How Edge Hill University prepares future lawyers for the modern world

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Chris Howard, BARBRI’s Director of University Partnerships, chatted with Dr Jennifer Giblin, Associate Head of School at the School of Law, Criminology & Policing at Edge Hill University in Liverpool, about their LLM in SQE/Legal Practice and what a law student can do to stand out in the competitive job market.

Chris: Welcome, it’s great to have you for this case study. Jen, could tell me a little bit about what you do at Edge Hill and your professional background?

Jennifer: Thank you, Chris. I’m Associate Head of the School and I’m responsible for employability initiatives within the school, both within the curriculum and extracurricular. 

I completed all my degrees at the University of Nottingham: a law undergraduate degree, then a master’s and PhD in public international law, focusing on the UN and UN peacekeeping.  During my PhD, I was also teaching at Nottingham, and I then joined Edge Hill in September 2021.

What was it about Edge Hill that attracted you and why do you think it’s such a great place for students to study?

Edge Hill was voted Modern University of the Year (The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide) in 2022 and it’s got fantastic facilities. But it’s also got that heritage of Edge Hill College being established in 1885 as the first non-denominational teacher training college for women. It has since grown into the institution it is today. 

It’s also an incredibly friendly and welcoming environment, something I’ve always been drawn to as a staff member. It’s very supportive of students and their academic studies too. In fact, Edge Hill has just received gold for Student Experience in the OfS Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and we’re 35th in the Guardian League table as well.

Let’s turn to the LLM. You recently launched your LLM in SQE/Legal Practice. What was the thinking behind the structure and the content of the new programme?

It was our Head of School, Professor Jay Cullen, that led on the design and creation of this LLM, with support from staff like Adam Pendlebury, a Senior Lecturer in Law. We wanted to create a master’s programme that would give students practical skills, but also the theoretical side. So they’re gaining not only preparation for the SQE exams, but also a master’s degree in legal practice. 

Part of our strategy as a school has been to focus on legal practice, so we have modules at undergraduate level designed to give students that theoretical and practical knowledge and skills. For instance, we have practice-focused modules like Criminal Law in Practice where students for instance learn the role of a criminal defence duty solicitor and practise how to complete a bail application. They’re taught by our lecturers, who are practising solicitors as well. We then wanted to continue this practice-focused undergraduate programme into master’s level. This really was the next step for us as a school. 

I was interested looking at the LLM’s optional modules on things like blockchain and intellectual property in the digital sphere. Is that a specialism of the school and do you see that as an important part of practice?

Yes, it is. We have grown the AI/cybersecurity/fintech area and now offer the LLM in Artificial Intelligence, Digital and Cyber Law programme (LLMAI), alongside growing our legal practice area. We have specialists who have worked in industry and bring their experience, knowledge and connections to the programmes. 

We’re currently undergoing some changes on the LLM programme – from next academic year, we’re introducing a new SQE2 introduction module, which will change what students can take as an optional module. But they can also sit in on other modules and take them as an additional extracurricular element. And regardless of whether students are on the LLMAI or LLMSQE programme, they can still take part in the employability, research and knowledge exchange activities.

Have you had any kind of early feedback from the students on their experience with BARBRI SQE1 Prep training?

One of the attractions for us in creating the LLM was working in partnership with BARBRI. It was the flexibility that the SQE1 prep programme could offer our students: online flexible learning paired with our in-person learning as well.

And our students share positive feedback about this flexibility that the prep programme offers and, in particular, how the AI-empowered online platform (Personal Study Plan) supports them with the learning. They find that in particular very useful.

Yes we’re very pleased to be a part of the AI/digital revolution, in providing a way of learning that sits alongside the digital elements that will feature as part of a student’s career going forward. 

Another reason why Edge Hill chose BARBRI is obviously BARBRI’s reputation! And the above-industry-average pass rates on the SQE exams were very attractive to us. And then our head of school, Jay Cullen, worked quite closely with Chris Jorgensen at BARBRI in the beginning to discuss the partnership and the development of the programme. Jay in particular enjoyed working with Chris on that.

What do you see going down the line for the LLM – how do you think it might develop in the future?

We’re continually keeping one eye on what is happening in the legal sector and we have a professional advisory panel that meets each year. We ask employers about any changes or updates within the legal sector, we discuss our programmes and ask how they think we can better prepare students, both on our under- and postgraduate programmes, for entering the legal sector.

We are constantly reviewing to see if we can introduce additional modules and extracurricular offerings – on top of the wide range of extracurricular activities that students on the LLM can already take part in – which would support not only the learning but also the development of their CV, their employability, ready for entering the legal sector.

I’m interested to know a little bit more about those extracurricular opportunities. What sorts of things are your students doing around their studies? 

The university hosts an annual careers fair in October, and then the law school holds its own bespoke careers fair in February each year that are much more tailored to students within our school, with employers from the legal and the criminal justice sectors. 

We have a dedicated law school careers advisor who offers advice and guidance on everything from CVs to applying for part-time jobs, work placements and graduate-level jobs. We also have a commercial awareness programme, usually in October/ November. We liaise with law firms to hold insight days and evenings. And we have a dedicated work placements officer to support students in obtaining work placements. 

We have a strong law alumni community – Adam Pendlebury has been central in developing that over the last few years. We have an annual alumni panel, and it’s really great to see how students who were in our law programmes progress throughout their careers. They’re very generous with their time, with their networks, their advice and guidance, and quite often our students then obtain work experience, further connections, sometimes even jobs from these events.

We also welcome employers to come in and give guest lectures and workshops – whether that’s in teaching time to support the content or outside of teaching time. Alongside that, we hold academic and skills workshops. And field trips as well, both nationally and internationally, to visits inns, chambers, courts. 

And then we have a very active student Law Society, and while they are predominantly undergraduate students, all of their activities are open to students across the school and they hold internal competitions: negotiation, mooting, criminal, mock trials.

All students take part, if they wish, in external competitions, like the Oriel Chambers Undergraduate Mooting Competition or the CEDR National Student Negotiation Competition. There’s a whole host of activities students can get involved with.

Something else that’s very good is that Edge Hill offers a Student Opportunity Fund – the cost of these extracurricular activities and trips are covered by the fund. And students can have any costs related to work placements or going to an interview reimbursed, so no student is at a disadvantage when it comes to taking part.

What are your top tips for students to mark themselves out as a candidate of choice in today’s very competitive employment market? To enhance their commercial awareness and indeed, whatever else they need to best prepare?

In terms of commercial awareness, it’s about utilising the opportunities that are on offer, like programmes or workshops, that can give you a bit more of an explainer as to what it means, and also give you a chance to practise – whether within your university or institution or online. 

And also relying on your network. Speaking to people in the industry and asking them, well, what does commercial awareness mean to you and to your firm? I should say it’s notoriously difficult to define, and it means something different to each person you ask. 

It’s also important for students to engage in those materials that are already there: All About Law, Legal Cheek, Law Gazette etc to enhance your commercial awareness. 

I think it’s key that before you go into any interview, you have a ready-made answer for that firm. That means researching that firm, or perhaps someone who will be on the interview panel, if you know, and having an awareness of the types of activities they may be involved with. Look at their profiles on the website, seeing what areas they’re interested in, what they highlight. See if they use any key buzzwords, and perhaps feed that into your application and into your interview.

That can help as a prompt for those who are interviewing you to ask you questions about this – be prepared to answer questions on that. Don’t just slot that information into your application or your interview. Make sure you know what it is you’re talking about, that you have done your research.

That’s something I’m always very keen to impress upon people: it’s all about learning the language and feeling part of the industry, having that familiarity with the discussion points, the language, the concepts. Anything else you think students should be particularly aware of at the moment?

I think obviously the growth of AI and legal tech is something that students certainly need to be aware of and to get to grips with as early as possible. Firms now use a variety of tools and if you have the opportunity to get used to those beforehand, whether that’s via your programme or through some sort of work experience, that would be incredibly beneficial.

And the final thing I’d want to say: We all know law is an incredibly competitive area, and it’s difficult to make yourself stand out. But really, it’s important for students to think about your unique selling points. So throughout your studies, develop yourself as a rounded person. Yes, you need to have a good qualification, but that isn’t enough. You need to have the extracurricular activities – and that doesn’t mean you always have to have the legal work experience. If you perhaps have retail experience, that still provides you with transferable skills. It’s important that you recognise what skills you have developed and make sure you’re selling that. 

Again, you don’t always have to have done a vacation scheme every summer or a mini pupillage if you have a really interesting hobby, say you’re an ice skater or on the rugby team. That gives you something interesting to talk about, it’s a unique selling point on your CV and when it comes to an interview, employers will be interested to hear about that.

Think about the skills you have gained from that experience and use that to show the employer that you’re a human being. Ultimately, you can have all the skills and experience, but they also want someone that they can work with and that will be a part of the firm. 

I think that human element is more important than ever, actually, given that technology is taking more and more of a role in practice. What marks out a great lawyer to the client is, I think, having that human connection – that ability to be a real person with real insights and real empathy is definitely more important than ever. 

And it’s really interesting what you say about skills. I’ve certainly encouraged students to keep a skills log or record, because as you say, sometimes you don’t recognise something as a transferable skill, but actually it may well be just the thing that marks you out, gives you some point of difference. 

At Edge Hill we have what we call graduate attributes. We’ve identified these skills attributes that we expect students to have upon completing the studies with us. Each student has a PebblePad workbook where they can keep track of their skills and attributes that they’re developing. As you say, sometimes students may not realise the skills they’ve developed in certain experiences, and how these are transferable. So we really do place a lot of emphasis on providing students with that language and talking to them about these skills and how to essentially market themselves when it comes to employment.

Great stuff. Is there anything else you wanted to add as a final comment?

Just that it has been a pleasure to partner with BARBRI on this excellent programme. And if you are a student reading this – Edge Hill is a really great place to thrive. It gives you so many opportunities around your degree programme and you will receive considerable support both from academic staff but also the student support teams, the careers team, and the ‘Uniskills’ team. It really is a place for students to thrive and we welcome any students onto this programme.

For more information about Edge Hill’s LLM in Legal Practice, supported by BARBRI SQE Prep, click here: LLM/SQE Legal Practice

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