During the recent elections for the president and vice president of the Law Society the problem of an excessive number of entrants into the profession loomed large. One of my manifesto proposals was that a working party should be set up to consider how to reduce numbers. The proposal struck a chord with high street solicitors. It was obvious to them that the profession was overcrowded and that steps should be taken to deal with it if possible.
There are two separate but connected problems. The first is the excessive number of graduates from Legal Practice Courses. There are currently 7,900 authorised law college places, which is more than double the training contracts available. At the beginning of 1995, 4,200 graduates had registered with the Law Society Careers Service as looking for training contracts. The society had only six vacancies on its books.
What happens to those graduates who are unable to obtain training contracts? For those whose educational qualifications are second best the probability is that their CV will simply be discarded. Their LPC qualification is actually a disadvantage because employers outside the law will regard them simply as solicitors manque.
Now what can be done about all these young people? Sally Marsden, the training partner in the leading law firm of Pannone and Partners, said: "It is terrible that some students are being allowed to enrol on courses when they don't have an adequate academic background . . . they are quite simply being encouraged to do courses by people who want to take their money." And Nigel Savage, a Professor of Nottingham Law School, describes the Law Society's approval of 200 more course places in the College of Law as "tantamount to putting another 200 kids straight on the dole".
What arguments are there against restricting the number of LPC places? It is difficult to make an accurate calculation of demand but what is a professional body for if not to attempt to do so and get it right?
We are told that aspiring solicitors are already adjusting their expectations. In the space of two years, numbers sitting the Common Professional Examination have dropped by 2,000. This diminishes the scale of the problem but it still exists. The principle that it is the Law Society's duty to regulate the number of entrants into the profession remains. Surely, the experience of the 1980s has taught us one lesson: the market is like a first world war general indifferent to massive casualties and damage. We should not share this indifference.
It is said that the Director General of Fair Trading might challenge an attempt to reduce numbers. But why should he or she support a situation in which unemployed LPC graduates are let loose on the market every year? It is also said that to limit LPC places to those who have training contracts would discriminate against high street firms and members of ethnic minorities. This is a bogus objection. High street firms are only too anxious that numbers should be restricted and there is already a large pool of unemployed LPC graduates.
A firm advertising a training place can now expect several hundred replies. During the election campaign I received a letter from the Joint Committee for Ethnic Minorities in the United Kingdom. It said: "Those who have suffered and continue to suffer from the present surplus and over- subscription in the solicitors' profession are the ethnic minorities which the Law Society Council claims it is trying to help . . . you would be helping (their) cause . . . if you get the whole profession to pronounce on this matter."
The problem of an excessive number of solicitors is linked because demand for trainees does not necessarily indicate demand for newly qualified solicitors. How many qualifying trainees will be offered full-time employment when their articles are completed? What level of salary will newly qualified lawyers command? In a recent report the Law Society secretary general said: "In larger firms (which have continued to provide 90 per cent of the places for trainees and subsequent assistant solicitor places), there are some signs that firms are preferring to take on paralegals, often ex LPC students, for whom they do not require a practising certificate". Paraphrased, this means that big firms will prefer to employ cheap LPC graduates who fail to find training contracts at the expense of qualified solicitors, who will find themselves unemployed.
Obviously, it is never going to be a simple matter to predict the market. But the cost of simply doing nothing is too high - for unemployed trainees, for the profession and ultimately for the public.
Martin Mears is president of the Law Society.