Law students face debts of about £40,000 by the time they start work, according to a research report for the UK Centre for Legal Education.
The Law Student 2000 Project looks at the debt, part-time work and career aspirations of students currently leaving law school. It found that per cent of students expected to have a debt of more than £14,000 at the end of university. Those students who intend to go on to become barristers or lawyers must take professional exams that can cost them £25,000 more in fees and living costs.
Students without a law degree must complete a one-year conversion course, which further raises their fees and living costs.
Mike Cuthbert, senior tutor in law at University College Northampton, and one of the authors of the report, said: "Debt is now such a serious issue that students from lower socioeconomic groups have to study law at degree level as they cannot afford to do the conversion course."
Dr Cuthbert also said that many students were choosing not to do the professional exams because of the cost.
"Faced with levels of debt that are above the average level of unsecured household debt, it is not reasonable to expect a would-be graduate of 21 or 22 years of age to look at legal careers unless they can obtain support from some source," he said.
At the start of their law course, 92 per cent of students said they intended to pursue a legal career, the research found. But only 33 per cent of 1,061 students returning final-year questionnaires said they had applied for a training contract or pupillage.
Many students from new universities were put off applying for contracts because of the expected competition.
"The big City law firms tend to recruit from just five or six traditional universities," Dr Cuthbert said. "Students perceive that A-level results and what university they are attending are rather more important than the fact that they can demonstrate a wide range of legal skills."
The project also found clear evidence of "debt creep" - the level of anticipated debt on graduation rose over the three years of degree study.
About 23 per cent of students thought it would take them four to eight years to repay their debts, while 25 per cent put the figure at eight to 12 years.
"Once top-up fees of £3,000 are introduced, the situation will be even more serious," Dr Cuthbert said.
* The UK Centre for Legal Education has produced a guide on plagiarism for law lecturers.
Author Alison Bone, senior lecturer in law at Brighton University, said:
"Getting caught plagiarising is a very serious issue for law students because academic misconduct has to be reported to the professional bodies."
Dr Bone said the only sure way to stop plagiarism was to set novel questions. "If a question has been set before, you can almost certainly be sure that the answer will be on the web."