The traditional three-year law degree could be phased out under radical plans from the Law Society to restructure legal education.
The society's new training framework, currently out for consultation, wants more universities to consider including the vocational year needed to qualify as a solicitor or a barrister in undergraduate law degrees.
These new four-year exempting degrees do away with the need to do a separate legal practice course and could prove popular with students as they are relatively cheap.
Andrew Sanders, dean of Manchester University's School of Law, said that some traditional schools would be reluctant to support the change but might be driven by student demand.
"For any law school that wants good research assessment exercise results, exempting degrees are a non-runner as they are so teaching-intensive." But he said that old universities sticking with three-year degrees but lacking the cachet of top research ratings might find it hard to recruit.
The idea is popular with new universities, particularly those offering legal practice courses and Bar vocational courses. For example, Manchester Metropolitan University is looking at establishing an exempting degree.
The University of Northumbria is unique in offering exempting degrees.
Greer Hogan, associate dean of undergraduate programmes, said: "These degrees are not to cheap to run, but they integrate theory and practice, allowing students to better understand how law operates."
The training framework consultation says: "The proposals... might encourage providers to develop exempting law degree pathways to qualification."
The Law Society, which is concerned by the costs of legal education, argues that an exempting degree, charged at £3,000 a year under white-paper proposals, would be cheaper than doing the legal practice course separately, which costs an average of £6,500 a year.
The Bar Council also backs exempting degrees. Nigel Bastin, head of education and training, said: "I estimate that such degrees could save would-be barristers about £9,000."
Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, which could see a reduction in students coming to do the legal practice course and Bar vocational course, said: "I worry about quality assurance. Universities do not have a good record of working with the professions. There is a danger that the vocational element of the training will be dumbed down."
If exempting degrees became popular, he said, the college would look at providing them with a university partner. It already runs part-time law degrees with the Open University.
Professor Sanders said: "A third of recruits to top law firms do not have law degrees at all. What law firms value is a broad education. Narrowly vocational law degrees will not deliver this."
- Law schools at Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, King's College London, Bristol, Birmingham and Nottingham are in the early stages of developing an admissions test to select the most able students.