Following yesterday’s guest blog by Christopher Agnew, we welcome another guest poster, Tim Haddow of Edinburgh University’s Law Students’ Council, who provides an alternative view of the debate over fair access to the legal profession.
Paid Traineeships – Levelling the playing field
Firms must now pay trainees at least the minimum wage. The Law Society of Scotland’s new policy reflects the need to ensure all training opportunities were available to all, not just those with the financial resources to allow them to work unpaid. In yesterday’s guest post, Christopher Agnew argued that this may just add to the difficulties faced by those understandably desperate to start their intended career after four years of undergraduate study and an expensive Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP).
I think the new policy is required to prevent less well-off candidates being excluded but the experience of recent DPLP graduates such as Christopher certainly shows there must be whole-scale review of the route into the legal profession. The waste of talent, time and money inherent in the current system is shameful. But focusing on training contracts overlooks a more significant and insidious bias towards means rather than merit: the cost to students of undertaking the DPLP.
Making it onto the pitch in the first place
Obtaining a DPLP costs around £12,000. Fees and compulsory course materials cost nearly £7,000; living costs for the year of study make up the balance. A small government loan of £3,400 towards fees is the only assistance available as, unlike students on a teaching diploma, DPLP students are not eligible for student loans for maintenance. Following a recent review, the fees contribution was extended. But, bizarrely, the Scottish Government chose not to increase the contribution to better reflect the actual fees charged, nor to target assistance at those who needed it most. Instead the money was merely made available to all DPLP students, rather than limiting assistance to the 300 most academically able students applying that year.
The resultant DPLP funding gap of £8,000 to £10,000 must be met by students themselves. For those without the support of a well-off family, this is a daunting prospect. A few with good credit ratings and secure offers of training contracts with big firms may take on commercial debt. The majority will probably decide that the DPLP is a risk they cannot take.
These students will never compete for training contracts with their more privileged peers. No matter how bright or able, they will be lost to the profession. The Universities may be doing great outreach work in breaking down barriers to Higher Education: 10-15% of Edinburgh’s law undergraduates now come from those otherwise unlikely to go to University. But this will not feed through into the profession. No wonder Douglas Mill, former Chief Executive of the Law Society and current Director of Professional Legal Practice at Glasgow University, warned “we’re in danger of reverting to being an upper middle class profession.”
This is why a sole focus on training contracts misses the point: it does not matter if the playing field is level if you cannot make it onto the pitch.
What needs done?
In the longer term, the DPLP must be part of the re-design of legal training argued for above. But action is needed now to re-open the route to the profession for those who cannot be supported through the DPLP by their families. The Scottish Government must accept that its well intentioned change to postgraduate funding has, if anything, made access to the profession more difficult for those students who most require support.
But a simple short-term solution does exist: extending eligibility to the undergraduate student loan to DPLP students would make huge inroads into the funding gap. The change could implemented quickly and would be provided through existing systems and procedures. Means testing of student loans ensures only those who really need the help benefit. A precedent already exists with postgraduate teacher training.
Lobbying the Scottish Government for this action is the focus of the University of Edinburgh Law Students’ Council’s current campaign. Our message has been welcomed by MSPs from all parties and has garnered support from various student bodies. Turning a sympathetic hearing into a policy change will be no easy step. The legal profession has to show it is committed to equal access by setting in motion long-term changes to the structure of training. But in the short term we need to stand together to ask the Government to fulfill its responsibilities to equal access and provide a support package ensuring ability and motivation are the only relevant factors for anyone, regardless of background, considering a career in Scots Law.
Law Students’ Council
The University of Edinburgh
Tim Haddow is an LLB student at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the Law Students’ Council, the elected representative body for students at the university’s School of Law. More information on the Law Students’ Council’s campaign on DPLP funding is available at http://dplpfunding.wordpress.com/latest-updates/