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How would-be solicitors are selling themselves

Law students are facing up to a crowded job market, says Rachel Halliburton
At a time when the legal job market is not only tight but characterised by more uncertainty than ever before, it pays to display. That is the conclusion of law students at Westminster University, an institution recently highly commended by the Law Society.

LPC Links with Legal London, essentially an open day to be held on 14 June, is the students' response to the difficulties facing those looking for the two-year training contracts necessary to start as a solicitor. Out of 5,500 who qualified nationwide last year on the Legal Practice Course, 1,700 had the doors of solicitors' firms closed politely in their faces.

Although this year the number of training contracts offered will increase from 3,800 to 4,200, the number of LPC graduates will also have risen. A significant percentage will still be left out in the cold.

Not the least of the University of Westminster's problems is its status as a relative newcomer in a world where tradition holds an important place. The Legal Practice Course began in 1993; many universities and former polytechnics which had not featured its predecessor, the Law Society Finals, were allowed to offer it. In a survey last year commissioned by the Law Society, and conducted by the Independent Policy Studies Institute, it was revealed that the chances of getting a professional traineeship were closely related to the prestige of the institution at which the student was studying. This, in addition to the extra graduates that the newer institutions are producing, makes an already competitive market-place almost impenetrable.

For any law student emerging from the LPC, the prospect of being unable to get a job is scant reward for the rigours of a course which can be both personally and financially draining. Across the country, fees can cause bank balances to dip by anything from pounds 4,550 to pounds 5,200. And the cost of living, whether it be a baked-bean and garret existence, or a year shackled to parents, significantly adds to debts referred to by the Law Society as "disturbing".

Weighed down by yawning bank balances on one side, the LPC student is pinned down on the other by the sheer size of the workload. The LPC is a more vocational course than its academic forerunner, and students must pass several assessments, both written and spoken, in order to qualify. These assessments, though not centrally marked in the way that Law Society Finals were, form part of a course that at every institution has been submitted to and approved by the Law Society.

With the almost weekly pressure of being examined added to the large workload, the majority of students find that there is little time for any other kind of life - though this is, as Phil Jones, Director of Legal Practice at the University of Sheffield, points out,appropriate training for what will greet them in their professional existence.

Although a wide range of firms offer training contracts, it is unfortunately only the wealthy and prominent ones that can employ more than a small fraction of the LPC output. Solicitors such as Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy still engage in the previously more commonplace practice of selecting trainee solicitors before they begin their LPC, and sponsoring them through the year. Many of these firms, when questioned about why they took on students, expressed the desirability of moulding new recruits to their own practices. And as Martin Pexton, a director at Allen & Overy, pointed out, without such recruits, how can the future of the legal profession be ensured?

This is an obvious but important point; for less affluent firms, however, to follow Allen & Overy's example is too much of a luxury. Since the Law Society set a minimum wage for those on training contracts - pounds 12,150 for London, pounds 10,850 for outside - many solicitors have found that it is cheaper and more efficient to employ "paralegals" for many of the tasks that articled clerks used to perform.

Some firms which offered training contracts until a couple of years ago said that it was not always practical to invest in new intake. Although academically sound, Law Society Finals graduates would often take time to adapt to the office environment, frequently not reaching fee-earning potential until some time into their training.

LPC Links with Legal London marks itself out by targeting these firms, as well as firms which do offer training contracts. Solicitors who take up the invitation to their open day will be greeted by demonstrations of the many ways in which the LPC prepares students to adapt to office environments more quickly than their LSF forerunners.

Their economic viability is the key message: as Paul Aber, the senior law tutor backing the project, says, "We want to show firms that LPC graduates hit the ground running."