Aptitude tests: right idea, wrong time?

It appears the Law Society are playing catch up with the Bar Standards Board and considering an aptitude test for entrants into the Legal Practice Course (Legal Futures reports). The primary aim appears to be to tackle the mismatch between those studying the LPC and those getting training contacts. Legalfutures reports this as a scandal, although it appears that of those passing the LPC or getting referred about 78% get training contracts. Whether it is a scandal or not, though, lots of law students do the LPC and then do not get training contracts.  It’s their choice of course but they suffer significant financial pain as a result.

It would be possible to raise a number of objections to the proposals. The OFT are likely to be suspicious of the merits of proposals which may restrict entry and therefore competition for training contracts. The transaction costs, and design, of such tests may discriminate on grounds other than quality. There is something defiantly odd about asking a student to do an aptitude test after they have been asked to do a law degree stuffed to the gills with subjects the Law Society requires them to study. And there are questions to ask about why a representative organisation, rather than a regulatory one, is floating the proposals. I share some of these concerns but I also would like to see students encouraged to see the reality of the jobs market before they encourage mammoth costs on the LPC and BVC (which, readers should note, pay the salaries of many of my colleagues). How might that be achieved?

Well, I’d like to float the idea that an aptitude test might be a good one, if carried out not as an entry requirement for the LPC but as an indicator which firms and students could use for their propensity to succeed in practice. As such it could assist firms with decisions about training contracts and it may even (if well designed and appropriately funded) increase diversity. An aptitude test which could be sat at the end of the second year of a law degree (or third year of those wanting to do a conversion, and which carried the confidence of the profession, would be a significant assistance for that profession in its decisions on training contracts). It would reduce their recruitment costs (by heling with the initial filtering of candidates) and, one would hope – perhaps expect- that such firms should contribute to the cost of funding it. Poorer students would then not be disadvantaged by the fees they would have to pay. The Law Society could monitor employability against results and could give students indications of their aptitude and some better indications than they currently have of the likelihood they will achieve a place in the profession. This should lead to far better informed decisions about taking up LPC places. They could also monitor it for equality and diversity purposes.

For this proposal to succeed, such an aptitude test would need to be robust and carry the confidence of students and the profession. This is a critical issue for any proposal of for an aptitude test. The benefit of my suggestion is that not only would the Law Society (or I suspect the SRA) have to rigorously test such a proposal, there would be a reality-check to assure us all that this was a process that really worked: would firms respond to it by using it to help with recruitment? If they won’t then it’s a reasonable assumption that the aptitude test is not about ensuring the suitability of entrants to the profession and regulators should have nothing to do with it or that there needs to be more dracononian intervention in training contract decisions (because firms are not willing to appoint on merit). The proposal if it succeeded would promote better informed students choice, does not intervene heavy handidly in the market and promotes goals which are firmly in the public and the profession’s interest.

If the propsal for an aptitude test is to be genuinely in the public interest (rather than tainted with a whiff of protectionism) then a voluntary test earlier in the process is the better option.

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