A GREATER number of Common Professional Examination students are passing the Legal Practice Course with distinctions than those who have a law degree, new national figures show.
And CPE students who go on to sit the Bar Vocational Course are also outstripping law graduates academically.
National CPE figures for 1993-94 show 87 per cent of CPE students passed the LPC, while passes were awarded to 82 per cent of people with law backgrounds.
Distinctions were won by 21.6 per cent of those who had taken the CPE, a marked upturn from the 16.5 per cent of law graduates who gained the honour.
Similar numbers of CPE and law students passed the Bar's course, but only 30 per cent of law graduates registered as very competent or outstanding, compared with 43 per cent of non-law students.
The director of academic studies at the College of Law, CPE board member Roger Earis, says the maturity of CPE students is reflected in the study's findings.
"They've studied another subject for three years," says Earis. "They've got all the generic skills that any degree should give them and they then come to study law in a very focused way. At that stage they have decided that law is where their future lies."
Earis says the college, which teaches the bulk of CPE students, draws applicants for the course from a diverse range of backgrounds which he believes benefits future employers.
He refutes arguments that the CPE provides an inadequate grounding in law and says calls for its abolition or extension to a two-year course should be ignored.
"On the CPE students have a very intensive course, so they come to the LPC with law firmly on their minds.
"I personally think the profession would be a lot poorer without the CPE students.
"We need to have a pluralist approach, not a closed shop with law-only graduates. Law faculties do excellent work and we have excellent students from them, but I don't think the CPE route should be closed down or extended to two years."
Chair of the Law Society's training committee, Roger Jones, says CPE students are often targeted by law firms for training contracts because they are generally older, "a little more rounded", and they demonstrate "tremendous commitment" through their decision to switch careers.
He says the national figures "add ammunition" to pro-CPE arguments, although "we need to see performances over a number of years before we can come to conclusions on more definite trends".