We're on a road to nowhere

January 21, 2000

You might think that after six years training in the law, you'd be guaranteed a job. You'd be wrong. Phil Baty asks whether universities are cashing in on student naivety.

The old-boy network is alive and well in the legal profession," says Michael Saville, who spent four years, and several thousand pounds, training to be a lawyer, only to end up in direct marketing. "Of the very few people who do get jobs at the end of the years of training," he says, "it's all about who you know, not what you know."

At , two years after completing the Pounds 6,000 postgraduate legal practice course, Saville's law degree, from the University of Central England, seems irrelevant. Yet he considers himself one of the lucky ones. He was never dead set on becoming a lawyer and is happy that his law qualifications did at least get him a job, albeit not one in the law. "But many of my colleagues, and some made literally hundreds of applications, are still not practising. I know a lot of people who think the whole thing was a complete waste of time," he says.

Michael's brother, Tom, started training to become a barrister ten years ago. "He got through the degree, the Bar vocational course, and he even got his first pupillage (obligatory unpaid work experience in barristers' chambers). He was six months away from becoming a barrister when he couldn't find a chambers to take him on for the final pupillage. Now he's going to do another year of training to become a solicitor and should qualify sometime next year."

Law undergraduates have little better than a 50:50 chance of becoming a lawyer. And if they are female, black, working class, or studied at a new university, then their chances are reduced.

Yet law remains one of the most popular undergraduate subjects. Are students being conned by universities? A look at the statistics would suggest so.

Each year more than 20,000 hopefuls chase about 12,000 places on undergraduate law courses. After three years of studying a law degree, the 12,000 graduates, alongside a further 2,000 postgraduates who take the one-year legal conversion course, will compete for about 7,000 places on the one-year, full-time, legal practice courses (LPCs) for prospective solicitors.

Of the 7,000 would-be solicitors who make it through the LPC courses, just over half will be able to join solicitors' firms on two-year training contracts, an essential prerequisite to becoming a fully qualified lawyer. It is only at this stage, six years after starting university, when almost 12,000 law graduates have been whittled down to about 3,000 paid-up trainee lawyers, that would-be lawyers have an almost cast-iron guarantee of a career as a solicitor.

The picture is worse for prospective barristers. There are fewer than 1,500 places for law graduates on Bar vocational courses for trainee barristers. Only about 700 of those will join barristers' chambers on a pupillage.

Grace Martins-Waring, chair of the trainee solicitors group, says universities are "cashing in" on students' ignorance. "Universities are abusing 18-year-olds' naivety," says Martins-Waring. "It is outrageous. Some colleges recruit international students, who pay high fees, without informing them that passing an LPC does not mean they are qualified solicitors. Many do not know that they need a training contract with a solicitor's firm before they can qualify as a lawyer."

Universities claim that the alarming employment figures do not reflect the reality on the ground. "It is clear that the profession cannot absorb the thousands of undergraduates who are studying law," says Steve Evans, associate dean of the Law School at the University of Staffordshire. "But a kind of natural selection takes place as law students become disillusioned and opt for alternative careers.

When students enrol, most do expect a career in the profession, but 18 months down the line, many change their minds and by the time they graduate, the supply and demand situation looks a lot more balanced."

Oversubscription is not the only hazard diminishing the job prospects of undergraduates. Prejudice is another obstacle. The best law jobs still go to white, middle-class Oxbridge graduates. Research from the Public Policy Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, London, found that high-paying City firms showed the worst bias. Nearly two-thirds of trainees who graduated in law from Oxbridge work in City firms, compared with less than one-tenth of those who graduated from a new university. Trainees who graduated in law from new universities were overwhelmingly to be found in high-street general practice, where 56 per cent of them worked.

Money is a further barrier for prospective lawyers. The average debt among law students after a degree and the one-year LPC is about Pounds 10,000. Michael Shiner, head of the policy research unit at Goldsmiths, has been following a group of 4,000 law graduates for the Law Society for five years. "One in five of the cohort did not go on... because of the financial barriers," he says. For Shiner, the statistics he has accumulated speak volumes. "Only 11 per cent of my cohort of law undergraduates wanted a career outside the law," he says. "Among those who do the one-year postgraduate legal top-up course only 2 per cent say that they would prefer not to go into law."

The trainee solicitors group is divided over the solution to the supply and demand issue. "The debate rages on," says Martins-Waring. "Some in our group believe there should be a limit on the LPCs available, so that fewer students waste their time and money training. Others have argued that only people who have already secured a training contract (with a solicitor's firm) should be offered a place on an LPC.

"I know many disagree with me, but I do not think it is right to limit places. We cannot restrict people's choices."

The trainee solicitors group's policy at the moment is to educate would-be lawyers about the bleak job prospects. "We need to reach people earlier, when still in schools, and tell them that after four years study, they may not get a training contract and may never become lawyers."

But the university law schools defend the status quo.

"We have been saying for a long time that undergraduate law is not a purely vocational degree," says Alan Paterson, chair of the Heads of University Law Schools. "It is a liberal degree and undergraduates should not assume their only career option is as a solicitor. We have reasonably high entry requirements and our graduates do reasonably well in the wider jobs market."

Roger Smith, head of legal education at the Law Society, agrees. "Twenty years ago just about everyone on a law degree would become a solicitor or a barrister," he says. "Now things are different and it's a jolly good thing too." And as far as the Law Society is concerned, there is no question of trying to control market forces. "We have to leave it to the market," he says.

"The bulk of those who complete the LPC will enter the profession," insists Paterson. "And the discrepancy between qualified hopefuls and training vacancies is coming down. But the remaining discrepancy, especially because of the large personal cost involved, is still a very worrying thing. We do not want anyone from lower income groups to be discouraged or disadvantaged. We do not want a situation where only the well-heeled become lawyers."

Shiner believes that one way to cut down "terrible wastage" would be to combine the degree and LPC into one publicly funded, first-degree package. "Providers may claim that the LPC offers transferable skills, and is a worthwhile investment, but that is not a convincing argument," he says.

Shiner believes it would be feasible to lump the first four years of legal training, encompassing the law degree and the LPC, into a four-year first degree. This would secure local authority funding for the whole package. "Legal training is shorter than medical training, but medical training is funded entirely by local authorities. Medical students get four years of funding from the local authority because the whole four years are categorised as a first degree. There is no obvious reason why we shouldn't do the same thing."

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