Okay, that’s a provocative title. I should say straight off that I am not suggesting that those who actually get into the Bar are thick. Indeed, what I am interested in is what ‘commitment’ to become a lawyer says about the aptitudes of that student. Let me explain. The inflammatory quote is how one of my colleagues described typical personal tutee meetings with students about their career intentions. I should point out, lest anyone take offence, that it was said as a joke when I told her that the recent Sutton Trust Report on performance at University had found that:
“those students who had been uncertain or had no career in mind at the start of their course had actually performed significantly better than those who had been absolutely or fairly certain about a job or career.”
It was a joke, but a joke with a grain of truth in it. The Sutton trust finding strikes a chord because what we often find as personal tutors to undergraduate law students is that confidence that the student wants to be a barrister, or a commercial solicitor, the destinations of choice for a majority of our graduates, is not uncommonly inversely related to their ability. Certainty is sometimes, not always of course, a signal of mediocrity.
The Sutton Trust study applies to all students. I am naturally interested in what this says about what we expect of law students. Firms, in particular, look for undergraduate students to demonstrate ‘commitment’ to the profession, to do so as early and with as much conviction as possible. The Sutton Trust Report suggests that look for commitment prematurely and firms risk getting somewhat poorer quality candidates. Commitment has other problems. It is easier for those with good connections and with the financial support to enable them to take summer vacation placements rather than work to pay off their debts. We expect the better law students to execute career plans from their second year at the latest and yet:
“those seeking the academic challenge of HE without clear career plans were the highest attaining group of students and therefore more likely to do well.”
Of course, it is possible that by the age of 19 a student is suitably mature and knowledgeable to know they are committed to a future in banking law. Or the best students may come to simulate commitment and that in the light of that we need not worry about the effect of ‘requiring’ commitment on quality. If you are good, but don’t have commitment, you can simulate it. But if that is the case, firms have to ask themselves whether they want to recruit trainees who can best simulate commitment? That’s not a question to which I can think of a straightforward answer beyond maybe uncertainty is the smart response.