Laying down the new law: Why there's more flexibility to entering the legal profession than ever before

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The Independent Online

Nobody should need reminding that law is a highly competitive profession and that demand for training contracts or pupillage – the on-the-job training solicitors and barristers undergo – far exceeds supply.

Yet while leading employers ranging from elite "magic circle" firms to the Crown Prosecution Service are busy deferring or even cancelling recruitment plans, there are still jobs available to those who put methodical career planning at the top of the agenda.

While applications to study law at undergraduate level continue to rise despite the credit crunch, numbers on the City Law School's legal practice course (LPC) are down on previous years, says Amanda Fancourt, LPC course director, whose student cohort is a cosy 75. "It has always been the case that some law graduates decide not to enter the profession and move on to something different after university, but, in our experience, the vast majority who get to the LPC stage are the highly committed ones who do intend to practise," she says.

While only 10 per cent of City's LPC students have a training contract in the bag, she predicts many more will reach this stage as the academic year continues. Those who don't, she says, are best advised to take a year off and secure paralegal work in readiness for applying next summer.

"Although I have no wish to worry the many graduates who haven't got a contract already, it's worth pointing out that 'magic circle' and leading provincial law firms are working two or three years in advance and are already recruiting final-year undergraduates with a view to starting them in 2012.

"Undergraduates with an interest in law need to be thinking about their career options right at the start of their university courses, particularly now that competition is so much fiercer."

Certain areas of law are in buoyant mood – particularly those dealing with insolvency – while debt-related marriage breakdowns have fuelled a boom in family law.

"Corporate law has been very quiet, but is now picking up, and probate will always be with us, however the economy fares," adds Fancourt.

While the LPC has been in existence since 1993, the qualification is going through its third incarnation. Keen to open up access to the profession to career-changers and those with families, the new LPC – which is being rolled out to law schools this year and next – teaches the same compulsory core subjects, but allows for more flexibility and choice when it comes to additional modules.

"The chief difference between the new LPC and the old is that it encourages students to choose Part 2 electives that fit in with their specific career plans once they have covered the compulsory modules in Part 1," says Fancourt. "By giving would-be solicitors up to five years to complete both stages of the course, either going back to their original school or signing on with another, the profession is making it easier for people with work and family commitments to complete their training."

But she adds: "Whether this does in fact open up the profession to a more diverse range of people remains to be seen, however."

With diversity very much on the legal profession agenda, how representative of contemporary society is this year's City cohort?

Says Fancourt: "We have a good balance of men and women, and our intake covers a whole range of ethnic backgrounds including Asia, the Middle East and the Afro-Caribbean countries. We have graduates from state schools and former polytechnics, and we have Oxbridge graduates who have been at private schools all their lives.

"But for me," she says, "those who will do best have energy, great interpersonal skills and a highly practical approach to understanding their clients' problems, however gifted they are academically and regardless of their socioeconomic background."

If the LPC has changed to help meet the needs of today's solicitors, the bar vocational course – the vocational training for would-be barristers – is also in the process of adaptation.

But there are important question marks over whether the newly branded bar professional training course or BPTC – being ushered in by all providers next September – will make it easier, or harder, for non-traditional, and particularly state school-educated, graduates to make the grade. The revised BPTC will include formally taught professional ethics, give a greater weight to written and oral advocacy, and will include a new section on resolution of disputes out of court.

Cordelia Lean, education officer at the Bar Standards Board, which regulates the profession, says: "The new BPTC won't be vastly different to the old BVC, but has a higher pass mark and is likely to be even more competitive.

"Our key aim is to raise standards, but the new branding is also a reflection of the fact that 'professional' sounds better than 'vocational'."

If linguistic semantics are part and parcel of being a barrister, then more significant, says Stuart Sime, City Law School's BVC course leader, is the introduction of a compulsory aptitude test for all would-be BPTC applicants. "I fully understand why the new course is seen as a chance to raise professional standards, but when it comes to the aptitude test, I have misgivings," says Sime.

"Far from opening the profession up to a more diverse pool of talent, I fear that this will simply favour those coming from the sort of privileged, private-school backgrounds where teaching students how to pass such tests is all part of the elite approach."

"At a time when we should be reflecting modern Britain better than we have in the past, I fear that this additional hurdle will make the whole approach to barrister training more rigid instead of less."

'City's reputation has really boosted my employability'

Beth Forrester graduated from City University's City Law School last year, after completing her PGDL postgraduate diploma in Law. She begins her training contract in March.

"The fact that City was the first law school in London to educate students and practitioners at all stages of legal education appealed to me. The location is also key; within close distance of legal London, but maintaining a sense of campus and community.

I loved the interesting, mentally stimulating and supportive way in which the course was taught. There was a mix of independent reading, large lectures and small tutorial groups where ideas and problems could be worked through and explained, and this made me question and analyse, rather than simply learn the law.

City has given me a sound understanding of the law as well as a vastly improved work ethic and self-belief, and its reputation has really boosted my employability in the profession.

Since leaving the university, I have managed to secure a training contract and, until it begins in March, I am working as an assistant in a law firm in Gray's Inn, within the residential property department of a niche firm.

This involves assisting the partner with his caseload and all aspects of the conveyancing procedure.

I am confident that, with the skills and knowledge that I gained during my time at City, I will secure my dream job at a small but well respected firm, working in litigation and able to enjoy a high level of responsibility and client contact."

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