Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon wrote in his preface to 'The Elements of Common Law': “I hold every man a debtor to his profession.” In the 1990s, those words may be considered prophetic as the obstacles facing most students entering the legal profession continue to be lack of funding and lack of places in law firms, at the Bar and in-house.
With the increase in the number of institutions either seeking or already granted accreditation for the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and the Bar Vocational Course (BVC), students see their route into the profession as an ever steepening and obstacle-strewn path toward the goal of traineeship or pupillage.
Nearly 30 institutions are now accredited to provide the LPC to almost 7,000 students. But as our table on page 16 shows, most law firms are over-subscribed by between 25 and 100 times the number of available trainee places, or in some instances more.
The cycle of boom and recession in the economy generally is reflected in recruitment to the legal profession, with either a dearth or glut of trainee and pupillage places every few years.
Chair of the Trainee Solicitors' Group Richard Moorhead says that the apparent buoyancy of LPC applications is seen as a sign that debt does not discourage good quality candidates, but he adds that this is misleading. The reality is that once the full cost of going ahead with the course is realised, many students do not proceed. This can result in entry to the profession being restricted to the few who can
afford the cost of the LPC.
The Law Society was considering a system which adjusted the relationship between the demand for solicitors and the economy by limiting either the number of LPC places or the number of institutions which provided the LPC, but both alternatives were voted down by a small majority.
Chair of the society's training committee Roger Jones says that such options would have raised problems because of the competition law aspects of such a scheme (the Bar faced a similar problem when it considered this course of action). He says: “A limitation of this type is a very blunt instrument, and it can be very difficult to remove when the situation eases.”
Jones adds that the society will be reconsidering the situation again this autumn, and if it has not improved, “then they will have to find a way of overcoming the problem”.
A number of options have been mooted for the legal profession, which is already
expecting proposals from the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct.
The committee is currently analysing the responses received on the academic stage consultation paper which was published last June. Next month it will produce its consultation paper on vocational and continuing professional development issues and matters for barristers and solicitors. The committee will also consider the area of
A spokesperson for the committee, Hilary De Lyon, says it is envisaged that there will be “a complete and integrated report covering all aspects raised and discussed in the consultation process concerning solicitors and barristers”.
She adds that the committee has a “rolling programme”, and this process will next be extended to encompass legal professionals other than solicitors and barristers.
In the interim, those in the profession consider that the simplest solution would obviously be to widen the funding structure, but with the lack of available funds both privately and publicly, the legal profession continues to consider the examples of other professions.
Many solicitors consider it extraordinary that the Law Society has not managed to make more headway with Parliament, given the number of MPs who are also qualified as lawyers.
In the medical and architectural professions, funding is provided during the initial degree and clinical or practical training periods.
Another alternative would be to switch to extended apprenticeships with day-release or part-time formal training similar to the LPC.
Any move to limit or reduce the number of applicants lower down the career ladder – such as at entrance to the initial degree or to the LPC – will cause problems in a profession which is already considered elitist, as well as with the institutions themselves.
Chair of the Young Solicitors Group and senior lecturer in law at South Bank University Andy Unger considers that the profession may not have the right mechanisms to limit the numbers entering the profession. He agrees that “most attempts have unacceptable and negative equal opportunities consequences”.
He suggests that it would be preferable, as a profession, to “take steps to bring forward the majority of recruitment decisions so that law students know, before they commit themselves to the fees and loans for the LPC, whether or not they have a training contract”.
Such a system already exists in the City and larger firms which recruit two years in advance, but this system covers less than 20 per cent of all students. The result is that the remaining 5,000 to 6,000 students probably have only a 50 per cent chance (or less) of obtaining a training contract.
Unger considers that extending this system to smaller and medium-sized firms would also give students better information about the market before they start the LPC.
City firm Clifford Chance's next intake of trainees will number 120. Recruitment partner Chris Perrin explains that although there are no formal representations from the larger firms to the Law Society, there are informal discussions among firms like his and Linklaters & Paines on issues affecting the recruitment market, such as the overall numbers of trainees.
He adds that, apart from the administrative time involved in the process, there is no real difference whether the firm has 3,000 or 6,000 applications for trainee places.
Perrin doubts whether there is “any real merit in restricting places, which would not benefit the profession”. He also considers that “the only solution is for more pressure to be put on the Government to provide funds for legal education,” although he concedes that this is over optimistic.
Another alternative being mooted is that all LPC students qualify as solicitors on completion of the LPC course which would widen the range of their options for employment. Of course, this would be subject to a provision that they could not set up as sole practitioners,
Although such a radical proposal, if adopted, may only slightly improve the situation, it remains to be seen how this “present crisis”, as Roger Jones has described it, can be alleviated and prevent lawyers from becoming indebted to their own profession.