Too many LPC students – where does responsibility lie?

“I love law! But was I right to start the LPC without having secured a training contract?” We often falter when we take stock of reality. And this is especially true of law students who’ve forked over several thousands of pounds to private LPC providers.

Here are a couple of facts that are worth highlighting: in 2009-10 there were 11,370 full-time and 3,140 part-time LPC places compared to just 4,874 newly registered training contracts. That’s a surplus of 9,636 students, ie the majority of LPC students. This is a problem, made continually worse by ever-changing (typically declining) trainee requirements in the market. It needs to be fixed. But where does the buck stop – Legal Practice Course provider, student, or the Solicitors Regulation Authority?

LPC Provider

When I say ‘private legal education provider’, I’m talking about a specific kind of institution; the kind with an endless line of eager students willing to pay top dollar knocking at their door – with BPP Law School and The College of Law together expecting to take on around 65 per cent of them.The simple fact is if you want to become a solicitor in England and Wales, you must do the LPC. And LPC providers are the money-making gatekeepers to the industry.

So, should LPC providers be doing something to stem this competition and limit the numbers of students paying for the LPC (which can now cost upwards of £13k)? Of course, from a purely business perspective, LPC providers are doing little wrong; they’re supplying a service to huge demand. And indeed, why would they spend time, money and effort on conceptualising and implementing procedures for selecting between candidates when the immutable laws of profit and loss don’t require them to? But is there more to it than profit – indeed, should there be? Is the only responsibility of an LPC provider to provide a vocational education service?

In a time when the economic outlook is uncertain and youth unemployment is at a record high, responsibility is high on the agenda. So, what about social and economic responsibility and the idea that every individual and organisation has a duty to act so as to benefit society and the wider economy? An increase in numbers of debt-burdened folk is good neither for society nor the economy – so it is incumbent upon businesses churning out debt-addled individuals (which is invariably what jobless LPC grads are) to do something to limit these numbers. But let’s face facts. This argument is only persuasive if realistic. Self-interested businesses aren’t going to do things they don’t want, or indeed aren’t required, to do.

Student

But equally, I hear you say, a 21-odd-year-old student is no infant. They should, nay must, take responsibility for their decisions. If they choose to take on the risk of paying for the LPC from their own pocket and being subsequently lumbered with heavy debts, so be it.

People often say that university grads see law as a safer option in the rocky job market. But the truth is that most appreciate that nooption is especially ‘safe’ today; not accountancy, consultancy, banking nor any of the other ‘recognised professions’.

There is however a widely held misconception, which probably evokes little sympathy, that getting into law school is half the battle. The truth is it’s barely part of the battle at all. Today, a 2.2 degree is all that’s required to breach the doors of an LPC provider. That and cash. Worse still is the perception that by passing the LPC you’re ‘almost there’.  

A general neglect on the part of students to keep updated and informed about the legal job market has, aside from lining the pockets of LPC providers, created fertile ground for the problem of too many LPCers, too few training contracts. Pragmatically speaking however, to expect students to sort this problem out any time soon is inconceivable. I am quite sympathetic with the suggestion that, where LPC providers have developed near immunity, students are – whether informed or not – vulnerable to the changing economic tides.

Regulator

The SRA is responsible for regulating the LPC and its providers. If you want to be an LPC provider, the SRA requires that you “demonstrate both that [you] are committed to, and can support, the delivery and assessment of an LPC and that the specific course(s) [you] intend to offer will meet the essential requirements set down by the SRA”. Further, if you apply to become an LPC provider, the SRA requires details on “how students’ potential to succeed on the course will be identified during the admissions process”.

In limiting the responsibility of LPC providers only to the provision of a course, the SRA effectively absolves them of any direct responsibility for the future employment of students. Quite convenient for LPC providers.

The SRA have made it clear that they “[do] not wish to restrict the range of organisations that are authorised to provide LPCs” – the right view if we are to encourage an open LPC provider market. But are we witnessing an FSA-style ‘regulatory capture’ which has seen the SRA, created to act in the public interest, instead supporting the interests of LPC providers? Perhaps it’s not quite so dramatic. But the fallacy here is that acting in the interests of LPC providers is the same as acting in the interests of the profession at large, and indeed the public.

What should happen?

There are too many people paying for the LPC and providers must be better regulated because of it. As long as this problem persists, and given their overarching position to actually make a difference, the buck stops with the SRA. It’s tagline is “Smarter regulation, better outcomes”. Clearly they’ve missed a trick here then. Surely smarter regulation would see fewer students, who are enrolled with the SRA, as jobless and owing substantial debts; nor is this an entirely great outcome.

Securing a place with an LPC provider should be a challenging hurdle which reflects the state of the market – no easy feat, I can appreciate. Should future LPC students be selected on the basis of competitive interviews, for example? Should there be an American style Law School Admission Test (LSAT)? Suggestions like this often invite cries of indignation. But whether welcomed or not by keen law students, one crucial point remains – making it to law school nowadays in no way suggests you’re any closer to making it as a lawyer.

Competition for places at firms of all sizes – from the high-street through to the magic circle – is incredibly high; and this intensity is showing no sign of lessening. But scarcely will you come across a 21-year-old with long-harboured dreams of becoming a lawyer who is put off by this reality. The job of the SRA is to help change what that reality is so that when you make it onto the LPC, it really is a strong sign that you are going to succeed as a lawyer, and that it truly is a worthy investment.

Krishnan Nair is an LPC graduate and writes about immigration and employment law for the Mulberry Finch blog. You can also find him on Twitter – @MulberryFinch.