Legal profession frets about diversity and oversupply

Senior lawyers have voiced fears that the coming rises in tuition fees could harm the quality and diversity of their profession and have called for limits on the number of trainee barristers.

February 24, 2011

The rising cost of qualifying, combined with the oversupply of students leaving the Bar Professional Training Course and Legal Practice Course, could lead to a growing "army of enemies of the legal profession", an event on the future of legal education heard.

Nicholas Green QC, who chaired the Bar Council last year, said that by the time they have completed the BPTC or the LPC, students would face debts of up to £70,000.

"That's an enormous millstone around the neck of the student," he said. As "an inevitable consequence of this...equality and diversity across the profession is going to suffer".

Moreover, about half those who completed professional training courses would not get a job in the profession, he said, because there are about 11,500 people chasing roughly 6,000 posts.

Competition from universities to provide four- or three-and-a-half year courses covering both graduate and postgraduate material might brings prices down, he suggested.

The event on 18 February was organised by the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple ahead of a major review of legal training by legal regulators.

Baroness Deech, chair of the Bar Standards Board and former head of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, said the oversupply of talented graduates was the issue the review should consider more seriously than any other.

"If they don't find a satisfactory career, we will be growing an army of enemies of the legal profession," she warned.

But she said there were "too many students on the professional courses who shouldn't be there", adding that she had in her office a "dossier" of "utterly illiterate, inarticulate" letters from Bar students.

Lady Deech went on to say that the Bar Standards Board was determined to proceed with English-language and aptitude testing.

Lady Deech also spoke up for the autonomy of universities over law degrees and in support of academics who kept "plugging away in the terribly underpaid and perhaps less fashionable part of what constitutes law".

In a keynote speech, Lord Falconer, the Labour former Lord Chancellor, said he had "major concerns" about the decreasing diversity of lawyers in the UK.

He said the issue was "of crucial importance" in a country where it is "the law, above all other factors, which sets the limits of acceptable behaviour and tolerance, and sets the limits of what a government may do".

Lord Falconer argued that the profession was "close to the point" where it should consider imposing a restriction on the number of BPTC places.

"The crushed hopes of so many after the expenditure of over £60,000 are not good for the profession," he said.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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