As an international student, the prospect of studying in another country is an exciting, yet daunting opportunity that will undoubtedly bring new opportunities and challenges. I am one of these students. My name is Keagan van Wijk and I am a South African student studying law in London, England.
What Exactly Is a Qualifying Law Degree?
Firstly, let’s talk about the structure of a qualifying law degree. It depends on the University, but most tend to split your core modules for a qualifying law degree over two years. These core modules are Criminal Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, Constitutional & Administrative Law, EU Law, Land Law, Equity & Trusts and in most cases, includes Legal Skills and Method. Some Universities require you to study additional modules such as the Criminal or Civil Justice System or even Jurisprudence. If you are a full-time time student studying a three-year degree you will be able to choose your third-year and sometimes even a few of your second-year modules. This is when you focus on the particular type of law you are wanting to get involved in, but until then you have to study the prescribed modules.
The Grading System
Even the grading system used in England was a new concept to me. Your grade is based on your percentage achieved on your coursework and exams. This percentage is then further categorised into a 1st, a 2:1 and a 2:2. A 1st is anything above 70%, a 2:1 is from 60-69% and a 2:2 is from 50-59%. If you achieve less than that you may still pass, but if you are seriously looking for a career in law at a good firm or chambers you will be needing at least a 2:1. It may seem easily achievable and don’t get me wrong it is achievable, but you will need to put in the effort.
Who Said Anything About a Constitution?
The first and possibly most interesting feature of English Law is that there is no constitution. The UK along with Saudi Arabia, Israel and New Zealand are considered to be the only democratic countries in the world without a written constitution. Now unless you come from one of those other countries, you will find this strange and confusing at first, but it will make sense as you progress through your studies. A suggestion of mine would be to understand how the UK ‘constitution’ and system works as early as possible. This is because it affects all of your other modules and forms the basis for the legal system in the UK.
An Early Piece of Advice
You will hear the term ‘Common Law’ a lot during your degree and understanding its different meanings is vital. The first meaning refers to a legal system which is built off judge’s decisions and customs instead of written/codified laws. The second definition of the word refers to the general law of a country. Most of the time common law will be used in the sense of judge-made law. This was and continues to be an essential source of law in the UK. There are still aspects of law, such as Contract Law, which rely heavily on these decisions as they are the foundation for these laws. The system takes time getting used to, but I assure you that if you understand these principles early on you will find your degree a whole lot easier and you will have a much deeper understanding of the law.
Freedom at Last
For many international students, this will be your first time living away from your family. You are now fully independent. Until you leave them you will never realise their importance in your life. You are now in charge of your own cooking, cleaning, washing and most importantly you have to motivate yourself. Whether it’s motivating yourself to get out of bed for a 9am lecture (which is tougher than it sounds), or find that extra motivation you need study, research or prepare for seminar work. You no longer have your parents helping you with even the most basic of things such as cooking you your favourite meal when you’ve had a hard day or them being the first people you tell when something good or bad happens in your life. The option of calling them is still there, but speaking to them in person is far more personal. The toughest part for me has been leaving my three-year-old brother behind and knowing that I will never be the big brother that I should be, and he deserves because I’m not physically there. For each person it is different, but there will be at least one thing you are nostalgic about and will question whether studying law in a different country is worth it.
The Days of Easy Learning Are Over
You are no longer in high school. While this may be a cliché, one thing I can guarantee is your lecturers are not going to spoon-feed you. If you put in effort your lecturers will notice and they will be more likely to help when you need them. However, if you don’t put in the effort you will most likely fall behind and have to a do a lot of cramming for your coursework and for your exams, plus your lecturers will less inclined to make an effort to help. If you are somebody who does not enjoy reading, you better learn to start enjoying reading. Reading and law go hand-in-hand. This is even more prevalent in the UK where you are required to read cases because of the judge-made law. So, you best go get some new glasses.
So, You Want to Become a Lawyer
In the UK, you are not strictly a lawyer in the American sense of the word. There two main avenues when you refer to a lawyer in the UK. First, is a barrister who presents and argues cases in court. Your job is to research your case and find ways to win the argument. Second, is a solicitor. As a solicitor, you do everything else: you negotiate on behalf of your client, you draft wills, advise clients and prepare the cases that barristers take to court, just to name a few. The list provided for work done in both professions is not exhaustive but is sufficient to provide a basic understanding. Fortunately, you have 3 years to figure out which one you will be, but I must make it abundantly clear that there are other careers options available to ‘lawyers’ in almost every sector. Becoming a solicitor or barrister is not easy going because you require, on average, a minimum of a 2:1 (60%) along with having legal work experience and involvement in extra-curricular activities.
Applications and Work Experience
As I just mentioned, you will need legal work experience. This can be gained through pro bono work, attending insight days at firms and through vacation schemes. I will forewarn you that as an international student your applications for open days and vacation schemes will be tougher because you will most likely need to explain how your home country’s education system works and equate it to A-Levels. This is not always as easy as it sounds and can be time-consuming, especially when you are needing to apply to multiple firms, keep up to date with reading, prepare for seminars, complete your coursework, get involved in extra-curricular activities and maintain some semblance of a social life.
If I Can Do It Anybody Can
All of this may seem daunting at first, and believe me I felt the same. I am one of the few students who live off-campus, meaning I spend 3 hours of my day travelling to and from University. Currently, I am involved in Debating, Mooting (Which I highly recommend if you are wanting to become a ‘lawyer’), Model UN, attend external workshops and events, attend lectures and am still able to stay on top of the workload, whilst also maintaining a long-distance relationship. Before University I was one of the most disorganized people you could meet, but in order to manage all these commitments I have learned the importance of time management and you will have to learn this as well.
A Reality Check
University is a time for fun for most people, but as a barrister recently told me, this is not the case for potential barristers and solicitors. There is more work (and reading) than you think. Studying law is not for the faint-hearted. Whilst I realise I paint a picture of doom and gloom, I am merely preparing you for the reality.
Is It Really Worth It?
I have had many people ask me whether I would still move countries to study law knowing what I know now and knowing how much work it is. My answer is always YES. I would not change a thing. Law is a unique subject, and English Law is even more unique thanks to its unconventional system. It is thought-provoking and challenging. It is everything I thought it would be and more. Studying law will require its pound of flesh, but it can also be the most rewarding profession because you are able to make a difference in people’s lives and it provides a platform for you to make your mark on society.
by Keagan van Wijk