Law Society Gazette – Are aptitude tests and higher fees right for the LPC?

With the recent decision of the Law Society that students will, in the future, have to take an aptitude test to commence the LPC, and the long held desire of the bar for a similar requirement, has law become too competitive for its own good?

Kaplan Law School has become the first to embrace the new system with news that ‘from September 2011 students wishing to study either the GDL or LPC at Kaplan will have to give a presentation, take part in a written examination and then sit through a 10 minute interview’. There has also been talk of bringing in unlimited tuition fees at undergraduate level, with the likelihood that fees for prospective law students will be among the highest.

Coupled with the chaos of the current LPC system, students could find that, despite a long held passion for the law, a career in practice is simply out of reach for financial reasons. This is arguably to the detriment of the profession, and would only serve to restrict lawyers to an elitist group, much in keeping with the old unwanted stereotype. The SRA however, has sought to distance itself from the idea.

Is it a case of right time, right place for the new Law Society proposals, then, or do SRA misgivings have some foundation?

In the current climate, the numbers of students starting the LPC has risen from 9,662 in 2007 to 18,394 in 2009. On the other hand, the number of training contracts available this year is estimated to be 5,000. In addition, it would seem that, with the recent financial turmoil in the UK, the numbers of training contract positions available have dropped, with some firms deferring whole intakes and others postponing graduate recruitment altogether.

It is altogether a familiar story. Large numbers of students enrol in undergraduate law courses and are plied with information about law firms, vacation placements and training contracts. For anyone wanting to be a solicitor, the next step is the LPC, or the GDL followed by the LPC if you have not done a qualifying law degree. Thereafter follows the expectation that you will apply for training contracts which, given hard work and perseverance, will eventually materialise. With this lucrative contract promising in a lot of cases to justify the cost of the LPC, a risk is taken, and large numbers of people sign up.

The reality is of course different, and not just because of the recession. Large numbers of students are signing up and spending, in cases, thousands of pounds for a year’s course, which is specifically tailored to those embarking on a training contract and a subsequent career as a solicitor. Unfortunately, with an increasing number of students unable to secure a training contract, many are left feeling that the money spent on the LPC was a huge waste and, arguably, justifiably so.

Many end up seeking work as paralegals in order to keep their knowledge of the law current and, in some circumstances, this approach can lead to the elusive prize. However, most employers stress that paralegal jobs are no guarantee of a training contract. Further, with such large numbers entering the workplace looking for paralegal jobs, it can seem as competitive as securing a training contract, which leaves those with unsuitable academic results or with a lack of relevant experience equally as stranded. With a basic requirement of six months’ experience as a paralegal before you can obtain a job as a paralegal, there would appear to be little prospect of success for those who have emerged from the LPC unprepared.

Given the dire state of the situation, it would appear that the proposals to introduce aptitude tests may be exactly what is required, as long as it addresses the key skills needed to secure a training contract. There is little point allowing someone with the academic requirements to pass Law Society Gazette November 2010 Law Society Gazette November 2010 onto the LPC, if their interpersonal skills mean that they are as likely to fall at the final hurdle. Equally, the student who has already worked at a law firm and has impressed to the stage where a training contract offer is more than likely, should surely not be barred from taking the LPC, even if they are unsuitable by sole reference to the aptitude test.

There are, of course, questions that remain to be answered. Is the aptitude test going to be distinguished depending on what type of firm you want to apply to? Or what type of law you want to do? Will high street lawyers be required to show the same aptitude as students who want to study complex M&A in the city, or will there be a tiered aptitude test?

Is an assessment as to the degree of likelihood of obtaining a training contract undertaken, and if so, what are the criteria and who makes the ultimate decision? Is it now intended that every student leaving the LPC should be able to secure a training contract? Is there a guarantee being proffered by the Law Society or course providers?

It is also worth bearing in mind that, in order for the test to be meaningful and of use, there will need to be, by necessity, a high failure rate. This would ensure that only those in the top percentiles are admitted and would lessen the numbers waiting around year upon year, to reapply.

Some may consider this an unfair bar to the profession and, in particular, when large numbers of wouldbe lawyers may be entering in order to provide a service at the high street or community law centre level. Wouldn’t a ‘onesize fits all’ approach therefore be detrimental?

While the Law Society should be applauded for the introduction of an aptitude test for all LPC entrants, it must be clearly thought out and be fit for the purpose for which it is created. It will also have to convince the SRA that it is a step worth taking.

Further, research is needed as to whether there is a surplus of candidates to positions, at all levels, or whether this is merely the case in the bigger firms. If so, would it not be easier, for a citylawfirmtype assessment that must be completed before applying? This could be taken before the LPC, with those successful, encouraged that although not guaranteed, they would fulfil the criteria sought by these firms in deciding to interview candidates.

With increasing numbers of students on the legal education conveyor belt, the Law Society’s intended introduction of an aptitude test could be considered long overdue. It remains to be seen whether there remains a large number of students waiting for a training contract offer, despite being deemed good enough to get one, however what is likely is that the numbers signing up blindly to what is currently a hefty financial commitment without guarantee of success will finally diminish.

Before the aptitude test can be considered a success or a failure however, careful thought needs to be given as to the main aim behind the idea. Is it to reduce those looking for a training contract in the bigger firms, or a general way of reducing large numbers of wouldbe applicants?

It is suggested that until this is ascertained, the proposals may only serve to reduce the numbers of lawyers able to access the less lucrative end of the profession, and those in the middle, as the bigger firms will still hire the best of those applying, who by definition, will still get through any aptitude test put in their way.


Disclaimer

This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.

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