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Eight things you need to know to ace the GDL

10 October 2013 

8 things GDL

A law conversion bears little resemblance to an arts degree

The demands of squeezing the full legal syllabus into a year mean mid-week partying is only possible on the most special of occasions during the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). This marks a significant change for many students, but the loss of undergraduate partying possibilities is naturally made up for by the stimulation of learning about the rules which make society tick. Still, with seven core legal subjects to master, even the biggest legal geek would concede that the GDL equates to a lot of work. Fall behind at your peril.

It's easy to burn out

Having said all that, it's important to avoid burn-out too. After committing to the idea of becoming a lawyer, many law students begin the GDL with a fervent determination to make up for their misspent first degrees. In the short term such enthusiasm is very useful in getting over the first few hurdles of the GDL, but rarely is it sustainable to go at full pace throughout the year. A common occurrence on the course is for students who have failed to balance their legal study with some downtime activities to burn out around spring, just as final exam revision begins. Take some breaks. That's what weekends are for, after all.

Fellow students are a source of support

While the GDL is less geared to socialising than an undergraduate degree, the presence of hundreds of other, relatively like-minded people under one roof means it's still one of life's more social times. And, in an environment of fast-paced learning, it is these people who are your best source of knowledge to help you catch up with anything you have missed, or to provide advice on anything you don't quite get. As one GDL veteran put it: ‘Law students are surprisingly great at tutoring each other, and if you find yourself baffled by promissory estoppel in land law class then chances are your mate across the room may be an expert.’

The bigger picture counts

The intense nature of the GDL makes it difficult to pause and explore intellectually interesting tangents in the same detail as LLB students are able to do. Still, some of the greatest joy to be had in learning the law is through appreciating its place in a wider context. Recently, legal academic and journalist Professor Gary Slapper recommended a host of novels and films that students should read before starting law school. During the more difficult GDL moments it's well worth pausing to remember some of these legal classics. Whether it's reading Kafka's ‘The Trial’ to remind yourself of the importance of the Rule of Law, or catching a performance of Shakespeare's ‘Merchant of Venice’ to consider the questions of jurisprudence it raises, doing some things that help bring the law to life will help re-energise you for the battle ahead.

The hardest subjects come together in the end

Land law and equity & trusts are notorious among future lawyers for their trickiness to grasp. Indeed, it's not uncommon for GDL students to still be struggling to get their head around aspects of these subjects in the weeks leading up to final exams. But, like learning to ride a bike or swim, once they ‘click’ they tend to stay clicked. So have faith and keep going.  The problem many students encounter is that, having devoted lots of time to conquer these difficult subjects, they then find that they have underestimated seemingly easier parts of the course. The trick is to spend enough time on the difficult subjects without letting them develop into an obsession.

A top grade goes hand-in-hand with a top job – but only if you make the time to apply for it

Unlike a degree or A Levels, the GDL is a vocational course – the purpose of which is to enable aspiring lawyers to become actual lawyers. So while getting a good grade is important, the main aim of the GDL is ultimately to get a training contract. That means, if you haven't secured a training position before commencing the course, assigning some time to do so. This could involve doing some work experience or extra-curricular activities to bolster your CV, or simply devoting time to completing vacation scheme and training contract application forms to a high standard. Too often students opt to delay this all important aspect of the GDL, and find themselves falling down the pecking order for jobs. Remember, one of the things law firms and chambers are looking for is an ability to balance different priorities. With training contracts typically awarded two years in advance, that means applying early – even if you have a lot else on.  Don’t forget to use our handy StEPS programme to help you with all of this – it’s right here on FLN.

The Easter holiday is crucial

There is not a lot of flex in the tightly-packed GDL, but the Easter vacation provides students with a rare opportunity to circle back and go over whatever they have missed or not quite grasped. Of course, not everyone ends up needing it, and some find that Easter is best used to enjoy a break from study. But knowing that an opportunity to re-group exists  takes some of the pressure off during the rest of the year. This facilitates the taking of some calculated risks earlier on in the course – for example, taking up an unexpected work experience opportunity that could lead to a training contract. So keep Easter free and save your trip of a lifetime for another year.

The class of 2013's timing is good

After a difficult few years, the economy is at last showing signs of recovery. The legal market too appears to be settling down after a relatively turbulent period. Concerns remain in the publicly funded branch of the profession about the government's legal aid reforms, but the recent decision by justice secretary Chris Grayling not to implement some of the more contentious proposals for change has eased some of lawyers' worst fears. Meanwhile, after a period of consolidation corporate law firms – which provide a disproportionately high number of training contracts – are performing strongly again. Combine this with improving trainee retention rates posted by many of the leading outfits and there is a growing feeling that this may be a good time to be joining the profession. 


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