Last year the Law Society president set up a working party to look at options for restricting entry to the legal profession. At present only half the number of students who complete the Legal Practice Course gain training contracts in solicitors' firms.
The establishment of a working party was provoked by widespread public questioning, both of the number of graduates struggling to become solicitors and of their quality. This criticism followed an expansion of the number of students accepted on to the LPC.
Having been advised, by Richard Drabble QC, that existing legislation ruled out any arbitrary cut in the number of places on the course, the working party is now considering a range of options. One of these, the introduction of an aptitude test that would examine candidates' logic, literacy and communication skills, has provoked some concern.
A test similar to that being proposed already exists in the legal system in Northern Ireland, a test which I failed the first time and passed the second. The two three-hour papers in the admissions test I sat are designed to test a students' ability to apply knowledge of the law in a practical way and should reveal the following: capacity to elicit facts from a mass of information, ability to handle available material, ability to express oneself clearly, common sense, and numeracy.
Places at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen's University are now awarded solely on a candidate's score in this test, plus a mark for the applicant's degree. Fortunately this arbitrary test made no difference to my future. However, there are still a number of question marks over the introduction of a test in this country.
First, the introduction of any form of aptitude test runs the risk of being viewed as indirectly discriminatory to ethnic minorities. Indeed, the Bar discovered two years ago just how many potential problems there were when its revision of selection procedures, including a critical reasoning test, was thrown into disarray by legal challenges.
The Bar dropped the critical reasoning test after one year because of problems with allegations of discrimination. Psychometric tests have in the past been proved to have inherent discriminatory problems.
However, the very notion of a further test to weed out would-be lawyers is unnecessary. At the moment employers do the weeding by choosing the best people for their training contracts. Competition for places in the profession must be a healthy state of affairs.
A better way of reducing numbers might be to provide information about the difficulties of pursuing a career in law. The Trainee Solicitors Group, of which I am vice chair, supports a policy of providing all candidates with comprehensive information about their prospects on qualifying and post-qualification so that they can make an informed choice about their career path before they embark on the course.
Some colleges already advise candidates about the state of the profession and this openness should be encouraged. It is then up to individuals to decide whether they can achieve their goals and the profession should not deny them the chance.
Indeed it seems this information process is already working. While the number of requests for information about the legal practice is running steady, the number of applications for the course in 1996/97 is 15 per cent down on last year. According to a report in Lawyer in October 1995, there are now 850 unfilled places on legal practice courses. This may force some institutions to review their provision and suggests that market forces may well provide a solution to the numbers entering the profession. What need then of a pre-LPC aptitude test?
There remains the question of the quality of applicants and of standards in the profession. The rise in the number of places on legal practice courses has led to suggestions that more students with worse degrees are getting places than was the case under the centralised Law Society final exams. But before any action is taken to rectify falling standards evidence of such a decline is required. To date it is only anecdotal.
The introduction of centralised aptitude tests may also condemn the LPC before its contribution to the development of the profession, and to that of individual solicitors, has been properly assessed.
There were good reasons for replacing the national Law Society finals with a course offered and assessed in 31 institutions in accordance with stringent Law Society standards. Not least was the aim of supplying a range of candidates who possess diverse qualities suited to the various demands of different kinds of firms and areas of the law.
Full information about the obstacles to a legal career coupled with market forces are the best control on the number of applicants. Research will show whether standards are falling.
Declan Cushley, a trainee solicitor at East Midlands firm Freeth Cartwright Hunt Dickins and a former lecturer in law at the University of Central Lancashire, is a member of a law society working party on entry into the profession.