This week’s news that BPP is to open three new legal practice course (LPC) centres this autumn, in Newcastle, Cambridge and Liverpool, has given fresh impetus to what is an ongoing debate about the oversupply of LPC graduates.When you first look at the Law Society statistics, things do not look that bad. The latest figures show that in 2009, 9,954 students enrolled on the LPC. Of those that took the final examination, 5,824 passed, a 75% pass rate (which to my mind is not as high as you would expect considering how much students will have paid in course fees – surely an incentive to achieve one’s absolute best?).

So there were 5,824 students having passed in 2009, who were then looking for traineeships. The Law Society’s annual report does not specify how many traineeships were available in 2009, but in the previous year (August 2009 to July 2009), there were 5,809 new traineeships – almost exactly the same amount as the number of LPC graduates who passed first time last year.

Those simple figures would seem to indicate that the balance between students passing the course and training contracts available is about right. But of course, it doesn’t tell the full story. There are many more students who passed the LPC on a re-sit, who are not accounted for in those figures, but who are still out there trying to secure training contracts. And their number is building up year on year. Kevin Poulter of the Junior Lawyers Division estimates that there are now between 10,000 and 20,000 LPC graduates currently looking for training contracts, although a letter in this week’s Gazette suggests that the real figure is lower.

It is hard not to have sympathy for students who have stumped up thousands to study the LPC course (BPP, for example, charges a whopping £8,995 for its LPC courses outside the capital, although it stresses that the courses include a high amount of one-to-one tuition), only to find that they can’t find a training contract. It’s not like doing a law degree, which will stand you in good stead for any number of good careers (I can vouch that it comes in handy as a legal journalist). You only do the LPC if you specifically want to qualify as a lawyer. So to go through that expensive process only to find that there is a huge – and growing – oversupply of graduates battling it out for a diminishing number of training contracts, does seem very unfair.

What’s the answer? Poulter has called on the Solicitors Regulation Authority to limit the number of places available on LPC courses. But when I asked the SRA for a response on that, the regulator said that it ‘does not have the power to limit the number of LPC places’.

There are arguments against limiting the number of places in any case. Why, for example, should law be treated any differently from the many other areas of work where there are too many young people coming through? Journalism is the obvious example, with a plethora of journalism courses spring up, but a distinct lack of jobs – and redundancies rife as publications continue to fold.

The Law Society’s education and training committee is alive to this issue. It has recently appointed a consultant to examine whether students should be made to sit an aptitude test before being able to enrol on the LPC course. That, to my mind, would be a good way of addressing the problem. If you go back to the figures at the start of this blog, the number of students who pass the LPC first time is actually broadly in line with the number of places available. If less able students were filtered out before they spend thousands on a course they will not be able to pass (or, at least, pass first time), surely that would be the fairest way of addressing the problem?

But the concept of an aptitude test is not, of course, without its dangers. It will only be a fair process if it is able to genuinely assess aptitude without inadvertently disadvantaging those from particular backgrounds. And what’s the betting that a market will spring up in tuition courses to help prospective students pass the test – for those who can afford them.

Of course, there is another approach to addressing the problem – and that is by making sure that those about to embark on an expensive LPC course are made fully aware of just how tough the competition is. The Law Society has taken some small steps in this direction, but at the end of the day, it is the profession’s representative body; pushing students away from law seems at odds with its general purpose, which is to represent the interests of those already in the profession. The fierce competition for training contracts is not without its benefits for law firms, after all.

Will universities be the ones to warn their law students of how hard it is to enter the legal profession? Possibly, but they won’t want to deter A-Level students from taking their degrees, or indeed put law graduates off their own LPC courses where they offer them.

A-Level careers advisers would be well placed to give a neutral perspective, but for many it is already too late.

If this all sounds a bit bleak, there are positive signs. As I mentioned, the Law Society has already begun looking at how this issue can be addressed. And, of course, the more this topic is discussed, the more prominent it becomes, and the more prospective LPC students will be aware of the true picture as they decide whether or not to open their cheque books (or more likely apply for that loan). And let’s not forget – there may be many LPC students who never succeed in entering the profession, but there are many more who do, and enjoy a challenging, fulfilling and (sometimes) lucrative career as a result. Having paid so much in course fees, it is questionable whether many of them will be able to afford to go into legal aid work – but I shall leave that topic for another day.

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