Picture the scene – you walk into a party, nod at the elephant in the room (you and the elephant go way back), then steadfastedly refuse to talk to it until it’s time to leave, when you get your coat and wave a wordless goodbye. You couldn’t really get away without that wave at the end.
And that is pretty much how the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) deals with the impact of student debt on the access to, and health of, the legal profession.
The LETR could hardly avoid the issue. So in chapter 5 it notes a study by the Illinois Bar indicating that debt is an issue affecting the attractiveness of traditional routes to a legal career in Illinois – before stating the study ‘should not be read as a prediction of the Anglo-Welsh model’s demise or unsuitability’.
It’ll be news to English and Welsh folk that they don’t have enough debt to be exhibit ‘A’ on this one. But thank you, Illinois… .
Then here’s the wave at the end of the party: ‘The prospect of the total debt for English students who have completed a degree and vocational training climbing to £50,000 to £60,000 or even more, could have a disproportionate impact on non-traditional and disadvantaged entrants, who may be more likely to come from social and cultural origins that are more debt-averse.’
I’m in no doubt that there should be more routes into the legal profession. Absolute barriers to entry are one way in which the ‘professionalisation’ of careers has reduced diversity. Nothing wrong with more routes.
But it is a wholly inadequate answer to the severe challenges that debt and finance pose to both access and social mobility.
Ask yourself, which parts of the legal profession will new routes apply to? Is it aimed at magic circle law firms, say? Maybe the global elite? Brick Court or Matrix chambers?
Or do multiple access points have a profoundly unambitious aim – to make it a bit easier to qualify into the parts of the profession where the rewards are less generous?
The LETR does mention Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility in the professions, and endorses the importance Milburn attaches to a diverse intake for internships.
But making it a bit easier to get into the less-monied parts of the legal profession, promoting better information around how to do so, and being more transparent about work experience, wouldn’t really be ‘job done’ for social mobility.
I don’t know whether the elephant has the answer – I had hoped the authors of the LETR would know that. But as it turned out, they didn’t really talk to the elephant this time.
Which is a shame, as I don’t think there’s going to be another party for ages.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
Follow Eduardo on Twitter