Many of us know the effort and dedication required to qualify as a solicitor, but few will realise the extent of the total financial burden that one typically acquires in an attempt to obtain this illustrious title.
For most, the first debt incurred on the path to becoming a solicitor is university tuition fees. In 2012, tuition fees payable in England increased from £3,000 to £9,250. Therefore a three-year undergraduate law degree now costs an average of £27,750.
There are also associated living expenses incurred during this time. Maintenance loans are available to students to cover those costs. Up to £9,250 can be borrowed each year by a student. Such loans are often used to cover the cost of student accommodation.
While the cost of such accommodation can vary enormously from city to city, a recent survey found that the UK average is £4,500-£6,000 per year. This means that over a three-year course, a student could pay £13,500-£18,000 for their digs. Due to such a large expense (swallowing up around 65% of the maintenance loan) most students are left with an average of £80 a week to live on.
Upon graduation, students are likely to be burdened with total debt of around £55,000. This hefty price tag does not appear to be deterring those looking to enrol on courses, however. The latest figures show that around 90,000 students enrol for law degrees every year.
In addition to the LLB, those wanting to qualify as a solicitor must also complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Unless they are one of the fortunate people who obtains a training contract in circumstances where the firm is prepared to fund their studies, budding lawyers must self-fund.
A number of institutions offer the LPC and course prices vary significantly. Some of these, including universities, offer discounted courses to alumni. Even with discounts, the average price of the LPC last year was just over £11,000.
The LPC is a big financial commitment, often with no guarantee of a training contract at the end of the course, so the decision to self-fund must be well thought‑out.
In addition, many people now entering the profession do so without studying a law degree at university. Those without a qualifying law degree must complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), at an average cost of £9,000.
For those fortunate enough to secure one of the roughly 5,500 training contracts available each year, it is understandable that the hidden cost of obtaining this is probably far from their mind. The reality, however, is that a large number of training contracts come with modest salaries.
In 2014 the Solicitors Regulation Authority removed the requirement for a minimum salary for trainees. Each year the Law Society publishes a recommended minimum salary. The newly announced recommended minimum salary for trainees is £22,121 in London and £19,619 outside London. Although this is not legally enforceable, it is good practice. The recommended minimum is calculated by adding the average annual cost of the LPC to the living wage, based on a 35-hour working week.
Despite this recommendation, the SRA’s own research has found that the average trainee wage has fallen by £560 since the removal of the compulsory minimum. A recent survey, by legal recruiter Douglas Scott, found that one in four trainees is paid below the recommended minimum salary. Meanwhile, the average UK salary has risen to more than £27,000.
This contrast is only sharpened when one acknowledges that many spend a number of years working as paralegals before obtaining training contracts, with the average age of qualification now 29. The average paralegal wage is £14,000-£20,000.
In approximate terms, the total cost of qualifying as a solicitor is £70,000-£80,000. Any student deciding whether to pursue a career in law will need to be realistic: can they can afford it? Is a career in law achievable? At present, the substantial price tag and risk which comes with it will restrict people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, without financial support, from entering the profession. Accessing the profession should be on merit alone and there is no doubt that the profession is losing potential talent.
Of course, there are costs associated with qualifying into any profession and it must be remembered that the legal profession is, on the whole, well-paid. The disparity in salaries is often quickly made up for upon qualification.
The purpose of this article is not to deter aspiring solicitors – but rather to ensure that the real cost of qualification is understood, and also to urge those who employ trainee solicitors to pay the Law Society’s recommended minimum salary.
Adam Hattersley, who sits on the JLD executive committee, is a real estate finance solicitor at Fieldfisher