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The gulf between the number of students completing the LPC and the availability of training contracts is not a new phenomenon.
But in a worrying trend that has been exacerbated by the economic downturn, this gulf is widening rapidly. So much so that the Law Society has mobilised its troops to tackle the problem head-on.
As revealed on TheLawyer.com last week (28 July), the Law Society is launching a campaign to warn students to think twice about embarking on a career in law. The campaign will target university and secondary school students and contain information about the cost of legal training as well as the shrinking number of training contracts on offer.
The campaign has been welcomed by some students. Eleanor Pallot, who has just finished the LPC at the University of Plymouth, has applied for more than 50 jobs, but so far has not been able to secure a training contract. The best she has been offered is a job as a receptionist at a local law firm.
She says: “I’d welcome a campaign from the Law Society that warns students that you can’t just swan into a legal job by getting a 2:1 degree and finishing the LPC. With the magic of hindsight I would have delayed completing the LPC until the market picks up.”
The campaign could not have been made public at a worse time, coming less than a week after Alan Milburn’s controversial report on social mobility slammed the legal profession for being elitist. How can the Law Society on the one hand promote diversity while on the other warn would-be lawyers away from the profession? Surely it will put off exactly the type of candidates that should be actively encouraged to train as lawyers.
Many readers of TheLawyer.com agree. As one puts it: “If anything’s going to further reduce the number of people from non-privileged backgrounds entering the legal profession, it’s a campaign telling students that pursuing a career in law may lead to financial ruin (unless your mummy and daddy are able to bail you out).”
The problem of the oversupply of students wanting to be lawyers may instead need to be tackled more aggressively. The Bar Standards Board (BSB), for example, wants to launch a compulsory aptitude test for entry to the BVC in a bid to flush out weak students who have no hope of completing the year-long course. But the Office of Fair Trading has warned that such a move would be anticompetitive, so the BSB may have to settle for only a voluntary test.
Although an aptitude test may not be the appropriate solution for entry into the solicitors’ profession, the debate does raise serious questions about the current structure of legal education and training.
For almost a decade the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has been engaged in endless reviews to overhaul the route for qualifying as a solicitor. At one stage it even mooted the possibility of doing away with the training contract altogether.
So far, however, the only changes that have been confirmed are those being made to the LPC this September, which in essence will see the course split in two. Under the new regime students who self-fund the LPC can complete the compulsory subjects, spend a period of time gaining work experience and then take their electives at a later date with a different provider.
Although the new-look LPC should help debt-laden students to spread the cost of the course, which can total more than £12,000, it does not resolve the supply versus demand issue. Indeed, it may even increase the number of students enrolling on the course and so conflict with the aims of the Law Society’s deterrent campaign. But with so many of the leading law schools embracing the changes, there is no going back.
That said, until the SRA completes its pilot scheme on work-based learning in just over a year’s time, it is impossible to tell what will happen to legal education. One thing is sure, though the system needs an urgent overhaul.