A survey of almost 600 law undergraduates has found that around half are ‘pessimistic’ about obtaining a training contract and are actively exploring alternative careers.

The same proportion began investigating law as a career before starting at university, which is long before students interested in a career in IT, for example, begin planning for the future, the survey, published yesterday, revealed.

According to the results, intellectual challenge and the nature of the work is considered by most law undergraduates to be more important than salary and, when choosing between firms, they also believe that the type of law practised, the firm's reputation and its location are more important than pay.

A parallel survey of graduate trainees showed that most work more than 47 hours a week and 17% work more than 51 hours. Over 90% of trainees said that they are determined to stay in the profession long term.

Chris Phillips, research and information director at GTI Media, the legal recruiters that carried out the survey, said: 'There are more undergraduates wanting a legal career than there are training contracts. It’s difficult not to feel for these students who have committed themselves to law from a very early age and undertook masses of research and planning before applying for training contracts.’

The survey results were revealed at the annual TARGETjobs Law Employers Forum, held at the London offices of Shearman & Sterling and attended by those who regularly recruit trainees, including magic circle firms Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, and City and international firms Clyde & Co, Hogan Lovells, Ince & Co, Kirkland & Ellis, Mayer Brown, Skadden, Travers Smith and the hosts.

The survey was live for a two-week period in spring 2013 and there were 571 respondents.