The view from campus: law students contemplate a bleak future as jobs dry up

Law students are remaining positive about the prospect of securing training contracts with City firms despite vacancies in the legal sector dropping by 7.5 per cent.

At a barbecue sponsored by Kaplan Law School and organised by The Lawyer’s sister publication Lawyer 2B, 40 university law ­society committees from across the country and their incoming presidents met to discuss how the gloomy jobs market is ­taking its toll on student morale.

‘The Graduate Market in 2009’ report from High Fliers Research reveals that graduate jobs have been cut substantially during this year’s recruitment season. According to the survey, the legal sector has seen only a 7.5 per cent reduction in vacancies compared with an overall drop of 13.5 per cent across the UK’s top 100 graduate employers.

Robert Mckellar, president of Exeter University Law Society, told Lawyer 2B that students were worried about the jobs market, but felt they had to remain ­confident in their ability to secure training contracts.

“You have to believe in your own ability, because if you don’t then you might as well give up,” he said. ­”Students are finding it hard to find vacation schemes and many law firms have shut applications already, but with all the money you’re investing in your future you’ve got to be ­motivated and positive about the outcome.”

This sentiment was echoed by CMS Cameron McKenna graduate recruitment officer Victoria ­Wisson, who said the legal sector was faring well compared with other industries.

“In comparison to other industries, where some have halved their vacancies, the law sector can be viewed as one of the most stable,” she said. “Many industries have closed their applications early, but the majority of law firms are still open and this should give confidence to students that there are training contracts available.”

Investment banking has been one of the biggest ­casualties of the recession, reporting a 35.2 per cent drop in recruitment since 2008, while chemicals and pharmaceuticals have been hardest hit with vacancies down by 36.8 per cent.

Despite the legal sector’s relatively good performance, Joe Hewton, president of Birmingham University Law Society, said that many students were considering taking a gap year after ­university to escape the recession.

He said: “I think that come September those ­students who haven’t secured a training contract will become really worried, because they have to decide whether to fund the LPC themselves and it’s an awful lot of money. The top jobs are going to go to the best people and you just have to make sure you put yourself into that top bracket.

“I think it’s bad at the moment but students are just glad that they’re not those people who’ve been made redundant – we could be worse off.”

High Fliers Research managing director ­Martin Birchall said that the ­reduction in vacancy levels could not have come at a worse time.

“The class of 2009 are facing one of the toughest job markets of the last two decades and there’s now the very real prospect that tens of thousands of new graduates will be left unemployed after leaving university this year,” said Birchall.

Many top employers have received a record number of applications for their 2009 graduate vacancies and the legal sector is no exception.

Research by Sweet & Maxwell reveals there has been a 150 per cent increase in the number of applications per trainee position in the past year. The survey shows that law firms got on average 130 applications per trainee position this year compared with an average of 52 previously.

The figures indicate that graduates are casting a wider net in their application processes and are trying their luck with a higher number of firms than would normally be expected.

Manchester University careers adviser Nick Touati said students had to be strategic in their ­applications and avoid the scatter-gun approach.

“Students have to start thinking outside the box when aiming for a training contract,” he emphasised. “You could for example work as a law firm’s receptionist, which could lead to paralegal work, and then perhaps a training contract. The competition for places is high, so you have to be willing to try different routes.”

Despite the students’ optimism, competition for training contracts remains incredibly tough. Many law firms have closed the ­shutters on training contract applications for 2011 and 2012.

Allen & Overy has closed its applications for training contracts starting in ­September 2011 and March 2012 ahead of schedule.

Fellow magic circle firm Clifford Chance has also filled all the spots on its August 2011 and February 2012 intakes and will no longer be running any ­training contract assessment centres for those cohorts.

Linklaters, meanwhile, announced it will only have one cohort for 2011, ­scrapping its usual March intake but keeping its ­September intake. The firm has already hired 26 non-law graduates, leaving 29 places available for law graduates.