At last, the harsh message gets through

Students are finally accepting that law may not even offer a job, let alone big money. But though the numbers are down, the applicants keep coming. By Robert Verkaik

The message that a career in the law no longer guarantees kudos and big money is getting through. Latest figures from the Law Society show a significant drop in the numbers of students applying for solicitors' training on the Legal Practice Course. By early April, only 7,809 students had made applications for courses starting this year, compared with 9,133 at the same time last year. The Law Society, not without some relief, believes it has now turned the tide in creating a fairer balance of competition for places.

Nevertheless, the news will be cold comfort to those students who have amassed large debts, some as much as pounds 15,000, and still without a training contract (formerly solicitor's articles). Mark Dillon, chairman of the 27,000-strong Trainee Solicitors Group, believes the mismatch between the number of students being churned out of the teaching institutions and the far lower number of training places available has caused "incredible grief". "Every trainee knows someone who didn't get a job and who has had to settle for something else," he said.

Yet he also believes the profession only has itself to blame for allowing the management of legal education to reach crisis point.

"People claim they were encouraged in the late Eighties and early Nineties by the general publicity attached to the legal profession to embark upon legal careers," Mr Dillon said. "They did so, only to find by the time they left law college, the chance of them gaining a training contract had diminished considerably."

Artificial solutions to the numbers crisis have already run into legal trouble. The proposal by Martin Mears, the Law Society's president, to put a cap on the number of law students entering the profession was considered unlawful by Richard Drabble QC, who had been instructed to advise the Law Society.

Limiting numbers by admitting only those students with first-class degrees or restricting entry by assessing the ideal needs of the profession would, he suggested, also contravene the Solicitors Act and the Courts and Legal Services Act.

The latest solution, put forward by Mr Mears, is to raise the standard of entry requirement to the Legal Practice Course. This is the route the Bar has taken, leading to a substantial fall in the numbers of trainee barristers leaving the Inns of Court School of Law.

Nick Saunders, head of education at the Law Society, is much encouraged by the latest drop in student applications and accepts that there was a real danger of the situation worsening. But he also points out that, for the good of the profession, there should always be a surplus of law students to training contract places. "It is a pretty competitive environment," he says. "The Law Society has to make it clear there is no guarantee of a job. Yes, it is a harsh message."

But at the turn of the decade, the profession was still fuelling an oversupply of students. The Law Society made provision for other institutions to offer the Law Society's Finals and then the new Legal Practice Course, which replaced the LSF in 1993.

"In the late Eighties, there was talk of an ever-increasing and limitless need for young professionals to fuel the financial boom," says Mr Dillon.

Today, there are 28 different institutions offering Law Society-validated courses throughout the country. Some of these are institutions which run franchised courses from the bigger law colleges.

Many of the new courses are innovative and skilfully taught. But they're also relatively expensive when compared with the old LSF. The one-year LPC course can cost students more than pounds 5,000. The average fees for the LSF were around pounds 3,000. Although some students do feel they have been hoodwinked onto expensive courses without being warned of the risk of not finding a place, Mr Dillon is reluctant to blame the institutions. He says: "The institutions have a responsibility to maximise income. They have no interest in drawing attention to the numbers difficulties. It is the profession which has a duty to make the realities clear to students in both schools and at the universities."

Mr Saunders predicts that the number of students applying to join these courses will continue to fall. "We are not encouraging institutions to apply to us to run full-time courses," he says. "But equally, we can't just tell an institution to go away. The Law Society must judge each application on its merits. However, given the market, an institution would be very foolish to try to get an application off the ground."

Mr Dillon believes some of the law courses, many offering places for mature or hardship students, will simply not make it through the next year. "And that is cause for sadness," he says.

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