really do matter.

With this in mind, it is very important to treat people respectfully and professionally. This should be a given, but in the heat of the moment when you are disappointed with results, or a team member is not pulling their weight, emotions do get the better of some people. Unfortunately, these situations could leave a sour taste in the mouths of those around them as they go into their career. You don’t know the path your career will take and so you don’t want to burn any bridges right at the beginning. Start with your best foot forward and aim to create a good reputation. Not everyone will be your best friend, but being polite and courteous can get you a long way in the minds and hearts of others. I like to adopt the ethos “kill them with kindness”. Even when someone has been less than pleasant towards you, be aware that your response is what matters. Often people realise that they have been sharp or passive aggressive when they are met with a contrasting tone. Adopting this approach can be hard but after stepping out of your emotions, you realise that it is better to let it go and take the high road than meet fire with fire.

9. Ask questions

One of my biggest frustrations throughout university was sitting in classes in silence. I was always of the opinion that I was completing a degree to learn. This belief was carried through to my Diploma, especially because I was funding it on my own. Having invested thousands of pounds into a degree, I did not have time to sit in confusion. I understand that it can be nerve wracking to admit that you don’t know something, especially when everyone else seems to just get it, but one of the best skills you can develop is the ability to ask and to admit when you’re not sure about something.

Tutors are there to teach you and to help you, make use of them. It’s highly likely that someone else will be confused but is too scared to admit it. The momentary discomfort of asking a question in a room of people is lesser than the disappointment that comes when you don’t get the grades you’d hoped for just because you didn’t clarify something. You shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit that you are still learning. Embrace being a student and adopt an inquisitive mind set.

Coming to the End…

Hindsight is a beautiful thing. Some of these tips are ones that I believe I adopted throughout my Diploma. Some of them are things that I only learned after finishing and watching another year group make the same mistakes. I hope that these tips are helpful to anyone starting the Diploma, but the most important thing to remember is that you have worked hard up until the point of starting the course. You have already proven yourself and you deserve your space there. Have confidence in yourself. Embrace the experience and enjoy it as much as you can. For most people, it is your last year as a student. Make sure to enjoy it!

Heather is part of SYLA's non-executive committee and can be contacted via Linkedin.

By Heather Gibson

Trainee Solicitor

2020/21 University of Glasgow Diplp Graduate

The Scottish Lawyer has created a FREE template especially geared towards assisting you with making your decision on where to study the Diploma and tracking your application progress - click here to access it via our website and download your own template now.

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