Is this test élitist and exclusionary, or a vital step to prevent less-able applicants from getting themselves into huge debt?
The legal profession was once thought to be recession-proof, but with more than 4,000 redundancies among the top 200 law firms between August 2007 and April 2010, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that’s no longer the case. At the same time as the number of jobs in the legal sphere decreases, applications for the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) just keep coming. In 2008/09, a total of 7,759 students successfully completed the LPC, with only 5,809 training contracts available. For those on the BPTC (and its predecessor, the BVC), the stats are even more daunting. In the 2007/08 academic year, 1,720 BVC students proceeded to fight over the 463 pupillages available. Early indications suggest that the number of pupillages the following year were lower still. So who’s responsible for this massive mismatch?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) are the respective governing bodies of solicitors and barristers in England and Wales. But as far as entry to the profession is concerned, the two have quite different approaches. According to the SRA, which does not have a policy of limit the number of LPC places, it’s all about ‘widening access to the profession’. The BSB, however, is planning to pilot an aptitude test for BPTC applicants that could result in restrictions on the number of people taking the course.
SRA v BSB
Though the number of training contracts available has decreased, the number of LPC places being sold continues to go up. Currently there are 30 LPC providers with around 10,000 places on offer between them. Our research indicates that as long students have a 2:2 and a cheque for (on average) £10,000, a place on the course is theirs for the taking. While there is a warning on the SRA’s website that completion of the course does not guarantee employment, evidently the message is not preventing candidates with no real likelihood of securing a training contract from signing up to the course.
The SRA advises us that it does not have the power to limit the number of places the providers can offer – saying simply if the law schools can maintain their quality, they can have the quantity. Certainly any plans to limit access to the profession would entirely contradict the SRA’s commitment to open up the legal doors to people of any background. Providers, meanwhile, are reluctant to reduce the number of students they sign up. While the more cynical might say that this has more to do with maintaining the health of their finances than an unwillingness to limit access to the profession, their motivations are perhaps irrelevant to students. More important is the simple question: ‘Am I going to be able to use my qualification for its intended purpose?’ The good news is that some people who don’t secure training contracts are quite possibly going to be able to claw their way to qualification as a solicitor through a proposed scheme that will allow law grads to build up a portfolio of work experiences. Ask yourself: ‘How much do I know about these proposals and is this a route I would be happy taking? The bottom line is that because LPC providers are taking no responsibility for the oversupply of course grads, it is up to each student to gauge their chances of future success in the qualification game.
Over at the Bar, it’s a different story. It seems that the BSB and the BPTC providers are wising up to the rather depressing employment prospects for would-be barristers. The BSB is piloting an aptitude test for students wishing to start the 2011/12 BPTC. Though students will not actually have to pass the test in this pilot, the results will be compared against their final results to establish whether such a test would be a useful way to cut the wheat from the chaff right at the outset before anyone wastes serious money.
Of course, an entrance exam like this might risk limiting diversity, but it seems that it’s a risk the BSB is willing to take at this stage. And if, ultimately, students are prevented from paying up to £15,750 for a paper qualification that they cannot then use in practice then maybe it is a risk worth taking.
In the meantime, BPTC providers themselves are already upping the entrance ante. Several told us that they only look at applicants with a 2:1 and a track record of relevant experience (mini-pupillages, marshalling, debating, public speaking, etc.). For example, the Bristol Institute of Legal Practice at UWE awards ‘admission points’ based on applicants’ CVs, with emphasis on extra-curricular activities and achievements, as well as academics. Some providers are taking it even further. Kaplan requires its short-listed applicants to attend a selection event, at which they undertake a written advocacy exercise, oral advocacy exercise and an interview. It only offers places to students considered to have a fighting chance of gaining pupillage. And while LPC providers continue to up the number of places on their courses, several BPTC providers are reducing them, including UWE and City Law School.
While LPC applicants still have to anguish over the question of whether they’re buying a ticket to nowhere, future BPTC applicants will at least have a little more guidance from some law schools as to whether their chances are lousy or passable. In relation to either course, students must take responsibility for their own destiny.
This feature was first published in our July 2010 newsletter.