Harrison Shaylor, 23, had planned to do the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) for a while, but lockdown made the decision for him. “I had been keeping my options open and looking at internships and jobs, and they all got cancelled, so I ended up going ahead with it this year,” he says. “I’m definitely glad I did.”
Shaylor is not alone. According to the Central Applications Board (CAB), applications for the GDL increased by 22.5% from 2019 to 2020. Numbers are rising and providers say it’s down to Covid. “We have had a bumper GDL intake this year, which I reckon is our highest intake for years,” says Tony Storey, programme leader at Northumbria University.
One of these new students is Seamus O’Hare, 26, who was made redundant from his job in TV and started the course in September. “I think it worked out better for me because I didn’t need to look for work; most of my colleagues are still looking now,” he says. “I haven’t questioned the decision at all.”
There is a similar picture at the City Law School. “Normally, we take around 170, this time we have more than 200,” says James Catchpole, programme director. He thinks the increase is partly down to a lack of other options and graduates being unable to delay their plans. “Ordinarily graduates coming out of uni could go and think about what to do, but with travel restricted and many part-time jobs dried up, those that might have wanted to do it in a year are just going ahead with it now.”
The way solicitors are trained is changing and this could also account for the rise. The GDL will no longer be used as an entry route into the qualification process, so some candidates are taking this option whilst it is still available. “Arguably the new system is shorter and cheaper for non law graduates but it is harder,” says a CAB spokesperson.
It is also linked to job security. Law has always been a tough career: it’s expensive, the training is long and there is no guarantee of a job at the end. But this year other graduate jobs are equally hard to find. According to the Institute of Student Employers, legal recruitment is down 4% since before Covid, but the average across graduate jobs is a 12% fall. Tristram Hooley, chief research officer, says legal vacancies for graduates are holding up. “If you’re already on that trajectory you are in a relatively good place. They are also currently offering a median starting salary of £38,250,” he says.
Victoria Roper, chair of the education and training committee at The Law Society, agrees. “This year is a very competitive graduate market and so you’re going to face a similar situation looking for other graduate roles,” she says. “Obviously, we were all quite worried at the start of the pandemic but if anything the legal profession has weathered it better than we feared.”
Not every legal sector is doing well. Some solicitor firms have delayed their training contracts or suspended recruitment. Nevertheless, areas such as corporate and employment are particularly busy and these tend to be the large employers of trainees. At the bar, crime and litigation have been particularly hit as a result of court closures and delays and this has been a particular challenge for many self-employed barristers.
Not everyone with the law conversion gets a legal job and some fear the sector cannot handle a massive upscaling of demand. “That’s the issue,” says Hooley. “If everyone decides they want to be lawyers it will be a problem.” Yet he remains optimistic. “Broadly, though, I think it’s a safe career.”