Anyone considering this switch should take note of the old adage that the grass is not always greener on the other side! Medicine as a career often has similarly long hours with high stress. In some respects it is more pressured because it is lives at stake rather than money. However, for those with a keen interest in helping people it can be a very rewarding change.
Timescale: You can apply to university for the standard undergraduate degree which is 5 years, but most students end up doing 6 years which includes one year spent doing an intercalated science degree. Alternatively you can apply for one of the newer fast track graduate courses which are only 4 years long but which have longer academic terms. As everyone already has a degree for the latter course there is not usually an opportunity to intercalate.
Qualification requirements: For the 5 year course, required qualifications are the same as for school leavers which typically entails very high grades with at least two science ALevels including Chemistry. Details can be found through UCAS and individual university brochures. For the 4 year graduate entry medicine course (known as GEM or GEP), access varies. Some universities require science degrees so those with straight law degrees or other arts subjects will have less choice. Many schools insist on a 2:1 degree but some accept 2:2. Look through brochures with care.
Entrance exams: GEP courses all involve an entrance exam. This will either be GAMSAT or UKCAT. Cut-offs for achieving interview change each year depending on the relative difficulty of the examination. An estimated top 20% of students will obtain the cut-off but interview policy and numbers per place vary. Interviews may be in panel format or mini practical stations designed to show candidates interpersonal skills in a variety of situations. Many students undertake self-directed study with textbooks, study with Open University, retake science ALevels or attend crammer courses in order to pass the GAMSAT. Example papers and advice on the science level of the exam can be obtained from the GAMSAT website. It is an epic exam taking up most of one working day and not for the faint hearted. However, anyone who has survived the gamut of legal exams should be more than capable of it providing they can do the science aspects. Former lawyers will have the advantage of good verbal reasoning and essay writing skills which form 2/3 of the examination but a certain level must still be achieved in the science section.
Work Experience: This is key. Aim for at least 12 months in a caring role. It need not necessarily be medically related, other voluntary work with people is usually accepted. You will need to link your experience with your desire to do medicine and be able to demonstrate that you understand what a medical career involves. Given the long hours worked by most lawyers it may be useful to think creatively and see if your firm offers pro-bono opportunities that might come under this sort of caring bracket. Otherwise you will need to sacrifice some weekend time. This element is often used to distinguish between equally well qualified candidates and in determining commitment. Bear in mind that some people give up work in order to take on relatively poorly paid care assistant roles, so your experience needs to be reasonably substantial.
Tactics: Only 4 applications for medicine are allowed on any one year's UCAS form at present. It is often considered high risk to apply just for GEP places as the competition is fierce, but standard undergraduate courses are also over-subscribed. Candidates need to carefully consider the financial burden and relative time commitment in evaluating these two options. NHS bursaries are available which cover tuition fees and income assessed grants for those on GEP courses (years 2-4) but do not apply to 5 year courses. However, 5 year courses will have long student holidays allowing lawyers to make the most of summer locum placements. Many people include a mixture of 5 year and GEP applications to maximise their chances.
The insider view: GEP courses can be a wonderful mix of people from all walks of life and ages range from 21 to around 45. The average age is probably around 24 as more people are taking first degrees with a view to graduate medicine but each school differs. In years past, students were not accepted onto medical courses over the age of 30 but due to age discrimination legislation this no longer applies although it seems that students over 45 are unusual. Of course as soon as you are on the ward you may in any event be far older than even the senior doctors and so you will need to be the sort of person for whom age is not a barrier. You will need to take instructions and learn from people younger than you with a good grace. It can be hard to go from a position in which you are teaching others and delegating boring tasks to the trainees to being back at the bottom of the career pyramid, and don't forget that those late nights will lack the benefit of "Deliverance" and free taxis home.
As everyone already has a degree the course lends itself to self motivated study and group work based on problem solving with all students taking on a fair share of the tasks. Most GEP courses integrate clinical skills from an early stage and are taught with an emphasis on context. If you hate sitting through CPD lectures and like to get stuck into debates then this approach might appeal more than an undergraduate course which will be lecture heavy. GEP courses are varied in their style though so candidates should carefully research the one that will suit them best.
Transferable skills: As a qualified lawyer you will already be good at interviewing people and extracting the key information that you need in order to advise them. This has great parallels with patient interviewing and you will already understand the need for confidentiality. As a rule lawyers are comfortable with taking responsibility for work, engaging in problem solving and seeing projects through to their conclusion; all skills which will stand you in good stead for those late nights on the ward!