In this post-top-up fees era, the cost of qualifying as a lawyer has become scarily high. Just the fees alone of a three-year law degree course these days can leave students with debts of more than 9,000. Throw in LPC fees, as well as maintenance costs, and you are talking about a massive
37,000, according to the Trainee Solicitors Group. The Bar Council, meanwhile, puts the cost of qualifying as a barrister, from degree to pupillage, at around 40,000.
For non-law graduates who decide to become solicitors or barristers, the costs are even higher, as this group must take the GDL, which means taking another year out of work.
But never fear: there are sources of funding out there to help you.
It is true that students of today have it tougher than their counterparts of yesteryear, who enjoyed a free university education. Most universities will charge the maximum tuition fees of 3,070 for the 2007-08 academic year.
One exception is Leeds Metropolitan University, which offers an undergraduate law degree and has capped its fees at 2,000. And if you are really sure that you want to be a solicitor, then Northumbria University or the University of Huddersfields four-year exempting law degrees incorporating the LPC should work out as a cheaper alternative to paying for the two courses separately.
But there is no getting away from it: studying law, a popular and competitive course, in most cases means paying the top rates.
Help is at hand
The controversy surrounding the new regime has, to a certain extent, obscured some of the key facts and overshadowed an improved package of funding. It is worth noting that these fees do not need to be paid up front, so if you take out a loan to cover them (an option open to all eligible full-time students), you will not have to start making repayments until you have finished the course,and only when your earnings are more than a certain amount, currently 15,000 a year.
Loans for maintenance are also available, depending on where you study, where you live while you study and the academic year. All full-time students can automatically get around 75 per cent of the full loan amount, while anything more depends on household income.
Around half of all full-time students are also likely to be eligible for a yearly maintenance grant of up to 2,765 for 2007-08, again dependent on household income. And as this is a grant, it is non-repayable.
Universities charging top-up fees at full whack have to offer students eligible for full grants a minimum bursary of 300, but many offer more than this. On average universities and colleges offer 1,000 a year to these students, but some institutions, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Exeter Universities, cover the full cost of the course.
So in some cases students from low-income households can forget about course fee loans and enjoy a free university education. If this applies to you, research your preferred institutions and shop around.
You can apply for extra help if you have a disability or specific learning difficulty, or if you have children or adult dependants.
Counting the cost
If you found enough time between partying to occasionally browse Westlaw UK and attain a good degree, then law school beckons. For wannabe solicitors that means completing the year-long LPC, or for barristers the BVC. Add in another year of studying for the GDL if you are a non-law graduate.
The bad news is that fees for the GDL cost on average more than 5,000, while the LPCs and BVCs can burn a 10,000-12,000 hole in your pocket. The good news, however, is that larger law firms will shell out for the course fees and maintenance, while smaller ones sometimes offer interest-free loans.
The four Inns of Court, meanwhile, also offer sponsorship packages to their pupils.
Sponsorship aside, there are other ways to access finance to fund this part of your journey to becoming a solicitor or barrister.
If you do not mind acquiring a bit more debt to go with the debt you are likely to accumulate while studying for your first degree, then the vocational stage of your training can be funded by a bank loan. This area is a potential minefield, so we recommend that you do plenty of homework before signing on the dotted line. And whatever your circumstances, do not take out a loan unless you are sure you will be able to meet the repayments.
Career development loans (CDLs), currently offered by Barclays Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland and the Co-operative Bank, are worth looking into as a potential source of funding for the LPC and BVC. Note, however, that these loans are no longer available to GDL students.
CDLs are subsidised by the Government, meaning you do not have to start repaying the amount borrowed until one month after you complete your course. It is possible to borrow any sum between 300 and 8,000 and to repay it over a period of up to five years. But beware of the interest rates, as they vary from 12.9 per cent to a massive 20 per cent, which is higher than some personal loan products. CDLs can be used to pay for up to 80 per cent of course fees, or 100 per cent if a person has been out of work for more than three months.
The latter, however, does not apply to people coming straight out of university. Any of the loan amount not spent on course costs can be used to pay for anything from books to childcare to travel expenses.
An alternative to CDLs are graduate or professional studies loans, which are offered by most high street lenders. These, however, are essentially personal unsecured loans (ie the type of borrowing used to buy a car), so when you are doing your research it is worth comparing graduate loans against other bank products. And do not forget to check out the internet banks as they are sometimes more competitive than their high street rivals.
And remember that many banks will only offer graduate loans to those students who hold current accounts with them. When shopping around, key questions you need to ask the banks are:
What is the maximum you can borrow?
What rate of interest will the bank charge?
Is the interest rate fixed or variable?
Fixed may be preferable, as your repayments will be the same every month.
What is the tenure of the loan? For most of the products we looked at it is possible to spread the repayments over five years. But remember: the tenure of the loan is likely to impact the interest rate charged by the bank.
When will you have to start making your repayments?
How long can you defer the loan repayments? And will you be charged interest during the deferment period?
Is it possible to take a repayment holiday? And are there any charges associated with this?
How much will the final amount to pay back be (ie the original amount borrowed plus the interest)?
Finally, ask about any hidden charges. An obvious hidden charge is an early redemption penalty. This is a charge made by a bank if you pay the whole loan back before the end of its full term.
Although the possibility of paying a loan back early may sound far-fetched at this stage, your earnings may shoot up relatively quickly, making it possible to rid yourself of some of the debt you have accumulated during your studies.
Furthermore, some firms may pay your course fees retrospectively, meaning you may no longer need the loan at all.
Alternative funding for trainee solicitors
The Law Society is quite helpful in this area. It runs a bursary scheme funded by a number of trusts and scholarships established by people who want to contribute to the development of new solicitors. To qualify you must be able to demonstrate that your financial hardship is greater than average and that you are serious about entering the profession.
The society also runs the Diversity Access Scheme, which aims to provide support to talented wannabe solicitors who will have to overcome specific obstacles to qualify. Social, educational, financial, disability or family issues are all factors that would be considered.
Limited funding for ethnic minority and/or overseas students is also available from organisations including the Windsor Fellowship, the British Council and the Inderpal Rahal Memorial Trust.
It is also worth checking whether your postgraduate law school feels like slipping you a freebie or making a contribution towards fees. BPP Law School, for instance, runs an annual scholarship programme aimed at increasing diversity in the legal profession. It also runs an annual essay competition in conjunction with Lawyer 2B, which offers the lucky winners free places on its LPC and GDL.
Talk to your local council as the awards officer may have information on local charities or grant-making trusts that
could help you out. The council will also be able to give you the lowdown on any discretionary awards it makes available.
Inns of Court scholarships
The four Inns of Court Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Grays Inn and Lincolns Inn all offer scholarships to their members. The total amount offered by the Inns is approximately 4m.
The awards range from the GDL to pupillage, covering the whole vocational side of training to be a barrister.
Although the Inns share common deadlines for most of the scholarships, each has unique awards (see their websites for details).
All of the Inns tend to award their scholarships on the same basis, namely merit. This is assessed in terms of the candidates intellectual qualities, interpersonal skills and, of course, academic achievements. To prove the latter, potential scholars have to show a true commitment through moots, mini-pupillages and other extracurricular activities, in addition to exam grades.
Qualifying as a solicitor or barrister may seem fraught with financial barriers at every turn, but if you can overcome these perhaps by tapping into some of the funding streams outlined a rewarding career awaits you in the end.