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Postgraduate Law Qualifications: Common Professional Exam

Common Practice ExamThe Common Professional Exam (CPE), more commonly known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), is a postgraduate law course for non law graduates who wish to qualify as lawyers and practice in England and Wales. The CPE is essentially a conversion course that covers pretty much the same core courses covered by the undergraduate law degree (the LLB Hons), and ensures that candidates meet the academic requirements of the legal profession. Because it is a law conversion course, the CPE makes it possible for candidates from diverse from diverse academic backgrounds to convert or switch to the profession in England and Wales. If your first degree is in a subject other than law, or the law degree you hold is not a qualifying law degree (QLD) then you can take the CPE/GDL in order to convert to the legal field. Qualifying law degrees are required for qualification as a solicitor or barrister in England and Wales and not all law degrees are QLDs. The CPE/GDL is traditionally a one year full-time course but options are available for one-and-a-half to two-year part-time courses. It is also available online as a distance learning course, for varying durations.

What qualifications do you need to study a CPE?

To take the CPE/GDL you need to be a graduate, either with a degree in a non-law discipline or a non-qualifying (QLD) law degree. This means that whether your first degree was in history, economics or any of the sciences for example, you are eligible to take the CPE/GDL as long as you meet the entry requirements of the institution offering the course. For example, some institutions may require a 2:1 degree classification, while others ask for a ‘high’ 2:2. In certain instances you might be qualified for exemptions from parts of the course if, for example, you studied some elements of law in your first degree. Check with your chosen institution to find out whether you are eligible for some exemptions.

Validity of the CPE

Passing the CPE/GDL puts you at par with holders of a qualifying degree in law (the LLB Hons) making you eligible to proceed to the second stage of your legal training; to take the BPTC if you want to qualify as a barrister. The validity of the CPE/GDL is seven years, after which, if you have not gone on to the other stages of legal training, the qualification will be regarded as stale and if you still want to be a lawyer you would have to take the course all over again! To become a solicitor candidates used to then go on to take a Legal Practice Course (LCP) – from September 2021 the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will be the route to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales. There is more information about the SQE route to becoming a solicitor at the end of this article.

Why study a CPE?

Your career prospects after taking and passing the CPE would be the same as any other law student who has just completed their first (qualifying) degree in law. In other words, your prospects would be dependent on your ability to successfully pass the next two stages of training; the professional training (SQE for would-be solicitors and BPTC for would-be barristers) and the vocational training (securing a training contract if you want to be a solicitor, or a tenancy if you want to be a barrister).

If you are considering the CPE it stands to reason that you are quite serious about a career in law, otherwise why would you hold a first degree in another discipline and yet choose to dive in to the deep waters of a legal training, particularly as it’s a long swim to the shore? Your decision to convert to law by taking the CPE is a demonstration of your commitment to the profession and this is something you should highlight during the various competitive stages, whether it’s on an application for legal work experience while you’re still studying for the CPE, or at networking events or interviews.

What will you study on a CPE course?

Studying for the CPE involves covering the seven core foundation modules that satisfy the academic requirements of a legal education in England and Wales. This means taking compulsory modules in Contract Law, Criminal Law, Equity & Trusts, EU Law, Land Law, Public Law (aka Constitutional & Administrative Law) and Tort Law. Each institution will also have a range of optional modules for you to choose from, mostly unique to the institution although practically all of them offer some variation of a course about the English legal system and methods.  

How much will studying a CPE cost?

The Common Professional Exam fees depend on the institution you choose and its location. For instance, fees at universities could be higher than fees at the specialist law institutions. Again that depends on whether the university is state funded or private, where it is located and whether it generally tends to charge higher fees across all its courses. How much you will pay also depends on whether you choose the part-time or full-time course and whether you are classified as a Home/EU student or an international student. As with degree programs, the CPE fee structure for Home/EU students is most times different from that of international students. Fees are considerably lower for Home/EU students at most universities, although some universities and most specialist law institutions do charge the same fees for all students, regardless.

Full time CPE fees

Typically, fees for an international student taking the one year full-time option could be anything from £7,000 to £13,000 at a university, excluding accommodation, while at the specialist law institutions it could be between £7,200 and £9,800, depending on whether it’s in London or outside London. The full-time CPE/GDL course for Home/EU students, at universities, ranges from around £6,000 to £9,000, again covering only tuition and study materials and in some cases exam fees.

Part time & distance learning CPE fees

Fees for a Home/EU student taking the part-time option could pay as low as around £3,700 while an international student studying part time should expect to pay around £6,500. In some cases international students may not be permitted to study part time, as part of the requirements of the study visa, so do check. Distance learning fees could be as low as £2,000 to £3,000. Fees vary by institution so drawing up a spreadsheet by options (full time, part time etc) and by institution and then plugging in the figures might be a helpful way to have a helicopter view of the fees and enable you to compare like for like.

Who are the best CPE providers?

The CPE/GDL can be studied at many of the traditional universities, or at specialised law institutions such as Kaplan, BPP or the University of Law (previously the College of Law.) Finding the best CPE providers is rather a subjective exercise, as it all depends on your individual circumstances: whether you want to study close to home or are willing to pay for accommodation in order to study further afield? How much time do you have to devote to the course? In which case you’d have to decide whether to take the intensive one year full-time course or pace yourself with the one and a half to two year part-time CPE option. Are you looking for CPE distance learning options? Many institutions offer a mix of online and classroom based tuition and learning; do you want a mix or are you looking to study the CPE/GDL entirely online? It might be worthwhile checking out online student forums to see what others have to say about the various providers. If you can afford to visit some of your shortlisted choices, it could help you form an opinion.

Merits of a CPE versus an LLM

Deciding on whether to take the CPE versus an LLM is entirely dependent on your career plans. If you are a non-law graduate and you definitely want to qualify as a lawyer in England and Wales, taking the law conversion course is really not up for debate; it’s the way for you to acquire the academic training that is required for you to switch to the legal profession. The main route to qualification for candidates who choose to go to university involves three stages: the academic stage, which is satisfied by a qualifying law degree (QLD) or the CPE/GLD; the professional stage, satisfied by the LPC or BPTC as mentioned earlier; and the vocational stage, satisfied by completing a training contract or tenancy, also mentioned earlier.

A Master of Laws (LLM), while having numerous merits and advantages, is not a compulsory element along the route to qualification. While an LLM is a qualification that enables you to study a certain aspect of law in-depth and certainly enhances your CV, it really is optional. On the other hand, for non law grads intending to become lawyers, the CPE/GLD is not.In summary, if you have studied hard and long and earned a degree in Physics but have now decided that you’d rather be a lawyer, don’t despair. Just apply to take the Common Professional Exam and you’ll be on your way to joining the legal profession.

Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)

The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is being phased in during 2021 as the new centralised way to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales. It will replace the Legal Practice Course (LPC), which is the former route to practicing law, and once the transitional phase is over law schools in England and Wales will stop offering the LPC. The SQE is a new system of exams divided into two stages – SQE1 and SQE2 – that will be introduced from September 2021, and all prospective candidates will have to pass both stages of exams to qualify as a solicitor. As well as passing both stages of the SQE, prospective candidates must complete two years of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) and demonstrate that they have suitable character to work in this field.

Put simply, to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales through the new SQE route you need to:

1. Have a university degree in ANY subject.

2. Pass SQE1 and SQE2 exams.

3. Complete two years’ Qualifying Work Experience (QWE).

4. Demonstrate suitable character.

The SQE differs from the LPC in that it is a series of exams rather than an actual course, as a result of this the SQE does not involve any direct education or training. New law conversion course options will be launched alongside the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) to offer students a range of options to prepare for the SQE.

Read our article on the Solicitors Qualifying Examination for the complete lowdown.


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