Joshua Rozenberg asked on Radio 4′s Law in Action what America has been asking and answering for some time now (here and here): Are legal training colleges training too many lawyers? For many in the industry the answer is self-evident. Straight from the outset Joshua Rozenberg pretty much answered his question in the affirmative. He said:
“[The question] one that’s worrying the leaders of the legal profession in England and Wales and it ought to worry students at the specialised law colleges. Even though employment prospects are low, students remain optimistic.”
The Barrister Profession
The programme can be cut into two halves, firstly looking at the Bar and then looking at the state of the solicitor profession. The programme kicked of by considering the case of Emily Stanley, a former-aspiring barrister who spent three years at the University of Birmingham (English degree), one year in Nottingham for the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and a year doing the Bar Professional Training Course. On finishing the barrister training Emily was then called to the Bar. It’s important to note also that Emily achieved a mark of great distinction by securing a prestigious scholarship, if there’s a more fitting indicator of one’s suitability for the profession I’m yet to see it. However, Emily couldn’t secure a Pupillage. Not in the period immediately post-qualification, nor in the years subsequent.
Asked by Rozenberg who is to blame for this very much ubiquitious problem, Emily said: “Certainly the Bar Standards Board has some questions to answer for about how many people are qualifying and how many jobs there are. I think it’s strange on the part of the BSB and the law schools that no-one interviews you before you go onto one of these courses. You’re supposed to be standing up in court defending someone and no one even has a conversation about it with you.”
Having hung up her gown before ever taking it before a court as a professional barrister, Emily is now building a career in legal publishing.
Baroness Deech (@BaronessDeech) (blog here). Giving an overview, Baroness made an important observation that [emphases are mine], “what’s happening is that the attraction of law has increased and it’s a wonderful education at university and much to be recommended, but the number of pupillages has decreased and will decrease, in part because of government cuts in legal aid.”
Rozenburg then asked: “Has that message got through to students?” Deech responded: “We’re trying very hard. On the one had you want to encourage the right people from every background. On the other hand you have to be honest about their prospects.” Baroness Deech set out two solutions to the problem of over-subscription:
“Absolute transparency from the provider schools about the chances of graduates getting jobs in this country.”
“The other is to make sure that students understand that, for example, that in criminal law there is a tremendous shrinkage and they’ve got to look elsewhere in the legal profession. They shouldn’t forget government, legal research and various other careers.”
The Solicitor Profession
Joshua Rozenberg then pointed his analysis towards the solicitor profession. The first thing to note is that the Solicitors Regulation Authority opted out of the opportunity to appear on the programme. From that Rozenburg was unable to find out the exact proportion of law graduates who were able to secure a Training Contract.
Rozenberg again looked at the case of a former-aspiring solicitor. This time Samuel Clague who studied business, finance and economics at undergraduate level. And who then passed through the GDL and Legal Practice Course. Like Emily, Samuel needed an apprenticeship, a Training Contract as opposed to a Pupillage as you all know. Samuel then took a role as a paralegal with the hope of using the position as a foot into the door of the world of being a solicitor. He said of the situation:
“Yes you have the headline stats saying there are not many people competing, but in reality there’s a huge underbelly of people who are applying every single year who haven’t got a Trainging Contract in the past. It boils down to supply and demand.”
Asked by Rozenberg who is to blame, Samuel said: “I think an awful lot needs to be done before people sign up to courses and informing people that the market is really really tough.”
Interestingly Samuel Clague started a business (@SJPLegal) after a strong of rejections, supplying law students and graduates to businesses. Ironically he was then offered a training contract by the very firms who had previously rejected him. Reflecting on his experience and making an important observation he said:
“Law is an absolutely fantastic career but it is not for everyone and that’s one of the messages I feel most strongly about. Yes law is great but it does require a level of academic excellence. I don’t think it’s for everyone. It wasn’t for me and I had pretty good academics. I know a lot of people who have far worse academics than me but they go into law thinking that they’re going to be able to work in the city and earn big salaries.“
For me personally, Samuel is onto something: the almost primitive allure and unthinking attraction of people to law school as though it’s some kind of Alladin’s Cave of riches. Reminds me of the survey (here) in America that found that two-thirds of parents in America want their child to go to law school. Law school in the UK and US has something of the portentous.
@BBCRadio4: Our founder, Samuel Clague, is looking forward to speaking on Law in Action today at 4pm on the current junior legal market.
— SJP Legal (@SJPLegal) October 29, 2013
Professor Nigel Savage then became the focus of the programme. Savage is a leading figure in legal vocational training has been involved in running law schools for 20 years and is now President of the University of Law. Rozenberg asked him flat up: “Are you training too many lawyers?”
Nigel Savage said that “the problem we’re facing is the backlog that Sam touched on.” Joshua Rozenburg then asked a broader question: “Your college was sold to a private equity fund for £200 million. That’s good. It’s been invested in a foundation to support legal education. But if someone was prepared to pay £200 million for your organisation, there must be big money to be made from teaching law students.”
Nigel Savage replied with what frankly amounted to a little waffle and some light obfuscation. Explaining that the private sector has filled the funding gap where government and public money has been extracted. But as Rozenberg said, the run of the matter comes down to the fact that “the more students you’re teaching the more money to make for your investors.”
I have two points to make on this. One, the cut in government funding for third level education is a good thing, rebalancing and adjusting the numbers and adding an importance check against over-supply. This has now been distorted through the private sector. Two, the intervention of big private interests into legal education has been a massive driver in the America’s most salient problem with law school.
As the New York Times wrote in 2011, there has been no business like the business of law school. The dean of New York Law School Richard A. Matasar has been a dogged critic of the US model, arguing for over a decade that the interest of the student should be front and centre. Mr. Matasar said at a 2009 meeting of the Association of American Law Schools:
“What I’ve said to people in giving talks like this in the past is, we should be ashamed of ourselves. If a law school can’t help its students achieve their goals we should shut the damn place down.”
Nigel Savage gave two solutions. One was that aspiring barristers should first qualify as a solicitor where there are more opportunities in areas such as litigation, and then if still set on going to the Bar, the given person can then transfer over to the Bar. Number two was to prioritise education in the workplace. The online LPC is actually the fastest growing version of the LPC which can be done from the workplace or from home. As Savage said, “you can earn and learn at the same time.”
To conclude and summing up everything that has been said on the programme and in wider debate, it all comes down to due diligence on the part of the young person and their educators. For too long law school has been the portentous star of society. The road to riches. As Samuel Clague said, many of his friends decision to study at law school was based on the desire to earn big bucks in the City. We all know this is a Elyisan myth. However it must be articulated and taught to young people.
My conclusion. Young people need less of the portentous and more of the practical. We need to learn from John Armitt who wrote an exemplary article in The Spectator (here) calling for a coming together of education and industry – therefore radically altering the plane of regard and perceptions of young people of both what the reality of the workplace and job market is.
Lastly, we need our law schools to do as Richard A. Matasar of New York Law School said and ensure that law schools are driven by the motive of helping their students achieve their goals. We cannot have the wreckless and often destructive situation where 4 in 5 students training to be a barrister will never actually become a barrister.
Legal Cheek has it here.