There is a significant debate about the numbers of law students seeking entry into the professions (See especially CharonQCs blog). The Chairman of the Bar has suggested the issue is a ‘moral one’ pointing out that about 1,800 students take the Bar Exams each year, and the successful ones compete for a shrinking number of pupillages (about 460 a year now). Legal aid cuts may shrink this further. The impact of the Legal Services Act could, if the Bar does not adapt (and it is making more bullish noises about its ability to compete post-ABSs), lead to a further reduction in pupillages. In relation to the solicitors’ profession the situation is better, on my calculations 78% of those who pass the legal practice course first time get training contracts, but that still leaves a large number of LPC students without training contracts who then take up paralegal work or going and do something else, with substantial debts.
It is worth saying that we have been here before. In the 1990s there was a significant controversy over the mismatch between LPC places and training contracts. That mismatch was prompted by a growth in LPC places and a recession which reduced the number of training contracts. Then, the Law Society resisted the urge to restrict entry onto the LPC places (though they also did not increase LPC validations for a while) and let the market decide. As I recall it (and I am trying to hunt down the stats) the number of LPC applicants dropped, the number of training contracts increased and some kind of equilibrium was reached. If they had reacted by capping LPC places firms might have found themselves competing for a limited pool of trainees (rather than a surplus). That would have been good for the students that got in, but of course denied the opportunity of a career to those excluded at the LPC stage.
I suspect we will see a similar market correction this time (and the interest generated by Nick Green QC et al, will help that correction). It is worth noting that there is serious over-capacity in the LPC market. According to figures published by Neil Rose, only 64% of LPC places are filled. By my calculation about two thirds of those places are offered by two providers: the College of Law and BPP and it is these institutions that have sought to increase their market share further by increasing the numbers of places validated. It is difficult to blame them for this: they are commercial operators in a competitive market. It is also difficult to see how the situation can carry on as it is. University providers will be looking long and hard at the viability of their courses. Many will have taken a substantial hit because of new competition from BPP and the College and the recession will impact on applications. The Browne review will make them take a much more commercial approach to their activities. The number of institutions providing the LPC and BPTC will shrink. This will be painful for those institutions but it will also mean the mismatch between LPC/BPTC places will shrink (although the gap between BPTC places and pupillage will probably remain gargantuan).
All of this means that there are significant risks to the profession’s interest in seeking to impose further barriers to entry through, for example, aptitude tests. Overdo it and they will make trainees more expensive for their members, they will risk the ire of the competition authorities, their prices will go up and they will deny entry to the profession for those who could have been fine lawyers. They will also find those more sceptical of the profession’s positions asking themselves this question: you want to impose and aptitude test on would-be entrants but you do not pose a competence test on qualification. Evan Davis started to make this point to Nick Green when he interviewed him on the Today programme and backed off. John Flood has hinted at it too in saying (on Charon QCs blog) that people will question whether the training contract or pupillage really is an appropriate gateway to qualification. The College of Law can be expected to raise their favourite proposal: qualification on passing the LPC. If there is a serious debate coming about legal education from cradle to grave, then the professions can expect some hard questions about whether training contracts and pupillages guarantee competence or simply restrict competition.
There are good ways of ensuring that the problem is not as serious as it currently is. Improved information for students; more part-time LPCs and a better integration of vocational and on the job training would all help. In hoping caps on the number of LPC students will solve the problem, the professions need to be careful what they wish for.