From despair to where?

As UK universities churn out law graduates at a far greater rate than the profession can handle, many would-be lawyers ask whether the needs of students and trainees are adequately represented by the Law Society.

Each year approximately 7,000 people graduate from the Legal Practice Course (LPC) while students face the dismal prospect of competing for less than 4,000 training contracts offered on an annual basis by City and provincial firms.

Those who do secure articles often sit on baseline salaries of £10,850 in the provinces and £12,150 in central London, while unlucky job-seekers are left to find alternative means of paying off debt accrued as a result of the Government's reluctance to award student grants.

Meanwhile, the Trainee Solicitors' Group (TSG) continues its fight to retain the minimum salary, flying in the face of continuous calls for its abolition.

Opponents of the fixed-rate salary claim more jobs could be provided if firms were released from the shackles of minimum pay levels, thus clearing the backlog of unemployed graduates. But the TSG, which recently backed down and dropped demands for an increase in the second year salary after pressure from the society, claims its abolition would make little if any difference.

"Debt is a horrendous problem," says TSG chair Richard Moorhead. "It stops students going forward onto the LPC and it creates major problems for people on training contracts. But we do not think the abolition of the minimum salary would make a significant difference. There is no level to which the salary could be dropped which would create enough jobs for all the people doing the LPC – there just isn't enough work. If it is dropped I think we will be looking at very serious problems in about two years. The social background of people entering the law will narrow further than it already has."

Despite the salary debate Moorhead claims the group is largely successful in protecting the interests of all its members. Nonetheless he says they need more support from the society and those outside the profession, many of whom are unaware of the problems faced by students and trainees.

Although the society has lent its support to the TSG's loans and grants campaign, Moorhead says "there is always more that could be done".

One graduate working in an alternative career after an offer of articles was retracted because of the firm's financial problems, claims the Law Society is only adding to the problems by accrediting a growing number of places on the LPC. "The only thing they do is create further problems by making more LPC places," she says. "They're just increasing the numbers and not giving us any opportunity of work in the future. Competition is bad now – they're just making it worse."

Moorhead says the society "can't create jobs any more than the TSG can," but it should encourage firms to see the medium and long-term benefit of trainees, establish proper rules for training standards and guidance and adequately monitor training contracts.

However, chair of the society's training committee Roger Jones argues there is "much more" the society could do if only it had greater financial support. He says a new system of monitoring contracts will come into operation in July, with visits to firms being made in "appropriate cases" and

interviews with both trainees and principals being conducted.

But, even the introduction of independent members to the monitoring panel does not fulfil the aims of the society, which would like a separate body established to oversee training contracts. "We've made representations during my period as chairman to a number of Government ministers and have met a blank wall on every occasion," says Jones.

"There is so much more that the Law Society could do were it given the opportunity. We should set up a central monitoring unit and send in Law Society monitors on a regular basis. We can't do that because of the perception of over-regulation by the profession. We fear that if we did there would be fewer contracts on offer.

"Also, if we set up such a unit there would be a tremendous increase in the practising certificate fee, which we know the profession would fight. Until the profession is ready for that expense then the measures that are going to be implemented are likely to go some way towards meeting the major points of the TSG's criticisms."