Exam sitters get the jitters

The key question in this year's entrance exam for would-be solicitors will not be answered by the candidates, but by judges.

The Irish Law Society's recently amended regulations for the exam are being challenged in the Dublin High Court by more than 800 law students and graduates. And with a date for the action still not fixed, and the exam due in September, the society's education officer Thomas Kennedy admits that "there is some uncertainty about the numbers which will be taking part".

Like the profession it services, legal education in the Irish Republic is divided into two systems; one for solicitors, administered by the Law Society, and another for barristers, overseen by King's Inns, an autonomous body.

Last year the Law Society was forced to revise its exam regulations, after an Irish High Court ruling that it could no longer exempt law graduates in the Republic from sitting the entrance test. The action came after a group of law graduates from Queen's University in Belfast, who were denied a similar exemption, had taken a test case on the issue, alleging discrimination under EU law.

But the society's decision to rewrite the rule infuriated law students in the Republic's five universities – Dublin, Cork, Galway, and Limerick – who have enjoyed exemption from the entrance exam since 1989. Now they have won the right to a High Court hearing in an attempt to have the decision reversed.

The students' determination to avoid the test is understandable. The society's entrance exam is described as a searching test on eight legal subjects, with, says Kennedy, "a substantial failure rate" at the first attempt. And because the

Republic's law students already face competition on home turf from Northern Ireland and UK candidates, another hurdle is not particularly welcomed.

About 300 new solicitors are admitted to the profession every year, about 50 per cent of which are women. Some of those who qualify go on to practise law, but many others take up a variety of jobs, from journalism and public relations to public service and business.

"Becoming a solicitor is a very good qualification, whatever profession you may eventually pursue," says Kennedy.

With barristers, the story is much the same. Only about half of those who qualify each year go on to practise at the Bar. Some, says Kevin Waldron, education director at King's Inns, "go back to their insurance offices or accountancy firms, satisfied that they have got their degree". Others become in-house legal advisers to companies while some join the offices of the Attorney General or Director of Public Prosecutions.

But competition for the 90 places available on the two-year King's Inns course is always fierce. Fifty of the places go to law students from the Republic's universities, for which a 2.1 degree is the minimum requirement. The other 40 are saved for those who complete a two-year diploma course run by the Inns and which offers mature students a chance to join the profession.

Waldron says: "You have to be bright to get into law in university and you have to come out with a good degree to get on to the course, so the standard generally is high."

He adds: "As with solicitors, there has been a big increase in the number of women candidates in recent years."

Women now account for about half of the newly-qualified barristers.

Having collected their degrees and been called called to the Bar, those planning to practise spend the first year "devilling" – learning the ropes under a counsel with at least seven year's experience.

"It can be difficult for the first few years," says a Bar Council spokeswoman, "with very little money on offer. A recent survey showed barristers earning as little as £4,000 in their first years. Most of them supplement that by writing law reports or lecturing."

For the public, an intriguing aspect of the education for trainee barristers is the stipulation that they must eat 10 dinners at King's Inns during the two-year course. The tradition stems from the time when dining with more experienced colleagues was the only way pupils could learn the job.

Today, the dinners, which are attended by members of the judiciary, are social occasions, enabling young barristers to get to know not only the distinguished members of the Bar, but also the judges in whose courts they will one day plead.

"It's not the ordeal some people think it is," says one barrister. "You are allowed to bring a partner. And the dinners are really quite good."