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Law schools should be more realistic about graduate job prospects

17 November 2011

Career advice centres are “really good at producing glossy brochures” and can talk about standard career options but don’t provide enough individual personalised support for students pursuing a career in law, a senior charity executive has said.

Delivering the Association of Law Teachers’ 2011 Upjohn Lecture on Friday (11 November), Wes Streeting, chief executive of the Helena Kennedy foundation, said “more information would help when people start looking at employability statistics”.

Streeting went on to call for law schools to discuss with students options available outside legal practice, and law firms to be “more transparent as to where they recruit from and who they’re after”.

The focus of the former NUS president’s lecture was primarily on widening access to higher education and the long-term benefits for the individuals admitted to university as well as for the wider community.

He condemned recent moves following the rise in university fees such as fee waivers. It made more sense to offer bursaries instead, he said, leaving young people to manage their finances in their own way.

He also said most of the media coverage of the fee increases misleadingly suggested that this would restrain access to higher education, when in fact very few people paid fees out of their own pockets.

But, for those who made it on to university benches, he warned of further disappointment, with a growing number of aspiring lawyers signing up to law courses chasing diminishing job opportunities in the legal profession.

One major obstacle for those from socially deprived background was the lack of connection with the legal world, reducing opportunities for placements, training contracts or pupillages, he suggested.

There were large numbers of young people interested in law as a career, he continued, but, “without dampening their enthusiasm, we must also look at choices for those who end up without a training contract or a job as a lawyer”.

In addition, he said, law firms and recruiters should be more honest about job prospects and give students a more realistic indication of their chances of securing a position.

“Honesty is the best policy,” he said. “Don’t lead somebody up the garden path and let them spend hours filling pages of application, with a drop-down box of, say, 13 universities to choose from and then ‘other’, when you know that ‘other’ will end up in the recycle bin unless there’s a first class degree or other outstanding element in the application.”

Streeting said central regulation could be an alternative, where law courses could be planned in the same way as NHS courses. However, this would imply that law undergraduates positively embarked on a career as a lawyer from the start, whereas many might just wish to read law out of general interest or to develop the skills in a non-law environment.

Richard Owen, associate head of the law school at University of Glamorgan and ALT chair, agreed career advice ought to provide information about employability but queried how this job market driven approach could be squared up with the primary objective of universities to produce well-rounded citizens.

Owen also questioned the view that there were too many law students. “There are perhaps too many who feel studying law can only lead to being a lawyer,” he said. “What we have to make them understand is that it’s a good grounding that opens the door to other jobs such as accountancy, third sector, or the civil service.”

Pat Leighton, emeritus professor at Glamorgan University, had the same concern. “If you’re thinking of a law degree as preparation for the legal profession as we’ve known it, the answer is probably yes, but the expectation of students has to be modified,” she said. “There are extremely disappointed good people who have spent time and money on their degrees and are having to take a low-paid job. But if we said to young students today that they will be paralegals there would be disbelief.”

She went on: “We should think of a law degree as an excellent academic discipline, not just a way of entering the legal profession, which helps develop rational thinking, critique, evaluation, analytical skills – which many employers will find attractive.”

“As academics,” she said, “we must look seriously at the message we’re giving out and sell the law degree as intellectual training.”

But, she concluded, “there is an irony in that while opportunities are declining we’re trying to widen the pool”.

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