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Would you have taken the LPC if you'd known how few training contracts there are?

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Mark Pentecost writes about the availability of training contracts and the thoughts and views of the JLD community on getting a contract.

The Legal Practice Course (LPC), as I’m sure you are all aware, is a prerequisite to starting a training contract and ultimately qualifying as a solicitor. It is absolutely no use for anything else, and what is happening more and more is that aspiring lawyers are paying upwards of £10,000 for a course when they have no training contract secured and often, no prospect of ever getting one. The numbers of training contracts on offer are decreasing, while there has been no let up in the numbers of hopeful LPC graduates entering the fray.

In the recently published Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) discussion paper - 02/2012 Key Issues II: Developing the Detail - some quantitative analysis suggests that ‘demand for employment (including trainees) across the sector will remain slow, with 2010 levels of employment unlikely to be restored before 2018. Given that initial indications suggest that demand to read law at university is holding up well relative to many other disciplines, these data suggest that competition to enter the ‘traditional’ profession is likely to continue to be strong for the remainder of the period to 2020.’

So in the short to long term there will be significant numbers of students getting into onerous debt as well as wasting their time and hampering their employment prospects, by doing the LPC and failing to secure a training contract.

At the time of writing, the JLD poll question ‘Would you have taken the LPC if you’d known how few training contracts there are?’ on the Law Society website has had quite a response. To date only 29 per cent (328 votes) say ‘yes’ while a whopping 816 respondents said ‘no’ (71 per cent). However, look beyond the raw statistics and there is a very lively and often provocative debate going on in the comments section.

You only have yourself to blame!

The person with the (possibly real) name of Mr Carruthers-Watt, posts: ‘Sadly this is not new. In 1984 when I left the College of Law to go off to my Articles as they then were called, we were told that the profession was badly oversubscribed!’

One person found ‘the whole experience of obtaining a TC horrific. My advice would be do NOT pay for the LPC until you have a training contract in place. It is foolish to do so in any economic climate. Further, I would really do some homework on alternative routes before you make a definitive decision.’ And goes on to say ‘The law is NOT a good career choice. I don’t know why but there still remains a romantic notion that the law is one of those ‘James Bond’ professions where eternal happiness, professional challenges and riches abound, while still getting the girl, putting away the baddies and cleaning up at the casino! Forget the articles in Esquire and newspapers that tell you law is one of the best professions to enter. It’s NOT!’ Well that’s us told, then.

Many of the other opinions are also in the vein of the no-nonsense response ‘you only have yourself to blame’ variety. I confess that I paid for and completed my own LPC in 2011 before I had a training contract secured, so I feel rather chastened by the anonymous poster who stridently informs us: ‘Self-funding the LPC is reckless and irresponsible.’ Thanks for that, Anonymous. However I was fully aware of and quite prepared to take the risk. Happily I am now on my training contract having started in January 2012. Calling me ‘reckless and irresponsible’ seems a bit harsh, but then my attitude might have been entirely different had I not ended up with a TC in the end, mightn’t it?

Another contributor shows off the fact that they have studied contract law at some point with the following: ‘Caveat Emptor. Buyer Beware…it is the responsibility of the student to assess the climate and availability of training contracts BEFORE accepting a place on the LPC and forking out all that cash. You only have yourself to blame!’ This is a common theme, another comment (made again anonymously) says: ‘It is not the responsibility of training institutions to ensure that prospective students are informed about the likelihood of getting a training contract. If you are looking to take up a career in any profession then it is your responsibility to do the groundwork and to decide whether the statistics, together with your personal attributes, make it look favourable or otherwise. It is extremely naive and complacent to assume that, because you pay fees to a training institution, you somehow have the right to a training contract.’

Some contributions to the debate border on the smug, an anonymous trainee solicitor at a magic circle law firm intones that he would have not have commenced the LPC had he not secured a training contract including payment of the fees first. He does not ‘believe in putting all ones savings and parents money and perhaps a bank loan into the LPC, and then not to get a training contract’. That’s all very well in hindsight but what would he have done if he’d not landed that training contract while on the LLB? Would he in fact have re-assessed the risks inherent in paying for the LPC with no confirmed TC, and gone ahead anyway? I’d like to put that question to him but as with so many contributors, I don’t know who he is.

Another anonymous contributor had this to say: ‘I was offered a TC at the end of my first year of the LLB Hons, when I started my LPC, I was one of 4 students out of 49 who had a TC in place. By the end of the LPC there were 12 of us with TC’s. You do the maths and it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out how the odds are stacked against anyone who wishes to practice as a trainee solicitor.’

One person is at pains to point out how ‘extremely fortunate’ they are to now be qualified, despite having ‘embarked on the LPC without even a sniff of a training contract and with the weight of a £10,000 loan looming over my head’. They go on to say that ‘I still think I made the right choice and am now happy in my work but I realise it could have been very different which is a scary thought.’ Scary indeed!

I’m not to blame! Someone else is!

Clearly there are people out there who are looking to blame either the Law Society, the SRA or the law schools for this situation. As one person puts it: ‘Unfortunately, I was given false hope and if I had known what I know today, I would not have taken the LPC.’ Another contributor complains that their law school treated the LPC course as ‘nothing more than a business’ (you don’t say…). They go on to complain that their ‘chances of getting a TC are minimal and I’m very bitter that I have £250 to pay for the next 8 years in loans for something that I doubt I’ll ever use.’

Another anonymous writer adds that his law school ‘over subscribed my LPC course, in the full knowledge that, there are were not enough jobs for even a fraction of LPC graduates. This is the behaviour of crooks running a scam.’ Personally, I can’t help wondering whether some of these comments would be quite so scathing if they were not made anonymously.

Another LPC graduate without a training contract says that they are ‘angry at the legal profession. I think students should only be allowed to take the LPC if they have a training contract. I realise this will never be adopted as a policy because, as has already been said, LPC providers are more interested in making money than in responsible recruitment into the profession.’ This is a post from someone who graduated from the LPC in July ‘09 with a distinction, a long work experience list on their CV, a 2:1 at degree level and all A’s at A level. They had been applying for a training contract for over two years. Despite ‘many interviews and careers advice’ they are at a complete loss’ as to why they have not been successful.

Elsewhere a writer tells us that in their opinion ‘most people embarking on the LPC know that the legal sector is competitive and that jobs are scarce, particularly at the present time. While undoubtedly in some cases alternative career options could (and should) have been better highlighted; both to undergraduate law students and LPC students, I feel that the current problem is not caused by a failure of the academic institutions per se, but is a result of the current system as run by the Law Society and the SRA.’ This correspondent says that the Law Society and the SRA have failed to consider the implications of allowing LPC students, to embark on the LPC when the likely outcome is that many graduates will be forced into alternative career paths, with huge debts for a course they may never see the benefit of.

Some people cite the situation in Northern Ireland where you cannot enrol on the equivalent to the LPC until the you have secured a principal solicitor who will train you (equivalent to the training contract). Some see this as a logical approach. Others are not so convinced. One in particular states: ‘The regulation a large number of people are calling for would mean that I wouldn’t be able to gamble my own money on a career I have always wanted and will one day achieve.’

Oh, what’s the use?

Some correspondents out there have just given up the will to live, it seems.

‘After I successfully sold everything my family had, I realised that despite having a 2.1, distinction and coming across rather well at interviews, I will not find a training contract (at least not in a commercial firm) unless it reached a stage where the work involved in securing a TC overwhelmingly outweighs the reward. …. In the meantime 2 law firms duly took advantage of my situation. I worked for a year at each of them as a paralegal doing more work then a trainee, while they dangled the TC. I had to change 3 firms and wait 4 years before I commenced my training contract. I am grateful to my employers for taking me on as a trainee but as I contemplate my future (commercial and job satisfaction aspect) I only feel guilt for wasting all that money for a qualification that does not pay very well outside the magic or silver circles. I feel drained and wasted and have zero motivation to try to enjoy my TC. I also know that on qualification my job prospects are very bad. Maybe, better in a way because on hindsight, I would rather be a bus driver than a solicitor.’

‘I am a trainee solicitor and due to qualify this year. I left university wanting to gain some more work experience and possibly a training contract offer before I embarked on the LPC. Unfortunately I struggled to even get work experience but eventually I took a job as an accounts assistant in a high street law firm. I decided to do the LPC part-time and so was able to work and study. My employment was only temporary but I was very lucky in that the firm kept me on as a paralegal and then a Trainee. I only finished the LPC last summer and the prospect of having to pay back the loan this year is terrifying. I wish I had known about the ILEX route. Whilst it may take longer, financially it is far better for people like me who have had to finance the LPC with a bank loan. There was very little warning given to us at university in respect of just how tough this field is. I love my job but I have been very lucky and there is still the worry of what will happen when I qualify. It’s tough getting a training contract but I’m beginning to learn it’s also tough finding a newly qualified’

For some, essentially, it’s all about the money. Here’s a particularly plaintive comment: ‘I wish I had become a dentist. My Uni friends who studied dentistry are raking it in, working 4 day weeks and living the dream.’ They still have to poke around at rotten teeth, though, don’t they?

Don’t give up!

As one contributor says: It really is all about ‘getting your foot in the door’ and being given an opportunity to prove your worth.’ Another writer who was lucky in that parents funded their education and who came out of university and the LPC debt free, thinks they would still have taken the LPC if they had to take out a loan. ‘I knew competition for TC was fierce and I took the LPC with this in mind. While better career advice on different routes into law as well as other career paths altogether would no doubt have been great I do not think it would have changed my career route. LPC providers are a business. However, I think that students should do the ground work into researching the career they wish to pursue.’

Another more mature (in age) writer sympathises with other posters but points out that on their LPC course, other students ‘never bothered to apply for a TC’ ‘treated the course like university … not showing up half the time… and … frankly didn’t make the intellectual grade’ This person knew they ‘had the necessary grit, resilience and determination bordering on obsession. Sadly, the same can’t be said of many of these young adults who come out of university with no real experience of the modern workplace.’

This poster would deregulate the profession ‘first by making the LPC a bit harder, second allowing all LPC graduates to style themselves solicitors, much the same way BVC graduates are entitled to call themselves barristers’ and thirdly ’non-qualified solicitors would still be able to practice law under employment contracts for organisations, but not directly for members of the public and they would have no rights of audience.

Qualification would still be via the TC. This would simultaneously open up access to the profession, find a useful and meaningful career prospect to thousands of legally-trained professionals in business and in the public sector, and open up competition within the profession.’ Interesting…

Some people are convinced that a training contract will come eventually and therefore take the risk. When David Akin-Samuels was studying for the LLB at the University of Westminster, he says he was given the full statistics regarding the number of those waiting and hunting for training contracts, and was also told that it is possible to switch to another area or work rather than thinking that the only possible way is by becoming a Solicitor. He says : ‘Perhaps, aspiring Solicitors should start considering another way of getting into law. I am of the opinion that the best thing is to keep on trying…. Good luck out there - we all need it.’

Another more mature entrant to the profession writes that they ‘have empathy with all the above posters who have not been able to secure training contracts and have not had much support from their LPC providers.’ This writer, like me, was ‘reckless and irresponsible’ enough to fund the CPE/LPC themselves without a training contract in their late 30’s. This enterprising writer ‘never stopped doing applications during my two years at law college whilst some of my younger contemporaries didn’t seem to understand how important it was to start the application process early. You need tenacity, drive and sheer determination in addition to strong academics to get a TC and my college pushed us to do these applications’ they go on to say ‘You cannot use the market as an excuse and it is tough out there’. Happily a training contract was secured for this tenacious individual.

Our lucky debt-free student mentioned earlier also extols the virtues of hard work and preparation with also a bit of modesty: ‘I worked really hard on my applications (making full use of the careers department) and practised interviews thoroughly before every one I had. It was soul destroying applying for countless vacation places and TC’s but I left the LPC with two TC offers - one of which I accepted. If I can get a TC then anyone who is determined to work hard and stick at it can!’

Here is some advice by one correspondent ‘to those who are feeling disheartened’:

’Keep going, try to get experience in other areas of law. If after 2 years you are considering giving up law and doing something else then I guess you have to ask yourself if law was really the career for you. Realistically, if you have a 2:2 degree and decide not to complete the LPC on the basis that you’ll wait for a training contract before doing so, then you have to be aware that the firms that offer places years in advance often have a 2:1 minimum entry requirement. My experience was that the smaller law firms generally require you to have completed the LPC before they consider you and also require someone who can hit the ground running so the more experience the better. I have no regrets in taking the LPC and I’m glad it’s taken me a while to reach my goal. I’ve worked hard and appreciate that some things are worth waiting for.

An early anonymous poster and Associate Solicitor partly responsible for interviewing/recruiting paralegals says that they are saddened by how many applicants have completed the LPC but haven’t been able to gain training contracts. Time and time again, apparently, they have explained ‘that they are not warned at the outset of the realties of trying to gain a training contract and go on to qualify’.

Frankly if I was being interviewed at a law firm looking for a job, I would never admit to not having done my own due diligence, especially when so much of my own money had been at stake. Such a lax attitude does not bode well if a firm is looking to hire someone to advise clients about the risks to their businesses.

CILEx

There is a lot of discussion in the responses in and around the CILEx route to becoming a legal executive, and potentially qualify as a solicitor. Clearly law schools do not see it as part of their remit to tell prospective students that they can work at a law firm, become a member of CILEx, gain sufficient experience, become a Fellow of the institute and then take the LPC and qualify as a solicitor without the need to do a training contract (but, it could be argued, why should they? It’s up to students to see careers advisers and do their research!).

Unfortunately, if you try to do this the other way around, starting with the LPC you will find that this route is not open to you, and this is the main cause of ire among our respondents.

One anonymous poster puts the position thus: ‘I only took the LPC because I didn’t have to do a training contract as I had taken the ILEX route. More students should be told of this route knowing that with a few more exams (and a few exemptions) they could qualify as a Solicitor immediately after taking their LPC and PSC. I finished my LPC in June 2009, took the LPC in August and was qualified by October all in the same year. The background grounding that you are given as a Legal Executive gives you a better background to become a solicitor.’

An associate prosecutor with the CPS and a CPS member of ILEX says ‘I think the Law Society are a bit behind and should be making people aware at the point of taking the LPC of the difficulty in obtaining training contract especially if you are over 30 years of age.’

A trainee solicitor writes about the problem in getting a training contract after completing the LPC. They worked up from legal secretary to paralegal to trainee in a series of law firms and several years. ‘I had all but given up on getting a training contract and was starting down the ILEX route as I had the necessary work experience, only to find that if you have done the LPC already you cannot then qualify using the ILEX route as you have to be a legal executive before completing the LPC. This anomaly in the system is yet another barrier to getting qualified and as far as I can see serves no purpose whatsoever.’ They go on to say: ‘If I had known about the ILEX route before I started the LPC I would probably have done that instead of doing the LPC. I was lucky to be offered a training contract but if I hadn’t I was set to give up. I really think this is an area that needs looking at by both the Law Society and ILEX to come up with a sensible solution.’

One contributor notes: ‘Surely ILEX and the College of Law would be better off working together on this so there are more opportunities, more people gaining qualifications and happier individuals. ILEX are doing a sterling job, the College of Law seem more interested in making money from the LPC.’

The future

So, what does the future hold? As you probably know the LETR is underway and is consulting with stakeholders and gathering together research before making their recommendations to the bodies who have commissioned them, namely the SRA, the Bar Standards Board and CILEx. From interaction the JLD has had with LETR to date it appears that the review is more about future regulation than the future of legal training per se, and we could soon be looking at a world where legal training is more centered around work-based learning (after the apparent success of the SRA work based learning pilot).

We could be looking at a greater variety of ways of entry into the profession with a greater emphasis on specialisation. This may open up the playing field allowing more aspiring lawyers to find meaningful legal work, and go some way to removing the current LPC/ training contract bottleneck.

If so, then one of our anonymous respondents will be a bit happier, perhaps. I’ll leave the last word to him or her: ‘One day despite the pain the legal profession is causing me I will be able to look back proudly and fondly. Just call me crazy.’

Mark Pentecost is a member of the JLD executive committee.

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