An unachievable dream?
As the current financial squeeze continues to tighten, petrol prices soar, government spending cuts bite and law firms tighten their economic belt just one more notch, one is prompted to ask whether those students entering the legal educational sausage machine are being sold an unachievable dream.
An article in last week’s Gazette entitled “Profession’s growth ‘defies gravity'” revealed that the number of practising solicitors in England and Wales has risen sharply to more than 120,000, representing an increase of 7% over figures for the end of 2009. This is a faster rate of growth than in the previous three years where the rates were between 2% and 3%. Where, you may well ask, are they all going to go?
At a time when many of the legal pundits are predicting that much of the work of law firms is likely in the future to be undertaken by unqualified or non-solicitor staff, and at a time when the predictions are that many high street practices – especially those dependent upon conveyancing work – will struggle to stay in business, why, oh why, are we training ever larger numbers of lawyers?
It is heartbreaking when you get phone calls, as we do on occasions at the Lawyers Defence Group, from young people who have spent three years at university obtaining a law degree, have passed their LPC, have incurred not insubstantial student loans along the way and yet are unable to find a training contract anywhere or are at best being offered unpaid work as a paralegal which they cannot afford to take.
Perhaps part of the blame can be laid at the doors of the law schools one of whom, an article in October’s Gazette revealed, stated that it was opening new branches so that more law students could be accommodated. However, some of the blame must also be passed further down the line – to the universities who take on the law undergraduates; to the schools who encourage pupils to study law; and to the parents who still think that a career in the law is a passport to wealth and job security.
Not that it is a problem which is unique to England & Wales. An article in the New York Times on January 8th entitled “Is Law School a Losing Game?” showed that many US law students were finding themselves substantially in debt to the Law Schools – many of whom charge over $40,000 per year – with little or no chance of finding a job at the kind of level that would enable them to pay back the large loans they were incurring – let alone make up for the loss of income they had incurred in doing so.
If we continue to allow the legal profession to grow at a rate which is greater than its ability to absorb new entrants, then we will be faced with a number of problems including unemployed and impoverished law students and a driving down of salaries (other than in larger city firms where competition to get the best candidates will always ensure a healthy pay-packet). Either there has to be an artificial limit placed upon the number of candidates being trained as lawyers or there has to be a growth in the understanding of everyone entering legal education that they may not necessarily become a lawyer at the end of it. Whilst no one wants to return to the position of the past where only those whose parents could afford to pay for them, or who came from public schools or who earned their degrees at the top universities were able to enter the law, at least it did provide a form of filter.
It is all very well having a policy which states that everyone who wants to qualify should be able to do so and that barriers to qualification should be broken down. However, unless other safeguards are put in place, that is only an option if there is an infinite number of opportunities for those who qualify.
The educational system, and the media, is peddling an imaginary reality where lawyers earn big bucks and can lead the lives that most people can only dream of. The truth is far from that.
It is essential that we allow the supply to match the demand and that the dream is made more like the reality.
If the future of the law is more unqualified staff and fewer highly-trained solicitors and barristers, then that surely is where we should be targeting our efforts.
The problem is not one which is going easily to be resolved. The Bar, the SRA and ILEX Professional Services are undertaking a major review of education and training. The SRA have introduced new requirements for its qualified transfer regulations. The Law Society?s education and training committee is looking at whether students should go through an aptitude test before being permitted to enrol on the LPC course – thus filtering out less able students before they spend money on their training.
However, and it is an important “however”, something has to be done and done soon before more young people are faced with bills they cannot repay, incurred in trying to enter a profession they are either unsuited for or which simply has no need for them.