Legal education’s oversupply is unethical

Too many people are looking to become solicitors in England and Wales. This is not an opinion, it is a fact based on the most recent annual report from the Law Society.

Dr Alexis Brassey
Dr Alexis Brassey

The numbers are alarming. In 2009-10 around 20,000 students were accepted on courses to study law as a first degree combined with more than 15,000 LPC places. At the same time there were fewer than 4,900 new traineeships, a number that declined by 16.1 per cent compared with the previous year.

A rough calculation demonstrates that the chances of an undergraduate law ­student getting a training contact are around one in four and a postgraduate LPC student around one in three.

The chances of a successful career are also under threat from the Legal Services Act, structural changes in the industry such as ­outsourcing, and the damage wrought by cost-conscious clients due to the recession.

The implications of these figures cannot truly be understood until they are placed next to the actual cost. The minimum cost of an undergraduate degree (or degree plus conversion course, now known as the GDL) and LPC now stands in excess of £50,000, not including living expenses.

It also takes a minimum of four years’ study – typically five years’ study prior to ­starting a training ­contract. Surely, you might think, there are few people who would now ­contemplate a career as a ­solicitor. Wrong. Demand has never been higher.

A few weeks ago my firm advertised for someone to help with administration. The response was weak. We were aware of the massive demand for training contract places and contacted the Law Society with a novel idea – the creation of the hybrid training contract. This contract would run over 36 rather than 24 months, with the work incorporating a third more­administration than normal.

The Law Society was helpful and ­indicated that this would fall under its part-time training contract provisions.

So we placed adverts with BPP Law School and the College of Law and the response was ­overwhelming. Within two weeks we had received around 100 ­applications. All the applicants had achieved either a 2:1 or a first in their undergraduate degrees and either ­commendations or distinctions in their LPCs, as this was a minimum ­requirement.

It felt as though these ­candidates had been let down by the ­system. The applicants had done ­everything possible from an academic perspective, including gaining a raft of straight A grades from GCSE to A-level.

It seems that our industry has created an oversupply of quality candidates, around 70 per cent of whom will never practise for a single day as solicitors.

So who takes responsibility for the structural oversupply of candidates?

Who is responsible for more than £600m (12,000 students x £50,000) of fees being spent in the hope of careers that will never happen?

Any argument that suggests the LPC is designed for anything other than a career in law can be little more than sophistry. The LPC is a practical, law-focused course designed and taught as if a training contract is the next step.

We must therefore consider as an industry how we want to approach the supply of solicitors without creating false hopes and massive debts for thousands of candidates.

I do not propose a solution to this ­problem in this piece, but I think it is time for a wake-up call for those who set out the rules of the training game.

None of the Law Society, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority or the Ministry of Justice should ignore the plight of aspiring lawyers. We have set up a system that gives the majority a false sense of their futures, which is unethical. It must change.

Dr Alexis Brassey, managing director, Cramer Pelmont