There could be several benefits from using an aptitude test to exclude law students who are most likely to fail the legal practice course (LPC), according to a report for the Law Society.
However, it said linking a test to the likelihood of gaining a training contract would be “more difficult” to justify and that there are other methods of reducing the number of students looking for contracts.
As Legal Futures revealed last September, the society decided to investigate an aptitude test as one of a series of initiatives to “manage” entry to the profession because of concerns that too many students are coming through the system.
The report, which included surveying 1,000 solicitors and students, found a “substantial amount of support for introducing a test”, although more for a voluntary than compulsory one.
However, it said a voluntary test would be “unlikely to have a great impact on the standard or number of people enrolled on the course”. It would be for the Solicitors Regulation Authority, rather than the Law Society, to impose a compulsory test.
In any case, the work has since been overtaken by the creation of Review 2020, the fundamental review of education and training being undertaken by the SRA, Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards.
As a result, a Law Society spokesman welcomed the report – by Helen Baron, a psychologist specialising in selection systems – “as a contribution to the debate” and said it will be fed into the review. The report investigates the issues, rather than comes to a conclusion on the desirability of an aptitude test or any other approach.
With 10-20% of students failing the LPC, Ms Baron said a test that focused on verbal reasoning and “situational judgement”, as well as a measure of writing skills, would provide some indication of whether students were likely to pass. Were the test voluntary, it could also measure motivation and conscientiousness.
Weeding out students likely to fail the LPC would save them the costs of the course and from wasting a year. “Other students on the course might have a better learning experience if teaching staff were not required to support very weak students,” she continued.
“It is even possible that by removing the lowest-performing students, the level of the whole course would be improved. Teachers would be able to focus their teaching at a higher level knowing that the least able students are still at a high enough level to cope.”
However, Ms Baron pointed out that excluding these students would have little impact on the overall number of people passing and so not address the shortage of training contracts for the number of LPC graduates.
The aptitude test could be set at a higher level so as to exclude a larger proportion of students, and not just those most likely to fail. “However, it is more difficult to justify the requirement for a standard beyond that required for the LPC,” she said. “It would be important to be able to justify the higher standard required on grounds other than just reducing numbers on the course.”
A more direct way of achieving this would be to raise the standard required to pass the LPC, Ms Baron said, which would feed back to applicants, who might then “self-select more effectively for the course”. She added: “In time this could filter through to an improvement in the standard of practice.”
The psychologist highlighted other alternatives to testing: raising the standard degree class required for entry to the LPC from a 2:2 to a 2:1; restricting the number of resits (only around 65% of LPC candidates pass first time); and restricting the time for which passing the LPC is valid, so that the pool of graduates seeking training contracts does not just keep on increasing.
The research also identified as “a common theme” the need for better information about the real costs and difficulties of training to be a solicitor.