Strapped for cash

Roger Jones, chair of the Law Society's training committee: I chair the Law Society's training committee but I am writing in a personal capacity.

The Law Society cannot do much more than it already has done in putting pressure on the Government to extend mandatory grants to the vocational course and persuading local education authorities to exercise a more generous discretion in favour of law students. Maximum effort will continue to be made but I think that a degree of realism about the extent to which policy can be changed is now timely.

The four-year course run at Northumbria seemed to offer some hope as it does attract a mandatory grant. The prospect of other institutions being able to develop such a course and of further courses attracting mandatory grants must at this stage be in question.

Against this miserable background, it is not surprising there are calls for a fresh look at the possibility of a training levy on the whole of the profession.

The society's training committee considered such a levy last July. The idea found little favour largely because of the difficulties in administering it fairly and because of the prospect of smaller firms viewing with distaste their contribution to larger firms'schemes.

I am not, however, convinced that the idea of a compulsory training levy has run its complete course and the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee may contemplate a levy as a practical possibility.

The bursaries sub-committee of the training committee last year suggested members of the profession might, on a voluntary basis, be prepared to contribute towards training costs. The suggestion was made that an appeal for a 'sporting fiver' might not go unheeded.

It has to be said that when local law societies were consulted on this, they were pretty unenthusiastic. Even lots of 'fivers' would do little to alleviate the present crisis. Again, the extent to which calls could be repeated is debatable.

I remain convinced, however, that there is scope for voluntary help from the profession for students. My concern, however, has always been for those poverty-stricken trainees unable to obtain a training contract at all and for whom a contract – even on a salary below the compulsory level – would be a blessed relief.

Richard Moorhead, chair of the Trainee Solicitors' Group: There can be few professions that demand such financial commitment from its entrants as the legal profession. Average graduate debt is about £3,000. LPC students can face debt four or five times that amount if they are to become trainees. Small wonder that the Trainee Solicitors' Group (TSG) found over half of all trainees are worried about debt.

Expecting trainees to mortgage their lives for the chance of becoming a solicitor will have a profound effect on the profession. Unfortunately, the profession greets the problem with shoulder shrugging or worse still, complacency. It is not our problem, they say, it is yours. They are wrong.

Last year, although the headline figure for LPC applications was very high (11,000), when the reality of debt dawned, the glut of well-qualified applicants was wiped out close to the number of places available.

The CPE provides an indication of the future. Applications have dropped rapidly and some reports suggest the academic qualifications of those doing the CPE have also fallen.

Within two years the LPC could be in similarly dire straits. The number and quality of applicants will deteriorate rapidly. The Policy Studies Institute has already found a marked narrowing of the social characterisitics of LPC graduates.

Students do not need symp-

athy, they need practical solutions. The Law Society will need to look carefully at the LPC course. Can a cheaper, slimmed down course be as effective? NVQ qualifications for legal work may provide an opportunity to integrate the LPC into the world of practice so that trainees can spread the cost of training within periods of employment and provide tax relief to help reduce course fees.

Firms also need to consider investing more in trainees. Firms that offer grants or loans to their trainees understand the improved quality of their entrants. Salary levels are also important; few trainees are able to reduce their debt if they are only paid the minimum salary. Provincial firms need to examine what they offer if they are not to be starved of talent.

If the profession cannot give help then it will increasingly face calls for outside intervention. Already a training levy is something exciting interest outside the Law Society. Debt is a shared problem and the solutions involve shared responsibilities. Law firms, the Law Society, LPC institutions and ultimately government must act to ensure a representative, high quality legal profession.

Tony Holland, senior partner at Foot & Bowden: The LPC course is expensive and that fact has come as no surprise. The course is, however, a great success. As experience grows it will become even more effective in delivering the appropriate training for intending lawyers. The question is how is the cost of it all going to be met in the future? It was always my view that the major vehicle for delivering the LPC course would not be a stand-alone module but one integrated into the qualifying law degree thus becoming an exempting law degree as taught at the University of Northumberland. The integration of skills training into the delivery of the academic stage was bound to be the best way forward from the point of view of student funding.

The four-year course, however, at Northumberland University while being a great success causes problems from a university's point of view in delivering it. The Government does not like it and is reluctant to see it expanded.

My preferred solution is to reduce the four-year exempt degree course, such as is taught at Northumberland, into a three-year module or even, at worst, a three-and-a-half year module based on two terms per year. I am sure there are other possibilities. The integration of the LPC into the law degree is inevitable if the solutions to the funding problem are to be finally resolved. Crying for more money will get us nothing but tears and frustration. Attempting to find alternative solutions will eventually bring success.

I do not believe there is hope of any government, of whatever political persuasion, changing its attitude towards funding higher legal education. It is, therefore, essential for those who are responsible for these matters to be innovative and wide ranging in their efforts to find solutions.

There are always a thousand reasons why one shouldn't do something. In this case the principal reason for doing something is that the system is not working and will not work in the foreseeable future, and, if we are not careful, will deliver to us future lawyers that will come only from privileged backgrounds.

Robert Gibber, senior legal adviser at Tate & Lyle: IN Recent years the cost of LPC fees has risen coupled with a drop in the availability of training contracts and the loss of state grant support for students.

While many of the larger commercial firms have responded to this increased funding burden by meeting all or part of the LPC fees of successful applicants, a large number of aspiring solicitors have to confront the possibility of footing this significant bill themselves or taking out loans, the conditions of which may not always be attractive.

This funding problem is a real disincentive to entering the profession, particularly for those from less affluent backgrounds. This would be a grave loss to the profession and could ultimately lead to falling standards in some areas of practice characterised by an ever-widening skills gap across an increasingly polarised profession.

At present, the only other source of funding is through private grant support schemes. One example is the Windsor Fellowship Bursary Scheme operated by Esso, Tate & Lyle, Linklaters & Paines and Clifford Chance aimed specifically at ethnic minority students. Successful applicants receive bursaries of £2,500 plus four weeks paid work experience.

This organisation has participated in the scheme for the last two years. I have been struck by the high quality of the candidates coming into the scheme, candidates who have often already been rejected by major firms. Perhaps more worrying still, a number of these students find they have no alternative but to apply for bursaries under the scheme even though their primary interest is not in working for large commercial organisations or major City firms.

I fear that over time there will be a progressive leakage of good candidates, particularly in less well-off areas of legal practice. As the profession will ultimately be the loser, alternative funding structures must be considered. There will be a cost to the profession, perhaps via a levy, but I am sure ways could be developed under which fees could be recovered from students themselves during the early years of their careers.