Tough outlook for graduates

There are still more graduates applying for training contracts and pupillages than are available, reports Grania Langdon-Down. Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist.

Thousands of graduates are still set on a career in the law despite horror stories of huge debts and fierce competition for training contracts and pupillages.

The market for trainee solicitors has improved significantly, with a 17 per cent increase in registered training contracts last year. This matches the number of students passing their Legal Practice Course (LPC) first time, although the actual pool of students looking for training contracts is much larger, given the backlog from previous years. Only about a quarter of students receive sponsorship.

For prospective barristers, the picture remains tough. There were 2,700 applications for the 1,542 places on the eight Bar Vocational Courses (BVC) starting in September 1997. The bottleneck continues with 1,800 applications for the 834 pupillages advertised this year. Only 532 of the pupillages were funded.

However, the figures do not tell the whole story, as it takes time for moves in the legal market to feed through to the universities and graduates.

For Professor Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, the most significant trend is the "globalisation" of the education and training market, with increasing numbers of overseas students joining their course with the intention of working here.

Another significant trend is the number of graduates being hired as paralegals rather than being given training contracts, as a way of pushing work to less highly paid staff. However, demand for course places is up generally. After a drop of 40 per cent in students doing their CPE about two years ago, applications this year are up 14 per cent on last year.

Patrick Corr, training partner at Pinsent Curtis, says it is noticeable that the 3,000 students applying for the 30 to 35 training contracts it offers in its Leeds, Birmingham and London offices were generally much better prepared.

"Students no longer just apply because the firm is a name in the area, but really find out about us, which is probably a reflection of the pressure on the market."

David Pettingale is trainee recruitment partner with Birmingham's largest law firm Wragge & Co. He receives about 1,000 applications for 18 training contracts – a reflection, he believes, of the growing number of students who realise the opportunities that exist outside London.

The firm sponsors its graduate recruits through their LPC year. One trend Pettingale has noticed is that students were being better coached at writing cvs. "The downside is they can become overcoached – there is a striking similarity between cvs from students at the same university," he says.

For Robert Halton, human resources director for Dibb Lupton Alsop which takes on about 50 trainees a year, the competition for training contracts has encouraged good law graduates to consider other professions.

Caroline Evans, graduate recruitment and development officer at the City law firm Linklaters, says her firm receives up to 3,000 applications for 120 training contracts.

"I have noticed that the applicants are becoming better at self selecting, so we are getting fewer entirely unsuitable candidates," she says.

At the Bar, the current focus is on improving the financing of entrants and on the timing of selecting pupils, which is currently a year after law firms, industry and commerce have done their recruiting.

For Chris Maguire, senior education officer at the Bar Council, another important area lies in encouraging other professions to see the BVC as a valuable qualification, so students who do not get a pupillage are not dismissed as failed barristers. Peter Goldsmith QC, former Bar Council chairman, is chairing the working party looking at financing training. He believes the combination of cost and uncertainty puts many people off the Bar as a career. "We will be producing a report within the next few months proposing ways of increasing financing and of making sure the financing which is available is more efficiently targeted.

"The Bar is also looking at when graduates should be recruited. On the one hand, it is enormously unsatisfactory that someone should commit themselves to a year and all the expense and time it involves while facing great uncertainty about whether they will get a pupillage. But set against that is the need to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to apply for a pupillage in a way which does not favour those coming from a more traditional university with better contacts with chambers."

The Inns of Court School of Law remains the largest BVC provider with 750 full-time and 100 part-time places.

Professor Richard Stone, who took over as principal last year, says the lack of local education grants means students are simply getting more and more into debt. "However, the financial problems do not seem to be altering the profile of applicants." For Michael Brindle QC, who chairs the pupillage committee at Fountain Court, one of the largest commercial sets in London, the financial burdens on students will put increasing pressure on chambers to help finance pupils at an earlier stage.

Fountain Court offers three or four funded pupillages a year and one or two tenancies. "I think the debt factor will feature more over the next few years. But it is very important to the cohesiveness of the chambers to train your own." He says that about five years ago, the set had noticed a considerable "dropping off" in the quantity and quality of applicants. "Solicitors were getting the message across that the Bar was doomed and solicitors would be doing the advocacy.

"That is no longer the position. Although solicitors' rights of audience are, in theory, greater and more established, the message seems to have got through to students.

"We have also noticed a number of solicitors wanting to change over to become barristers, perhaps because the advocacy side has not materialised."

Unlike London chambers, which try to offer training even if they cannot promise a tenancy, regional chambers tend to take on a small number of pupils with the intention of keeping them. Peter Birkett QC, of 18 St John's Street chambers in Manchester, is responsible for pupils' advocacy training on the Northern Circuit.

His chambers takes on one or two pupils a year, selected from up to 80 applicants.

"There tends to be three categories of students – those who have done a great deal of research, have gone to court, taken the trouble to find out what it is like at the Bar, taken part in debates," he says.

"Then there are those who do not appear to have taken any trouble at all to assess whether the Bar is right for them – and then there is the mass in between."

What makes a good cv?

What makes a student stand out as recruiters wade through piles of application forms and CVs? Those responsible for selection of trainees and pupils highlight areas they perceive to be important.

Patrick Corr, of Pinsent Curtis, says: "We look for students with a good academic background, a minimum of a 2:1, and things in their CVs which show personality, some element of commercial sense and awareness and independence, for instance a Duke of Edinburgh award or raising funds for travelling."

David Pettingale, of Wragge & Co, stresses the importance of a balance between good academic achievements and other interests, whether cultural, musical or sporting, which have been followed through to a high level.

For Caroline Evans of Linklaters, good work experience in the commercial field coupled with a clear career focus and strong awareness of business dynamics are crucial.

Robert Halton, of Dibb Lupton Alsop, looks for team skills. The firm's application form is designed to get behind the usual lists of hobbies and interests. Questions include: Describe an occasion when you communicated your ideas effectively to influence the outcome of a situation. Give an example of a situation in which you worked with a group of people to achieve a specific objective and what lessons did you learn. What do your interests and activities say about you? "We want them to think rather than just sit there filling out a batch of applications together," he explains.

Professor Richard Stone, principal of the Inns of Court School of Law, says they want students who have a good first degree but can also show independence and an ability to organise their life – for instance by taking a leading role in a student society and keeping up with their academic work.

Peter Birkett QC, of 18 St John's chambers, Manchester, looks for a combination of personality, academic ability and determination. For a CV to stand out, the person needs to have shown initiative, such as doing VSO work. But he admits: "It can be rather arbitrary getting a shortlist together. It is a bit like an elephant – you know it when you see it."