Entry into the Professions: be careful what you wish for

There is a significant debate about the numbers of law students seeking entry into the professions (See especially CharonQCs blog). The Chairman of the Bar has suggested the issue is a ‘moral one’ pointing out that about 1,800 students take the Bar Exams each year, and the successful ones compete for a shrinking number of pupillages (about 460 a year now). Legal aid cuts may shrink this further. The impact of the Legal Services Act could, if the Bar does not adapt (and it is making more bullish noises about its ability to compete post-ABSs), lead to a further reduction in pupillages. In relation to the solicitors’ profession the situation is better, on my calculations 78% of those who pass the legal practice course first time get training contracts, but that still leaves a large number of LPC students without training contracts who then take up paralegal work or going and do something else, with substantial debts.

It is worth saying that we have been here before. In the 1990s there was a significant controversy over the mismatch between LPC places and training contracts. That mismatch was prompted by a growth in LPC places and a recession which reduced the number of training contracts. Then, the Law Society resisted the urge to restrict entry onto the LPC places (though they also did not increase LPC validations for a while) and let the market decide. As I recall it (and I am trying to hunt down the stats) the number of LPC applicants dropped, the number of training contracts increased and some kind of equilibrium was reached. If they had reacted by capping LPC places firms might have found themselves competing for a limited pool of trainees (rather than a surplus). That would have been good for the students that got in, but of course denied the opportunity of a career to those excluded at the LPC stage.

I suspect we will see a similar market correction this time (and the interest generated by Nick Green QC et al, will help that correction). It is worth noting that there is serious over-capacity in the LPC market. According to figures published by Neil Rose, only 64% of LPC places are filled. By my calculation about two thirds of those places are offered by two providers: the College of Law and BPP and it is these institutions that have sought to increase their market share further by increasing the numbers of places validated. It is difficult to blame them for this: they are commercial operators in a competitive market. It is also difficult to see how the situation can carry on as it is. University providers will be looking long and hard at the viability of their courses. Many will have taken a substantial hit because of new competition from BPP and the College and the recession will impact on applications. The Browne review will make them take a much more commercial approach to their activities. The number of institutions providing the LPC and BPTC will shrink. This will be painful for those institutions but it will also mean the mismatch between LPC/BPTC places will shrink (although the gap between BPTC places and pupillage will probably remain gargantuan).

All of this means that there are significant risks to the profession’s interest in seeking to impose further barriers to entry through, for example, aptitude tests. Overdo it and they will make trainees more expensive for their members, they will risk the ire of the competition authorities, their prices will go up and they will deny entry to the profession for those who could have been fine lawyers. They will also find those more sceptical of the profession’s positions asking themselves this question: you want to impose and aptitude test on would-be entrants but you do not pose a competence test on qualification. Evan Davis started to make this point to Nick Green when he interviewed him on the Today programme and backed off. John Flood has hinted at it too in saying (on Charon QCs blog) that people will question whether the training contract or pupillage really is an appropriate gateway to qualification. The College of Law can be expected to raise their favourite proposal: qualification on passing the LPC. If there is a serious debate coming about legal education from cradle to grave, then the professions can expect some hard questions about whether training contracts and pupillages guarantee competence or simply restrict competition.

There are good ways of ensuring that the problem is not as serious as it currently is. Improved information for students; more part-time LPCs and a better integration of vocational and on the job training would all help. In hoping caps on the number of LPC students will solve the problem, the professions need to be careful what they wish for.

4 thoughts on “Entry into the Professions: be careful what you wish for

  1. Some good points. Two things:
    – It’s not right to say that the Law Society resisted the urge to cap LPC places in the 90s. They froze the number but then had to back down in the face of threats of competition law actions from providers.
    – The issue of competence testing during a lawyer’s professional life is going to grow. The consumer panel will kick it off this week with its conclusions on how the public judges (or not, as the case almost certainly is) quality among legal services providers.

  2. Thanks Neil. You are right about competence testing. I am not so sure about the first point. My recollection is that the Law Society were under some pressure to reduce the number of LPC places but froze and then unfroze. Competition law pressure was applied but the numbers on training contracts were also scrutinised with the view being taken (I think) that there was no longer a shortage of training contracts relative to LPC graduates. I might be wrong – its all a bit far back in the mists of time.

  3. I was the Director of Professional Standards at the Law Society in the mid 1990s, and I can confirm that we did resist pressure to reduce LPC numbers. One factor in this was that, for firms to have a choice of candidates for training contract places, there had to be some surplus of LPC graduates over TC places. If there was an exact match, those who were early with their recruitment (mostly the larger firms) would have a choice of candidates, those who recruited later would have no choice. Appointing on the basis of there being only one candidate per vacancy would not be regarded as an acceptable recruitment process for any other position in a firm.

    To address the concerns, we initiated the longitudinal cohort study of law graduates, which ran for several years, to enable us to understand what happened to the “surplus” LPC graduates. Broadly, most of those who did not go in to training contracts ended up in some form of legal employment, sometimes in a firm of solicitors, sometimes in related fields in which legal knowledge and skills were of use. From a trainer’s point of view, that is a positive outcome. The individual has a job, using the knowledge and skills acquired on the course, and their chance of securing the job was enhanced as a result of having completed the course. In other words, the LPC gave individuals an advantage in the wider labour market for legal skills, when compared with those holding a law degree only. The job secured might not be the first choice of the individual, but they were in a better position than they would have been had they not taken the LPC.

    A parallel is the postgraduate professional training year taken by many musicians. The best employment outcome is a salaried position with an orchestra. However, there are very few such positions. The next best is sufficiently regular freelance playing to provide a reasonable income. Both those outcomes would be regarded as success, not least by those who aspired to an orchestral career, but ended up in school teaching. The moral is that the success of a training programme should not be measured by reference to the first choice employment destination only, if other employment destinations, which use the knowledge and skills obtained, are also available. A bit of expectation management would not come amiss!

    John Randall

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