Education: Barred by law of the jungle

It's a very popular career choice, but law is a fiercely competitive job market.
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The Independent Online
THE NUMBER of law graduates has been climbing steadily since the mid-Eighties and there is no sign that the popularity of the subject is slackening. In 1986, fewer than 5,000 law students graduated each year, two thirds of them from the older universities. By 1996 the figure had crept up to more than 9,000, and the new universities, formerly polytechnics, had steadily increased their share of the total. And this leaves out of account graduates on combined or joint honours courses which include enough law to be recognised as a qualification by the Law Society.

These include a range of courses which combine law with another subject, and are in many cases well suited to those with a strong interest in law, but who do not necessarily wish to practice. Law with a modern language, law with business or management studies, and law with accountancy are typical of the courses offered by many universities, old and new.

The crucial factor for those who are at least considering a career as a solicitor or barrister is that, to gain Law Society recognition, the course must include the seven Foundations of Legal Knowledge - contract, tort, criminal law, equity and trusts, EU law, property law and public law.

According to the admissions agency UCAS, law courses remain among the most fiercely contested by university and college applicants. But, at the same time, because the universities have increased the number of law courses, the chances of actually getting a place have improved significantly recently. In 1995, 7,853 UK students were accepted to study law. By 1997 the number had increased to 10,471.

So what exactly happens to all these young people flooding into the employment market? No one knows how many of them actually hope to practice as lawyers when they sign on for a law degree. But the fact is that, by the time they graduate, a significant proportion do not continue along the main route into the professions of solicitor and barrister: the Law Society's Legal Practice Course, which is also open to graduates in other disciplines who have successfully completed a conversion course.

Of the 6,000 plus law graduates whose first destinations were traced in 1997 by the Higher Education Statistical Agency, just over half proceeded into professional training. More than 1,800 went straight into other jobs where employers are welcoming recruits with a legal background.

Whether these graduates are content with their career choice is impossible to tell, although the Association of Graduate Recruiters says that most find a niche in administration and public service, where their legal knowledge is regarded as a distinct asset. Local authority and health service legal departments, as well as commercial companies, welcome law graduates who have not qualified as solicitors or barristers, for their knowledge and logical thinking skills.

What must be much harder for new graduates is to gain the necessary professional qualifications to practice and then fall at the next hurdle - finding a job in the legal professions. Over the last three or four years, thousands of young qualified lawyers have found difficulty in gaining jobs in the legal professions.

This, according the the Trainee Solicitors' Group, which represents some 25,000 young solicitors in training, is where disillusion can set in. Becoming a solicitor or a barrister demands academic success, financial investment in post-graduate training, and stamina. And all that may not be enough to guarantee a career.

At the most visible end of the legal spectrum, applications for training for the Bar have more than doubled during the Nineties. But while applications have gone up from 1,100 in 1989 to more than 2,600 in 1997, the number of students accepted has risen much more slowly. Even when the Bar Vocational Course became available last year at a number of universities, as well as at the previous monopoly provider, the Inns of Court School of Law, the total number of acceptances only went up to just over 1,400. And even if you get on a course, the chances of ultimately achieving a tenancy in a barristers' chambers, after possibly two six-month stints as a pupil, are not good.

The number accepted for tenancies has remained below 600 for five of the last six years for which figures are available from the Bar Council.

Achieving a career as a solicitor is slightly less daunting, but still has its difficulties. There are two graduate routes to qualification. The most direct is to gain a degree in law, move onto the one year Legal Practice Course, and then to a two-year training contract and professional skills course with an employer. A graduate in a subject other than law follows the same route, but must put in an additional year immediately after graduation to take the Common Professional Examination, or Post- graduate Diploma in Law. Success leads to admission to the roll of solicitors. But if you have jumped all the hurdles, the future is not necessarily rosy, according to the Trainee Solicitors' Group. They have spent the last five years defending the notion of a minimum salary for trainees: this stands, and has stood for the last five years, at pounds 10,850 outside London and pounds 12,150 in London, well below the average for new graduates in their first job.

Nor are the ultimate rewards as great as the public often thinks. A Law Society survey two years ago revealed an average salary for a solicitor of pounds 24,000, dropping to pounds 20,000 if the solicitor undertook a significant amount of legal aid work. It is only salaried partners with significant years of experience, or heads of legal departments, whose earnings reach pounds 50,000.

And then there are those who, after undertaking a degree and a post-graduate programme, fail to get jobs. As Nick Armstrong, a former chair of the TSG says: "The 800 who did not get jobs last year at the end of the Legal Practice Course are in trouble. They are highly motivated but they are competing for jobs with the 1,000 who did not get jobs the year before and the 2,000 who failed the year before that. They have gambled and lost."