Notes on a scandal

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9 September 2010

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Law students: will an aptitude test help them and firms?

Law students have been here before. When I first started working on the Law Society Gazette in 1996 I was given, as the most junior member of the team (and only nine months before then a trainee solicitor), the training brief. This took me to Trainee Solicitors Group conferences, where I would meet legal practice course (LPC) graduates who had unsuccessfully applied for literally hundreds of training contracts.

There may, of course, have been good reasons why those particular candidates did not appeal to law firms, but that hadn’t stopped them flushing thousands of pounds down the toilet in course fees and living expenses. With the numbers of LPC places and training contracts becoming increasingly out of kilter, the Law Society tried to freeze the number of LPC places, but had to back down in the face of threats by providers of legal action under competition law.

During the boom years of the Naughties the issue went away, but it is now back with a vengeance. The most recent Law Society statistics show there were an ever-growing 14,482 full and part-time places on the LPC. Not all the places were filled, however, and in total 9,337 students were enrolled, of whom around 80% either pass or are referred. While the number of places on the LPC has exploded over the last decade, increasing by nearly 70%, there has been only a 20% rise (to 5,809) in the number of training contracts for them to go on, a figure that is falling in the recession.

To my mind, this is something of a scandal, and to judge by the responses to a Guardian piece I did on this in July (see here), plenty of people agree.

Belated it may be, but the Law Society is to be congratulated for finally taking action, as we report today (see story). The idea of an aptitude test is already being embraced by the Bar Standards Board (BSB), and clearly has to be calibrated very carefully if it is not to prove a barrier to entry. Certainly the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) was strongly opposed when it examined the BSB’s proposals last year, considering it overly restrictive and anti-competitive.

However, the OFT appreciated the validity of the goals of stopping students from incurring large expense in return for little reward, and allowing inns and chambers to maximise the value of the time they invest in training. It said instead that any aptitude test should be voluntary and not be a barrier to doing the bar professional training course (as the bar vocational course is now known). But it could still be used to help students assess whether they have the necessary attributes, and allow course providers, chambers and other employers to decide if, and how, they wished to use this test in their application process.

The Law Society is looking at other tools, including incentives for firms to take on trainees (in this context the demise of the Legal Services Commission’s training contract grants scheme is even sadder). And there are bigger questions here about the whole structure of legal training and ‘exit’ points – should there be more formal recognition of the training students have completed short of qualifying as a solicitor? In fact, the College of Law will shortly renew its campaign for completion of the LPC to be the point of qualification, with further training required if students then want to go on and practice certain reserved activities, such as advocacy.

To judge by the reaction today on Twitter to my story, and to the Guardian piece, this is an issue that touches a nerve but has not been sufficiently addressed to date. The problem is that while we need a debate, we also need action, and quickly.

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