Law: Nice work, if you can get it: Great expectations? Diarmid Nicolson talks to three representatives of the new generation

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The mettle of the hardiest law students is being tested by developments within the legal profession and the effects of the recession. What, then, are the expectations of the new generation of lawyers?

Lorna Nicolson is a 19-year-old second-year law student at Glasgow University. Her parents influenced her choice of law. 'There's a clear job description at the end and if you say you're studying law, well, it's pretty highly rated,' she says.

And now? 'I have mixed feelings. The whole field is very competitive in Scotland. I think law has become a fashionable degree to do.' So she is keeping her options open. 'It's a real struggle getting on a professional course and the number of funded places is limited. This year I've studied tax law and if I don't follow a legal career I could go into accountancy or business as I see a parallel there. At this point I think I've made the right choice.'

Deepika Minhas is 20 and taking a year off between sixth-form college and university, working with children in Sheffield. She has had five offers of places on law degree courses.

'All my family have been educated,' she says. 'Both my parents are accountants and have influenced me considerably. It's been important to me from an early age to do a professional job and I know that's what's expected of me. I am keen to get on but becoming a solicitor is not the only reason I've chosen law. I'll find out exactly what I want to do when I'm an undergraduate. I would like to work in equal opportunities. With law I expect the choices to be wide and wouldn't feel I was being straight-lined into one kind of work.'

A good law degree can open the door to professional careers other than as solicitors. Monique (she prefers to remain anonymous) is not finding things that simple, however. She is 32, French, a single parent with a 12-year-old son and has worked hard to acquire a good law degree and pass the professional examinations. She is nearing the end of her two-year training with a firm of city solicitors, and has just been told that, because of cutbacks, there will be no job when she completes articles.

'I chose law because it's a good career and my son needs the security. When I started we were told that firms would be fighting over us when we qualified. Then the recession hit. By that time it was too late for us. You get sucked in at university, you're advised to apply for articles at the beginning of the second year, as employers look for trainees two years before they're due to start. You don't want to commit yourself to law school until you've got articles because it costs so much and you can't get a grant. Before you know it you're starting articles without being absolutely sure that's what you want to do . . . I would have liked to do Bar exams but I just couldn't afford it.'

Monique faces the problem of many newly qualified solicitors unable to find work in the profession: what to do instead. 'I do enjoy the intellectual challenge that law offers,' she says. 'I'd like to become an academic - perhaps do an MPhil and teach.'

Lorna Nicolson believes that too many people are being encouraged to study law. Raising the university entrance requirement might help, but she - and many of her classmates - feel that too much is packed into the professional subjects in the first two years, without the option to specialise.

The course is not preparing her for employment, she says, but neither is it allowing her to read, learn and analyse the subjects. Paradoxically, she thinks that the universities might be influencing a preference of practice area at too early a stage, or at least not doing anything to restrain it.

'The main thrust is on lectures rather than tutorials and one-to-one discussion,' she says. 'I think that the combined effect of the university system and harsh competition to get on professional courses may be producing people who are more aggressive than educated and competent, and less able to express themselves than their predecessors. I can already see in-fighting and game-playing on my course.'

Deepika Minhas does well at examinations, but when she was interviewed for degree courses she clearly felt that she was being judged on personality and suitability as well as grades. 'I hope by the time I have to compete for professional courses and traineeships they will be doing the same - looking at the person as well as the grades.'

There are points of agreement. The legal system, for example, is doing a reasonable job, the three women believe. If it does not always work for those it is supposed to serve, then that is a fault of the socio-political rather than the legal system itself, they say. And they all expect the work of a solicitor to be hard and detailed.

'The very nature of the job is so detailed that you would have to enjoy that aspect of it,' says Lorna Nicolson. 'From my studies so far, I think the legal system works well, though I was shocked to learn about apparent restrictions on freedom of speech and the lack of funding for the tribunal system.'

All the student lawyers expect above-average remuneration and reasonably high status, but this is not their primary motivation. 'I expect to have about the same status as a GP,' says Deepika Minhas, 'though it will depend on the area of legal work I practise.' As for the job itself, she says: 'I'm not sure what to expect. I can imagine having my own cases and working for a big firm but not for one person.'

None of the three sees gender as an obstacle. According to one, law is a good career for women, an abilitybased profession in which there is the choice of overriding personal disadvantages. 'I spent a week shadowing a procurator fiscal who was a mother of two,' points out Lorna Nicolson. 'I know you sometimes come up against difficult people, but that's a challenge, it's proving yourself.'

One of the women believes your old school makes a difference, particularly in getting a traineeship. Another raises fears about racism, though she admits she has so far encountered none. 'I don't think you can necessarily rise above it (prejudice),' says Deepika. 'I think men who call themselves politically correct could be a problem.'

'In England you have to conform, it's so traditional,' Monique says. 'People like to say it's terrible being a woman, but it's getting much better. They do want conventional people, though. Being unconventional is the biggest sin of all.'

(Photograph omitted)