The path to enlightenment
9 October 2000
The law is attracting increasing amounts of students. There are a huge number of potential recruits working their way through undergraduate degrees, vocational courses, traineeships and pupillages. At the same time, law firms have become increasingly aware of the value of young lawyers, and they now plan the nurturing of trainees with care.
From the student perspective this is a good time to be studying law. The expansion of firms, both geographically and financially, and the increased specialisation of practice, seems to promise untold opportunities. However, with these opportunities come problems too: for one, students are being forced to assess their career options at an earlier stage.
Traditionally, there were few choices for a student looking for a career in the law. Once they had decided to be a solicitor or a barrister, the biggest challenge was passing finals and finding a firm or chambers where they felt comfortable. Now, deciding which branch of the profession to go into is the easy part.
With more specialisation in training as well as practice, students are forced to make decisions at an earlier stage. It is no longer viable to advance onto the Legal Practice Course (LPC) unsure whether you want a career on the high street or in high finance.
As the recruitment timetable for solicitors is entrenched in the undergraduate course, students have to be far better informed and prepared for selection. Although the graduate recruitment market in law is in good health, firms are still very choosy over which students they take on, and competition for places remains fierce.
The application process is no longer simply about which university you attended and the class of degree gained. Although firms are notoriously vague when describing what they are looking for in a trainee, basically they want graduates with interpersonal skills and the ability to view legal problems from a commercial angle.
Students have to show willingness and an ability to grasp the importance of the law and of law firms in the commercial world. In this market, academic ability is a must; students with a 2:2 may be at a distinct disadvantage.
Once recruits have negotiated their way into a traineeship the choices do not stop. Trainee and assistant retention is a touchy subject for a lot of firms. In the four years between receiving the offer of traineeship and qualification, a significant number of young lawyers find that their expectations and priorities have changed. They can also find that the firms have changed, and with the changes promised opportunities may have altered or disappeared altogether.
Perhaps it is a good time to be a law student - after all, there are opportunities everywhere for the right candidate. However, after qualification comes a further set of decisions that need to be made. The legal market should be asking not just whether it can attract students, it should be asking whether it can keep them.
Between the excitement of graduation and the terror of starting work, law students have to complete one of the vocational courses. Would-be solicitors complete the LPC, followed by a two-year traineeship at a firm of solicitors. Budding barristers undertake the Bar Vocational Course (BVC), then move on to a year's pupillage.
Vocational courses get a bad press from students. They have been labelled 'boring', 'a waste of time' and 'irrelevant'. They are often viewed as a necessary evil, a hurdle before young lawyers can get on with their real training.
However, courses are under constant development as providers contend in a competitive marketplace to give students, firms and chambers what they want.
These courses cover the skills which young lawyers need, such as advocacy, drafting and legal research. They also aim to instill an element of professionalism before the students are launched into their careers.
In terms of student effort, the majority agree that the BVC and the LPC provide a pretty hefty amount of work, but it comes in a steady and controllable stream and is not as demanding as an undergraduate degree. Indeed, many law students welcome the break from the rigours of undergraduate life and use this year to build up their CVs.
There are two main routes open to graduates who wish to become lawyers. The first is to complete an undergraduate degree in law, then progress to vocational training for one of the two arms of the profession. The second route is to gain an undergraduate degree in a subject other than law, and then 'convert'. After their conversion, students follow the same route as their law graduate colleagues.
There are two courses that students can take to convert to law: the Common Professional Exam (CPE) and the Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PgDL). These are both one-year full-time courses, and are practically the same as each other.
The main difference between the courses is that students can put the letters 'PgDL' after their name once they have completed the course, a facility not available to CPE graduates. Both courses are euphemistically called 'conversion' courses.
The actual courses are set by individual institutions, but each course must cover the foundations of legal knowledge. Students also study an additional subject, known as a substantive topic. The choice of topics offered differs between each institution. The approximate cost of the course is between £3,500 and £4,000.
The BVC is the vocational course for would-be barristers. It is a one-year full-time course or it can be taken over two years on a part-time basis. The completion of the BVC allows a graduate to enter into pupillage with a set of barrister's chambers in order to complete the vocational element of the training for the bar.
The BVC is a practical course, which aims to develop skills such as advocacy, legal research and opinion writing. There are eight institutions that provide the course in London and elsewhere in the UK.
Before a student can embark upon the BVC, they must become a member of one of the Inns of Court: the Inner Temple, the Middle Temple, Gray's Inn or Lincoln's Inn. The approximate cost of the BVC is £7,000.
The LPC is the first part of the vocational stage of training to become a solicitor. It is a one-year full-time or two-year part-time course, the completion of which allows a graduate to enter into a traineeship in England and Wales.
Students can choose three elective subjects. which can vary between institutions. Some institutions concentrate on more commercial electives, whereas others offer an LPC more suited to high street or criminal practice.
There are currently 28 institutions that offer the LPC. The Law Society keeps a close eye on the providers, and there are annual visits to each provider to check on the quality of the teaching, the staff and the facilities.
The most recent round of inspections has resulted in four institutions being awarded a grade of 'Excellent'. These institutions are Nottingham Law School, the University of the West of England, the University of Essex and Cardiff Law School. The approximate cost of the LPC is £7,000.
Vivienne Wilson is the deputy editor of student law magazine Lex.