Tag Archives: legal profession

Where do the law students go?

Student enrolments on the full time Legal Practice Course have fallen for the fifth year in a row, according to a report in this week’s Law Society Gazette, leaving nearly half the approved LPC places in England and Wales unfilled. Given the dearth of available training contracts, students are probably right to stay away from the LPC: who wants to invest so much money and a year of your life in a vocational course which prepares you for a job which may not exist?

And yet….I’m interested in what happens to the 1,000s of law graduates who (presumably) still want a career in the law and who would previously have gone on to the LPC and to qualify as a solicitor. Unfortunately, it’s not the case that those who choose to do the LPC are the best qualified – it’s far more likely that they are simply the wealthiest and the most willing and able to take a gamble. The LPC, therefore, is fast becoming a massive, anti-meritocratic barrier to entry. Given the vital role the legal profession plays in our society, this is regrettable to say the least.

The banking crisis and recession only account for part of the fall in training contract numbers. The legal profession is undergoing structural changes and will continue to do so for several years yet. However, that doesn’t mean that, as a society, we need fewer lawyers. What it does mean is that we need different lawyers and far more variety and flexibility in legal training. We also need to recognise that there will be a variety of different legal roles in the future.

Those of us involved in legal education have a two-fold challenge with our current students. We have to prepare them for a world which is changing in unpredictable ways and we also have to give students good careers advice, which strikes the right balance between realism and ambition. The days of virtually automatic progression from LLB to LPC to training contract to qualification are dying, if not dead yet. We therefore have a broader duty as well – it’s time to develop better, more effective and more affordable routes to satisfying legal careers. At present, too many young people are being unnecessarily left behind with feelings of disappointment and failure.

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Has the LPC had its day?

The solicitors’ profession is just embarking on a consultation which could result in a revolution in the way that solicitors are trained and authorised. The SRA’s response to the Legal Education and Training Review – Training for Tomorrow – is only 20 pages long, but the proposals which are outlined affect each stage of training from the qualifying law degree to continuing professional development and all steps in between.

Consultation will continue throughout 2014, so the final shape of the new framework will not be known for another year or more, but a possible outcome is a system of testing competency standards at the point of qualification, without prescribing any specific pathway/s to achieving those standards.

The SRA describe their proposals as “radical” and they are not wrong. The old sequential pattern of academic-vocational-practical is on the way out, to be replaced with a blank sheet of paper, on which individuals, firms, ABSs, universities, professional law schools can write their own training plan.

I suspect many firms will fill their blank sheet of paper with the old familiar training plan and recruit law graduates with qualifications indistinguishable from those currently mandated. But I hope that the profession and education and training providers will be more imaginative and seize the opportunity to devise a variety of brand new training pathways.

For example: do we really need the Legal Practice Course? The LPC has served us well but was devised at a time when the profession was much more homogeneous that it is today. Is it appropriate to have a single course which tries to prepare trainees for today’s huge variety of legal work, practices and business structures?

The LPC also suffers from a serious structural limitation. It tries to teach students vocational skills in a simulated environment. Many of these skills could be better taught in the workplace. The SRA review opens up the possibility of breaking down the barriers between the academic, vocational and practical stages of training, bringing knowledge acquisition closer to the office and the courtroom, and practical skills closer to the classroom and lecture hall.

Such a radical approach would require a new mind set from employers, most of whom currently demand that trainees start work ready to earn fees, and from education providers, who would need to become far more flexible. But it could produce entrants to the profession who are equipped with deeper legal knowledge and a wider range of work-related skills, ready to serve the public confidently from the moment of qualification.