New surveys from Targetjobs

GTI Media, the publishers of the Targetjobs websites, have completed their 2012 trainee and law student surveys. The results can be found here.

Results for the trainee survey are derived from an online survey completed by 206 trainee solicitors working at a ‘variety’ of law firms. Headline findings include:

  • Just over 70% agreed that the LLB/GDL prepared them ‘quite’ or ‘very’ well for work
  • Over 90% thought that the LPC prepared them ‘quite’ or ‘very’ well for legal practice
  • About 75% agreed that ‘university’ prepared them ‘reasonably’ or ‘very’ well for their training contract

These headlines obviously suggest a fair degree of satisfaction with the status quo. Neil Rose in Legal Futures has been quick to suggest that “the results arguably run contrary to the sentiments coming out of the ongoing Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) that the LPC is not preparing students adequately.” Of course its Neil’s job to look for an argument, but I have two responses to that statement; first, so far, we have only asked the question, we are still looking at (for) the evidence, either way. Secondly, I’m not sure the evidence to LETR thus far is pointing to radically different conclusions regarding student perceptions (though those of course are just part of the picture, and we are trying to be more nuanced about it, precisely because these sorts of headline stats are of relatively limited value).

As with all stats, the story they tell depends, to an extent, on how we choose to interpret them: glass half full or glass half empty? Should we be concerned that over a quarter of graduates felt that their LLB/GDL did not prepare them ‘at all well’ for the world of work?  Similarly, that 68% said the LPC prepared them only ‘quite well’ for the TC might be seen as less than a ringing endorsement. Is ‘quite well’ good enough, or is it realistically as much as we can ask of a classroom-based course?

More than that, however, responses need also to be read in the context of what else was asked, and what else we know about the sample. From the published GTI date the contextual date appears quite limited:

  • All respondents are employed as trainees, so the system has worked for them. We don’t know if that predisposes them to the status quo. Would unsuccessful LPC graduands have given a significantly different set of responses?
  • We don’t know whether factors like sponsorship, the provider attended, or attendance at a ‘bespoke’ LPC make a difference to perceived satisfaction. Some more sophisticated factor analysis might be really helpful here.
  • What if we asked them to envisage a better way of training, how would the LPC compare then?
  • What if we also asked them whether the LLB or GDL should be a better preparation for work or not? That might have given a different slant on satisfaction with the degree/GDL

This is not intended to rubbish the GTI findings, but it does highlight (as if we need to!) the difficulty we face in interpreting such broad data.  This is one of the reasons we are drawing extensively on qualitative data for LETR, and, interestingly, the individual comments reported by GTI do echo quite a number of the things we are hearing in our fieldwork.

The student survey (705 respondents) also offers some strong measures of student satisfaction: 85% of those studying law were ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’ with the quality of their degree, and only 4% felt that their degree did not prepare them for work.

Not surprisingly, the GTI data echoed other recent studies that have emphasised the criticality of work experience to access to the profession.  93% of students stated that they found it ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ to get a vacation placement offer. Students also felt strongly that the profession has an obligation to provide more work experience opprtunities than it currently does.

The survey also reports that 43% of students were thinking about a career outside of law. The report speculates that this may reflect the higher competition for training contracts and pupillages. But again the evidence may not really support this. It is not clear whether the GTI data disaggregate those students considering a non-legal career as a back-up option from those who have no intention of entering the profession. Melissa Hardee’s recent survey, along with other studies going back to the 1980s, suggests that, by the final year of the degree, consistently over a third of law students have no intention to enter practice, indicating perhaps that increased competition may be having less of an impact than the 43% figure at first sight suggests. But food for thought nonetheless.

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Careers: why ‘Big Law’ or any law?

For the students amongst you, or anyone thinking about a career in law, have a look at the excellent post by blawger Tim Bratton, General Counsel at the FT.

Westminster and Warwick – two universities I’ve worked in, are very different law schools, but their students have tended to share the same aspiration for corporate work at a magic circle firm – ‘Big Law’.
Why? Money and status are undoubtedly significant motivations for at least some, but we also know that those kinds of aspirations are not necessarily the ones that will keep you walking into the office with a spring in your step ten years down the line. The essence of Tim’s post is a plea to consider what is going to bring the gleam to your eye or a smile to your face – to put it more academically, (in American legal ethicist William Simon’s words) what will have you experience what you do as ‘meaningful work’. That’s not necessarily an easy question to answer when you’re in your late teens or early twenties, with limited experience of any working environment, and its not just a question to ask if you’re thinking about ‘Big Law’. it’s worth asking whatever you might consider doing.

I don’t think, even in these days of debt and under-employment, its romantic to want your work to be an extension of your self-expression. I’m clear it makes a difference. It’s certainly a big part of why I chose academia over practice, though I probably wouldn’t have phrased it that way when I was making those decisions at 22 or 23! While there are plenty of lawyers who are satisfied with what they do, research shows that there are also those, particularly 5-7 years PQE, who are pretty miserable, but feel trapped by the salary, or the narrow niche work they are doing.

Julian Summerhayes (a solicitor turned business consultant and coach) in his response to Tim’s post, strongly endorses that same view, as I think would many of the lawyers I know:

‘If I was starting out now in law, I would ask myself one basic question: “Why law [as opposed to any other career]?”

What is it that is so special about buying and selling a house, preparing a will or even the more juicy end of the market? If all I could rely on in answering the question was the money – I wish a few more people were honest enough to say that – then forget it.

Go do something that inspires you. But if you see yourself contributing in a much wider context – doing good if that is not too altruistic – then consider if the partnership model (as currently constituted) will allow for that. Don’t just focus on the brand name of the firm but think about the clients, sectors and pro bono work they do. What really does float your boat? Can you marry it up with a career in law?’

Changes to the legal services market being ushered in by the Legal Services Act are also changing the employment game. I suspect that opportunities to train as a solicitor or barrister in traditional private practice will, as a result, continue to decline gradually, whilst opportunities to work as a paralegal or employed lawyer in other business settings will expand. And remember, this is in a context where less than 50% of law graduates currently are progressing to work in the legal profession. Clearly there are opportunities and threats here. Be prepared to be creative and flexible; look outside the box of traditional practice. In short, think about what really matters to you, you’re core values if you like, and what kind of work would be alligned with those values.

The numbers game in HE

I promised in the last entry to say more about grade inflation, so I’ve been thinking about some of the possible links between the themes of skills, grade inflation, diversity, and student numbers that kept popping up in last year’s blog. Unfortunately it doesn’t make for a particularly cheering entry with which to begin 2009!

The economic downturn is likely, I suspect, to uncover a few cracks in current thinking about skills, credentials and the knowledge economy.

Firstly, an obvious consequence of the increased supply of graduates since the early 90’s has been that employers, particularly those offering the tastier morsels of employment, have seen a steady increase in supply, to which they have responded by raising the entry hurdles – hence the increasing sense that a 2:i is the sine qua non for a decent graduate-entry job. That this is happening is itself a big clue to a potential problem with the system.   The market value of a degree depends on an element of scarcity. In other words, if 50% of potential employees have an undergraduate degree, then its value is diminished in the marketplace as compared with the time when only 20% of applicants had one. This is surely part of the dynamic that underlies the pressure for degree inflation – graduate numbers have increased, and employability has become an increasingly important success measure for institutions. In this context, looking at it rather cynically, perhaps, if it is in the (perceived) interests of both students and institutions to graduate more students with high honours,  we should hardly be surprised if there is upward pressure – and indeed movement – on grades. Of course the whole grade inflation issue is, as I’ve intimated before, more complex than that, but it is – at the least – one of the plausible factors in what seems to be going on. As the market for jobs gets tighter, it is unlikely that these sorts of pressures will reduce.

There is also a rather large elephant in the room as regards the whole expansion of HE, which is the assumption that there will be continuing growth in demand for graduates by employers. The Confederation of British Industry in The Guardian on 17 Sept 2008, cast its doubts on that one. It takes the view that universities are producing too many graduates already, stating that there are currently 10.1 million graduates in the UK chasing 9 million graduate jobs. And that was before the recession really started to bite. Yesterday’s Guardian, on its front page, made the point that 18-24 year olds seem to be “bearing the brunt” of the downturn. It quotes the latest labour market prediction, that by the end of 2009, we will see unemployment reach three million, with 40% of those ‘on the dole’ under 25. Of course, by no means all of those will be graduates, but graduate opportunities for 2009 are clearly already substantially reduced, and the same piece in the Guardian suggests the big recruiters are narrowing their sights even more firmly on recruiting from the elite universities of Oxbridge and the top London colleges; so another backward step for diversity there.

Logically, one might say some contraction in HE therefore would make sense, though that would not be a comfortable option for those of us who tend to see a university education as a social rather than primarily economic good. But this is, in any event, unlikely to happen, unless so dictated by market forces, and demand for HE has tended, I think, to operate relatively independently of trends in employment.  The latest projections from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) on recruitment to UK higher education suggest that, overall, demand for higher education is likely to remain strong to 2029.  In this context we are likely to see  greater indebtedness, and maybe a decline in the (perceived, but actually difficult to prove) earnings premium that graduateness is supposed to attract, and probably still greater pressure on universities to link higher education to employability.

My wish for us all for 2009 and beyond? May we not live in such interesting times!

All tomorrow’s parties – postscript

By coincidence, the Lawyer has just reported in its latest survey of the profession that 24% of lawyers would like a change of career. More than 50% of Associates in what the article described as “lower mid-market” firms (with a turnover between £25M and £50M) wanted to leave the profession. The survey indicates also the extent to which high salaries act as ‘golden handcufffs’ – the liklihood of a cut in pay is cited by 70% of those who want to leave legal practice as the major barrier to doing so.

Is this a reliable finding? Hard to say from where I’m sitting, but its not obviously hugely flawed. The survey was conducted by YouGov for the Lawyer. It obtained over 2,500 responses. This is certainly enough to form the basis of a good representative sample, though this article says nothing more about the demographics. The sample would have been self-selecting, so some skewing can’t be ruled out, and we don’t know if any tests of statistical significance were used to check the data. (In social science research these are useful because they indicate the reliability of data by computing the probability that a particular finding was not the product of chance).

Turned around, of course, this finding also suggests that around 75% of lawyers overall don’t want to leave the law. Does that still sound like a major cause for concern? (By contrast a poll of 1000 people for the Work Foundation last year came up with 78% claiming they were “very” or “quite satisfied” with their jobs, with about 5% saying they were very dissatisfied with work.) It would be interesting to know how that compares with other professions like medicine and accountancy. That said, whatever way you cut it, the sectoral data does suggest that some parts of the profession are facing potentially significant retention problems.

By the way, nine per cent of those who wanted out would like to teach.

All tomorrow’s parties?

It’s been results day for our finalists in Warwick Law School today. Lots of smiley happy people… and some rather less so. The bustle of term is coming to an end and a bit of a holiday atmosphere is starting to pervade, well amongst the students at least. We laid on celebratory drinks in the reception area, another School was doing much the same on the grass below my office window, and there was live music outside the Students Union. All in all it seems a pretty good place to be – which got me thinking about what all those happy smiley faces might be doing in three, four, five years from now; whether they’d still be doing law, and still be happy smiley faces. (I’m really not a miserable git, honest!)

Yesterday I was fielding questions in an e-mail from Zara – an A level student wondering about her degree and career options. I don’t get a huge number of such e-mails (probably just as well), but I always feel a bit wary of doling out advice and opinions – not least because I think its getting increasingly hard to generalise about legal education and legal careers – and I’m never sure I’ve pitched it right. The big firms and chambers are great at putting out the glossy recruitment brochures (definitely happy smiley faces there) and doing the milk round to cream off the brightest and the best, and a lot of potential students are clearly happy to be seduced by the status and money. I’m not sure they get to see enough of the other side though – the long hours culture, and the pressure in those organisations, nor the changes we’re seeing to high street and legal aid practice, and its potential impact on access to justice. I’m not saying it’s all bad, but I do think, as jobs go, there is quite a lot about legal practice that borders on the dysfunctional – indeed sometimes seems institutionally designed to be dysfunctional (but then that’s probably why I’m an academic…). When I’ve taught undergraduates about the legal profession and legal ethics, I’ve always tried to draw on research that gives the whole picture, to present the problems and challenges involved in pursuing a legal career, as well as acknowledging the plusses. I have no doubt this is sometimes seen by students as an unwelcome intrusion on their perception of reality!

Anyhow, this is what I wrote to Zara. I’d be interested to hear what anyone thinks about my advice:

Dear Zara
Thank you for your e-mail; sorry it has taken a while to respond, but as you will appreciate this is a busy time of year for us.

There isn’t an easy answer to your question. The first thing is, whatever your degree, if you are thinking of entering the legal profession (particularly in a competitive, high status/high income, area of work, like corporate and commercial practice) you need a good class of degree – a minimum 2:i, plus relevant work experience and anything else you can find interesting and distinctive to put on your cv (a gap year herding lamas in Peru or whatever it may be!) that will make you stand out from the dozens of other bright and enthusiastic candidates for legal jobs. Consequently I think it is important to go with the degree subject that will interest and motivate you – simply because most people do better at studying things they like than things they don’t. That said, where you go to study can make a difference, and you would also be foolish to ignore that: Oxbridge, and a few other institutions probably do give you an edge in most situations. It is debatable how far down the “league table” that edge continues, however. Moreover, the legal profession is becoming more aware of equality and diversity issues in its recruitment practices and that is starting to reduce the power of the ‘old boy’ (and girl) network.

As for the Graduate Diploma (GDL) [the conversion course for non-law graduates who wish to qualify as lawyers], it’s swings and roundabouts. Most firms and chambers, so far as we can tell, don’t in any way discriminate against the GDL. Some people say it can give you an edge on the basics – eg you will have finished studying contract only a year before you start training, for most law graduates, that knowledge will be three years old, plus you will have the breadth that studying another discipline gives you. On the other hand you don’t get the same depth and range of legal knowledge from the GDL. It is more intensive and narrower than a law degree, and you may have to work harder under training to close that gap. Obviously be aware also that the GDL adds an extra year to qualifying and so adds significantly to the costs (unless you are lucky enough to get sponsorship). With university fees as well plenty of students today are entering training with debts of £25K-£30K+.

From what you say you are unsure at this stage whether to go for the Bar or the solicitors’ profession, and that’s not something you have to decide yet. What I would say is, don’t even consider a career in the law unless you are really motivated to do it. It is a demanding career, though one that many do find fulfilling. At the top end, as everyone knows, the financial rewards are substantial, but you will be expected to earn every penny. On the other hand the future for traditional ‘high street’ areas of work (crime, family, etc) is rather more uncertain and the rewards much more variable. There are a lot of regulatory and market changes in the offing, some of which will potentially increase competition faced by traditional legal practices. The Bar in particular is a high risk career path these days, with about three BVC graduands currently chasing each pupillage (training place). I’m not trying to put you off, but I think you should know the risks.
I hope this is helpful. Good luck!