I have slightly mutilated, in the title of this article, the title of the song that begins the musical Avenue Q: “What do you do with a BA in English?”. Its lyrics continue in a way that will resonate for some people:

“Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree
I can’t pay the bills yet ’cause I have no skills yet
The world is a big scary place.”

One answer to the song’s question is, “Do a GDL” – if you can afford it, that is, and if you are happy with the idea of another year in the classroom. However, with the development of salaried apprenticeships that can lead to qualification as a solicitor, and CILEx’ assertive advertising about the comparative cost of an LLB plus LPC versus the cost of CILEx qualifications, there are, actually two questions:

Do I take a degree at all? Do I take a degree in law?

Do I take a degree at all?

Cost is clearly a critical factor. It is already possible to study for CILEx qualifications that are embedded into a degree, and it seems likely that one model for the Trailblazer apprenticeships will be to combine them with a degree. A potential advantage of these models is that, as CILEx students are normally in employment, and apprentices will be by definition, they are already known quantities to their firms, which are thus more likely to subsidise the costs of the degree.

Jane Ching

I think we will see an increase in applied law degrees along the lines of the German vocational degrees, with study shared between the workplace and the classroom, hopefully with opportunities to use some of that classroom time to think hard and critically about issues such as ethics, morality and different theories of practice.

Most legal professions in England & Wales do not require a degree. The solicitors’ profession does not require you to have a degree, and never has done. The modern manifestations of the “five years’ articles” route, which only came to an end in the 1980s, are in the CILEx route to qualification and in the SRA’s “equivalent means” procedure.

The SRA’s proposals for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam currently suggest some kind of education to level 6 (third year undergraduate) will be a pre-requisite for the test, but there is no suggestion that this needs to be in law. However, in a buyers’ market, employers may be more wary of non-graduate lawyers whom they have not home-grown as apprentices.

Do I take a degree in law?

The solicitors’ profession in England & Wales is quite happy, taken as a group, that the GDL/CPE is enough law to go into practice with. Globally, this is highly unusual – the Scots insist on two years, and a GDL-qualified solicitor cannot qualify in the USA without additional study. Law Society statistics show consistently that the percentage of new solicitors with the “conventional” LLB + LPC qualification is about half, with the remainder having GDLs or transferring in from elsewhere.

So, particularly when the national press recently reported a survey of 1,800 professionals, concluding “Law degrees – they just ain’t worth it”, you might have reason to feel despondent. But, it is worth looking at the underpinning report by employment specialists Emolument.

The report does not indicate what kind of professionals with law degrees were doing the evaluating – i.e. those who became lawyers, or those who went into other careers less directly linked with law? This could be a fair number.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales calculated that, in 2015, 3.1 per cent of their new student members had law degrees. A back of the envelope calculation suggests this means there may be more ICAEW trainees with an LLB than pupil barristers with one.

The report also does not say how many of the 1,800 sample were LLB graduates, or why they evaluated the LLB as they did – perhaps because they didn’t get a training contract so went into another area, or because the area of law they now work in is so specialised that it is a world away from their LLB?

It is also worth noting that Yes, of the disciplines listed, Law comes 11th, with 71 per cent of the LLB respondents saying their degree was “worth it”, but there are eight disciplines in the 71-77per cent bracket. The next discipline after Law (Media, Marketing and Communication) only has a 54 per cent approval rating.

If we were converting into grades, the likes of Maths and Computing get exceptional firsts; Business, Economics, Languages, Engineering, Life Sciences and Law (just) get a first; History, Fine Arts, Design, Media, Marketing, Geography etc get a 2:2 and it is Psychology that gets the wooden spoon. So the picture of doom for the LLB is not at all as clear as might otherwise be suggested.

One of the advantages of university study (especially in law) is an ability to read information critically and to make up your own mind, having evaluated the evidence. Do so.

Jane Ching is professor of legal education at Nottingham Law School (part of Nottingham Trent University)