Ok – here’s the issue.
Lots of people want to become lawyers. In fact this year the University admissions service UCAS says 103,613 have applied to study law at university.1 (Next time you visit Wembley take a look around you – that’s a LOT of would-be lawyers.)
Now, not all of those go on to become actual practising lawyers. Many will drop out of law and do something entirely different – journalism, teaching, working in the civil service, even – whisper it carefully – banking. That’s because a Law degree is seen in general as “a good thing”. People respect you if you have studied law (and incidentally, expect you to be able to answer ALL of their legal questions). And because of that, a Law degree can be a ticket to a well-paid job in any number of professional environments.
That said, in spite of the best efforts of some universities to put them off the subject for good, there are still an awful lot of people who are determined to become either a solicitor or a barrister and actually practice the law. For example, in 2011 around 6000 people applied to do the full-time Legal Practice Course (the last bit of study before you can become a trainee solicitor) and around 1650 applied to do the Bar Professional Training Course (the same thing but for barristers.)
But for some, the legal profession’s popularity as a career is a problem. Put simply, they worry that there are too many students on the LPC and BPTC courses, and that too many of them are not good enough.
Here’s what a working party of the Bar Standards Board had to say on the matter:
“The student body includes graduates who are so far lacking in the qualities needed for successful practice at the Bar.... that they would never obtain pupillage, however many pupillages were available.” 2
Pretty damning stuff but the Law Society says pretty much the same thing:
“The Law Society is concerned that some students of low ability are entering on the LPC….with little chance of success… .in terms of passing…or securing a training contract.”3
The funny thing is that the concern is not so much about the standard of people coming into the profession – there don’t seem to be any big concerns about the quality of trainee solicitors or pupil barristers. Rather it is a worry that some students might be wasting their money by even trying to become a trainee.
You could of course argue that these are two different issues. Being worried that there are too many applicants for traineeships is different to being worried that the applicants aren’t good enough – but let’s leave that to one side for the moment, and assume, for the sake of argument, that there is ‘A Problem’.
So if there is ‘A Problem’, what might be the solution?
Well before we get to that, let’s just remind ourselves what you have to do to become a lawyer and, more importantly, how much it might cost you.
Becoming a Lawyer
There are quite a few routes into the legal profession these days but most students take the traditional route of doing a degree at university first.
You don’t have to do a law degree but it’s cheaper if you do. That’s because if you don’t have a law degree you must do a conversion course called the Graduate Diploma in Law. It’s a one year full-time course and is going to cost you in the region of £7,000 – £9,500 on top of your under-graduate university fees. If you want to be a solicitor you then have to do the LPC which is another £10,000 – £13,500 or, if it’s wigs and gowns that tickle your fancy, then you do the BPTC (cost £12,000 – £16,500).
So, if you assume university is going to cost you £27,000 (3 year degree, £9000 per year), then you could be looking at something around the £40,000 mark to become a solicitor (£45,000 if you have a non-law degree) and around £40,000 or £48,000 to become a barrister.
(There are of course cheaper degrees out there like the College’s own 2-year law degree costing just £18,000,,,, but let’s just keep things simple for now.)
Of course, the notion that if you pursue this route and don’t get a training contract or pupillage, you end up with nothing is nonsense. You still have your first degree, and whatever people might say, getting an LPC or BPTC is no mean achievement, and if it doesn’t get you that dreamt-of trainee position, it could still secure you a paralegal job. (Many firms won’t employ you as a paralegal without having done an LPC first.)
But there’s no doubt, there is a risk – and with the Bar it’s a big risk – that you won’t ever succeed in your ambition to become a practicing barrister or solicitor.
So, is there a solution to this problem?
Well, some might say “Let the market decide”. Law students are clever people, they do the research, they know the odds, they understand the risks. If they want to waste their money pursuing an unattainable ambition, who are we to stand in their way?
In fact for some students a good performance on the LPC or BPTC can help to counteract a poor degree result. Why should someone who might have performed badly over a couple of weeks one summer, be denied the chance to prove that they can, after all, be a good lawyer?
Others might say, we are looking at the problem from the wrong end. The issue is not that there are too many weak students doing the courses. The problem is that students can complete their professional training but can’t work unless they complete a training contract or a pupillage. Why not do away with the need for these and instead, let them undertake work to a certain level as soon as they finish the course, after which they have to get further qualifications?
But there is one solution which has been gaining ground as THE solution – and it is one which is being taken very seriously by the Bar. The solution is to stop some students taking the course in the first place.
The Bar’s proposal is to introduce an aptitude test which all applicants for the BPTC would take – at their own cost – to see if they would be likely to succeed on the BPTC. In other words no matter what your degree result is if you can’t pass the entry test, you ain’t coming in.
(At the moment the idea is that you should be able to take the test again if you don’t at first succeed – but there are strong voices within the profession which argue that it must be an Olympic style “one false start and you’re disqualified” approach.)
The idea of an aptitude test is not without its critics though.
Some argue that such tests are biased against black and Asian students (although to be fair, a review of a pilot carried out by the Bar Standards Board found no evidence of this.4) Others think it will reinforce socio-economic disadvantage. (If you can afford it you can train to do these tests - just Google psychometric training to get an idea of the number of organisations that claim to be able to coach you to pass these kind of tests); and there will be a cost associated with doing the test itself estimated to be between £100 and £200.
Perhaps the strongest objection was summed up in a submission from Manchester Metropolitan University in its response to a consultation carried out by the BSB on testing;
“..we consider the proposal to require students to take an aptitude test as an unnecessary measure to adopt. Students already sit such a test – it is called a Degree! ” 5
So which side do you fall on in this debate?
Do you think you need protecting from yourself? Should you be barred from embarking on studying to be a barrister or a solicitor, if you can’t pass an aptitude test?
Or do you think that your degree result should be enough to allow you to have a crack at pursuing your dream career?
The Bar Standards Board is conducting a public consultation on the idea of an aptitude test which you can access on it's website.
The consultation runs until 29 February, so if you feel strongly about this issue, let them know what you think.
In the meantime if you want to see if you’ve got what it takes why not have a go at some sample questions? The BSB has put up a few on its website
Why not give it a go? You never know what you might find out about yourself…
Finally, just a reminder that the College will be hosting a discussion around this topic at 6.45pm on February 21st. Hosted by Cherie Booth QC, we will broadcasting the event on our Facebook Livestream page so please do join us there.
1The Lawyer, 30 Jan 2012
2Quoted in Bar Standards Board Aptitude Consultation , p4
3“Evaluation of Use of Aptitude Tests for entry to the Legal Practice Course”, Report for the Law Society by Helen Baron, Feb 2011 – p5
4BSB Aptitude Test Consultation, Appendices 2-5
5BSB Aptitude Test Consultation, Appendix 1, p37