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Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL): an Overview

Graduate Diploma of LawMany students embark on the sojourn of university life, without giving much thought to their professional life
after uni or how the course they are studying can facilitate their chosen career. Maybe you studied a degree program in a subject other than law degree upon graduation realised that you made a grave error and spent the past three years of your life laboriously studying for the wrong course and are now pursuing the wrong career. If you now realize that you actually you want to go into law – then the GDL could be your saviour!

The Graduate Diploma of Law can help you make that ‘u-turn’ at the end of your undergraduate degree and enable you to start a postgraduate legal course. The conversion course known as the Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL) also referred to as the Common Professional Exam, is taken by non-law graduates or ‘laymen’ to enable them to enter the legal profession.

The Graduate Diploma of Law is a one-year full time course; longer if you choose part-time or distance-learning mode (2-4 years). The GDL confers upon students on successful completion a diploma equal to a law degree.
This puts students on the right path to becoming either a solicitor or barrister.

7 core foundation areas of law

When studying for your Graduate Diploma of Law albeit intensive in structure, you will learn the seven core foundational areas of law which are: Contract law, Tort, Constitutional law, Criminal law, European Union law, Equity and Trusts, Public Law and Land Law. How the seven core areas are studied depends on your mode of study and your institution. For example, those studying full time might be obligated to study all the areas together in one go due to the relatively short length of time of the program. Whereas, part-time/distance learners might be able to split the topics up; learning them at their convenience in the allotted time frame.

Studying for your GDL, like any other postgraduate course is very hard work but also most rewarding, requiring commitment and a ‘can-do’ attitude. The student will be assessed on all the seven core foundational areas of law by writing a three-hour exam for each topic. Also, depending on your law school you might be required to do a 30-minute multiple-choice exam and submit two works of independent research. Make sure you check the GDL course outline in the prospectus of the institution you wish to study at so you are aware of the assessments you will be required to take. 

An array of universities offer the GDL, CPE or ‘conversion-course’; the terminology used might change from institution to institution. The GDL can be studied at numerous universities and law schools in the UK including, Birmingham City University, BPP University College, University of Hertfordshire and the University of Northumbria.

GDL students

Reasons why you should study a Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL)

1. Demonstrates versatility: You now possess two degree qualifications in different or non-related subjects; this shows your versatility and knowledge depth which places you in an advantageous position over the student with just one degree.

2. CV boost: An added qualification like a GDL always looks better on your CV, increasing career prospects and employability.

3. More opportunities: As well as standing you in good stead career-wise, a GDL also gives you foundational legal experience that allows progression to study for an LLM (Master of Laws) course if you decide that this is your preferred academic and career route.

4. Career advancement: A GDL can help put you on the right path to become a solicitor or barrister. With the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) the route to becoming a solicitor has changed slightly and interetsed candidates no longer need to have an LLB (Bachelor of Laws degree) and to study an LCP. However a GDL is still a good course to consider to help prepare for the SQE tests. 


The Master of Laws and a Graduate Diploma of Law are different qualifications in the field of law, but they are similar, in that they are both postgraduate legal courses. They both open a world of prospects career-wise, which means that you should really think about what academic or career path you wish to pursue to enable you to decide whether to opt for a GDL or an LLM. In essence, if you have decided that you want to become a solicitor/barrister then it is wise to follow the GDL route. However, if you want to gain in-depth knowledge about an area of law ie Maritime Law, or wish to work specifically in that field of law, then it is wise to go for an LLM program. Having said that it doesn’t mean that those with an ambition to become solicitors/barristers can’t do an LLM, in fact the added knowledge an LLM bestows is desirable whatever route you take.

The main difference is that a Master of Laws program is a specialised course that focuses solely on an area, upon completion of an LLM you will have accrued vast knowledge in that field of law. On the other hand, the GDL gives students a broad overview of law as it covers seven core areas of law. However it is possible to do a more general LLM in law rather than studying a really specialized program.It is possible to have study for both the GDL and the LLM, however make sure you find out what each costs financially and that you can afford them. Bear in mind that costs vary from institution to institution. Whichever postgraduate law route you decide to follow it is important to be financially and mentally prepared as they are costly and intensive courses – although they are ultimately very rewarding personally, professionally and financially.

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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