Courtly ways tempt suitors

August 15, 1997

As clearing gets under way, THES reporters look at what students can expect from the most and least popular subjects

The TV programmes This Life, Kavanagh QC and the usual fare of cops and robbers shows have helped to keep law second in the popularity league among undergraduates.

This year, the admissions service has already received more than 80,000 applications for about 12,000 places. "Students think it's glamorous," said Richard Painter, secretary to the Committee of Heads of University Law Schools. "Programmes like This Life do nothing to dispel that."

But school-leavers also have harder-headed reasons for choosing to study law. It is highly-regarded by employers inside and outside the profession. "Employers regard it as a rigorous course that gives undergraduates confidence, helps them articulate their views, think clearly and communicate," Professor Painter said.

Over the past 15 years, the degree has altered, making it even better liked by employers. Where once students concentrated on learning a list of rules, they are now encouraged to see the subject in its social and political context.

Some universities have introduced teaching aids such as role play and "clinical legal education", in which students take on real clients. Information technology is also becoming more important, allowing interactive teaching without the teacher.

While only Oxford and Cambridge achieved a 5-star grade in last year's research assessment exercise, and were among 19 institutions which were awarded the top grade in the teaching quality assessment, standards are thought to be improving across the board.

However, graduates wanting to go into law still face an uphill struggle to a job. Around 12,000 people a year graduate with law degrees, which includes those who have taken modular courses.

Another 2,000 people complete common professional examination (CPE) courses, which give students a year's legal training after they have taken a degree in another subject. Of these, about 8,000 will achieve a place on a legal practice course (LPC) for prospective solicitors, and 1,430 will join the bar vocational course for trainee barristers.

Once they have negotiated this hurdle, about 4,250 will join solicitors' firms on training contracts and between 700 and 800 will join barristers' chambers on a pupillage. Their prospects of a job in law, and the relatively high salary that goes with it, are then good.

But by this time most will have built up substantial debts. The LPC costs each student at least Pounds 5,000 and very few firms offer discretionary grants.

"We are getting very, very worried about the increasing amount of debt they are being pushed into," said Nick Saunders, head of legal education at the Law Society. He fears future plans outlined by Dearing to charge undergraduate students fees could make this situation worse.

A Law Society survey, which followed 4,000 law degree and CPE students graduating in 1993, found that half the people who decided not to continue their legal studies had done so because they could not afford the outlay.

Students also have to face the fact that law may not be quite as exciting as they were lead to believe. "Some are disappointed," Professor Painter said. "It's not all sex, drugs and rock n' roll. They also have to do things like property law."

A qualifying law degree, recognised by the Law Society, must include the foundations of legal knowledge and meet appropriate quality standards.

The seven foundation subjects cover contracts, tort, criminal law, equity and the law of trusts, European Union law, property law and public law.

In addition, students are expected to study at least one optional area of law and develop basic legal research skills.

LAW FACTS

* There were 42,349 people enrolled on undergraduate law courses in 1995/96.

* By June 30 this year, UCAS had received 83,590 applications to study law in the coming academic year. This showed a 1.25 per cent increase compared with the same period in 1996.

* More than twice as many people apply to study law in England and Wales as there are places. In 1996, there were 18,595 applicants for 9,998 places, compared with 20,050 applicants for 9,382 places the previous year.

* More than 7,560 European Union and overseas students come to the United Kingdom to study.

Source: UCAS and HESA

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