Let the trainees' voice be heard

Representation on the Law Society council would enable the TSG to build on the work it already does seeking solutions to the problem of debt among trainees, says Nick Armstrong. Dr Nick Armstrong is a trainee at Irwin Mitchell in Sheffield and chair of the TSG.

Over Christmas, I read an article in the New Statesman on educational funding, written in the context of the university fees debate. Its author, David Halpern, referred to the English legal profession as an example of how not to do it.

Mr Halpern is well placed to criticise. In a previous life, he contributed to the ongoing Policy Studies Institute (PSI) research on entry to the legal profession. He therefore knows the facts: 73 per cent of students finishing the LPC are in debt; the average debt is £5,000; three years after graduation 32 per cent of prospective solicitors had still not managed to secure a training contract.

The shortfall between LPC graduates and training contracts has shown recent improvement, with projections suggesting a continuing rise in the number of jobs for the next year or so. Debt levels, however, are about to get worse. The Government's introduction of the Dearing proposals will add at least a further £3,000 (£1,000 a year for a three-year degree) to each student's average debt. This will have serious implications for equality of access to the solicitors profession.

As the PSI research also tells us that women, ethnic minorities, mature students and people who did not graduate from Oxbridge are those least likely to obtain professional sponsorship, these are the people who will be the first to turn away from a career as a solicitor.

The Trainee Solicitors Group (TSG) is active in looking for solutions to this problem. We have already negotiated favourable lending terms for law students with one major bank (NatWest). We are campaigning for a Government-backed, income-contingent loan system. Above all, we are active in ensuring that all prospective solicitors exercise their career choice on the basis of the fullest possible information. We therefore hold careers days, we publish a magazine and a Training Contract Handbook is shortly to be published with jobs information, statistics on prospects and funding options.

We would like this information drive to extend to the Law Society itself. Until recently, I believed that within the profession, debt was synonymous with law students in the same way as long hours are synonymous with junior doctors. I was therefore horrified to be told by a prominent Law Society council member that she did not believe anyone appreciated the full extent of the problem. I was advised to publish a fact sheet.

This is an excellent idea which the TSG is happy to take up, but we believe that a more effective approach would be for the TSG to have direct representation on council.

Debt is not the only area where we have information and experience to offer the Law Society's ruling body. We are therefore campaigning for the TSG to be given its own non-constituency seat.

So far, however, the Law Society's response has been to point to constitutional obstacles relating to the fact that many of our 25,000 members are not admitted. Non-solicitors are not entitled to sit on council. This was the reason for the council membership committee saying 'no' on 14 January.

The TSG acknowledged this problem, and others besides. For example, we have asked for the council appointment to be reduced from the usual four years on account of the fact that it is harder for our members to get time off work than it is for more senior lawyers. Few trainees or newly qualified solicitors relish asking their firm for that kind of favour.

We appreciate that these problems mean that a TSG seat on council needs thought. Nevertheless, we would like to see a commitment from the Law Society that, given the size of our membership and the importance of the issues with which we are concerned, a way to accommodate the TSG should be found.

We hope the council will agree when it decides the issue in March. The TSG could then work with it to find long-term solutions to the problems of access to the profession. We could build on the work our members have already done through our representation on the Law Society's training committee, and now on its working party, the Training Contract Review.

Problems of debt will continue so long as we have a system of training solicitors which requires them to finance and undertake the vocational course before they commence their on-the-job training. The only real answer, therefore, is to fundamentally alter the structure of legal educational training.

It is by no means clear how to do this, but the TSG is currently exploring a way of adapting the sandwich model used by accountants. We believe this may hold the key to reducing both the debt levels and the jobs deficit. Such a model is not without its own difficulties but nothing like the difficulties associated with the present system. Given a proper dialogue between ourselves and the Law Society, we are sure we will be able to do something to make the solicitors' profession less of a bad example.