The Rise in Law Students

Without a doubt, there has never been a more competitive time to enter the legal sector. It’s hard to fathom a time where applying for a training contract involved sending off a well-worded letter and hoping for the best, or where a student embarked on a law degree without acronyms such as GDL, LPC and BPTC waiting for them at the other end.

Yet none of these high stakes are deterring students from law - in fact, quite the opposite. The legal sector is becoming more and more saturated, as ever-increasing numbers of students focus their education efforts on a top legal position.

So why is this happening, and what, if anything, needs to change? And are there any benefits to this vast increase in young people pursuing legal careers?

  • Last updated Feb 10, 2018 4:35:12 PM
  • Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw
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Infographics: Josh Krohn and Sam Jenkins. Image: Baim Hanif

The Increase

In 2016, 15,950 students graduated with a law degree in England and Wales: a 24% increase on 2006 (1). As this cohort of students left university, the next cohort was formed; a record 22,765 were accepted into university first degree law courses in England and Wales. While in reality, not all of these students with a place to study law will follow through and graduate, this number of acceptances suggests that there will be no shortage in law graduates in three to four years time.

Number of law graduates 2016
Number of law graduates in England and Wales 2016. 

It’s striking that the rise is not confined to one single area, but happening steadily across the country. Nor are we seeing a dip in the quality of students’ grades. From the 2010/11 academic session up until 2015/6, there has been an 11.6% increase in the number of students achieving a 2:1 or higher. This alone is quite a significant jump, especially given that a lot of postgraduate law programmes - be they training contracts or LLM degrees - do not accept applicants with a 2:2 or lower. It’s not just a case of there being more law graduates - the law graduates entering the employment market are more desirable academically. It might be that getting good marks in your law degree is getting easier.

“Getting good marks in your law degree is getting easier”

The most dramatic rise, though, has been the number of students achieving first class honours. Since 2010/11, the number of students achieving the top grade class has risen by over 50% of the original figure. Overall, 71.3% of students graduating in 2016 received a 2:1 or higher, excluding those who got unclassified degrees (2). 

The sheer number of students completing the first steps needed to become a lawyer, and doing so with flying colours, has been instrumental in making the industry more competitive as a whole. Most training contracts require a 2:1 or higher - but this is no longer much of an instrument in whittling numbers of applicants down, as most students get a 2:1 or a first class degree. While there are many more qualified and academic students graduating with LLBs and GDLs, the number of training contracts has remained roughly the same.

A record 22,765 students were accepted into undergraduate law degrees in 2016. 

At the university level, much has changed to accommodate this influx of law students. Aware that their undergraduates can no longer obtain training contracts based on their grades alone, universities are introducing initiatives and schemes to prepare aspiring trainees for the gruelling application process.

At City University, for example, the law degree now comes with an integrated career module, where students are taught how to do everything from speculative application letters to legal CVs. With grades high across the board, CVs and application forms have become the ‘first hurdle’ at which students fall - and universities are helping them to prevent this.

There are a number of ways that students can remain competitive, and a lot of them mean making an impression on a firm so they will be remembered in future. Vacation schemes are a staple in the journey to becoming a solicitor. Some firms recruit very heavily from the vacation schemes, and while there are exceptions, the trend is moving towards more vacation schemers being hired than not. The process of making an impression on a firm has now started even earlier - there are first year opportunities available at a variety of firms.

“A large part of university careers advisers’ job is to manage expectations”.

Graduates

In 2016, just three in ten law graduates achieved below an upper second class degree.

Of course, a large part of university careers advisers’ job is to manage expectations. This can mean showing law students what else they can do beyond the traditional solicitor option, and presenting other ways of using their degrees. Students can now embark on micro-placements - a short period in an industry that would not be their first choice, that they may not have considered before. While a qualifying LLB degree is of course desirable, it’s also versatile - and can lead to many careers, either in law or beyond it.

But why exactly has this huge influx of law graduates happened? What has made law so suddenly and steadily desirable to students?

The answer: an older, benevolent, all-encompassing advice source, which takes the form of the internet.

 

The Reason

“In 1989 when I started my A-levels I didn’t have the information ‘upfront’ to proactively plot my route into law”, said Scott Bowley, a Partner at Porter Dodson. “There was no internet and there was no careers officer at my school. My working-class parents were not in a position to advise me.”

Scott’s situation is similar to that of many others who entered the profession before the internet. 20 years or so ago, law was an enigma for anyone who did not have a parent, family friend, or informed teacher to assist them. The secret of what law firms were really looking for was far from accessible to all. Then came the internet’s expansion as a global resource. While law firms did not become easier to get into, it became easier to find out what they expected.

“Almost all students rate online advice over printed advice”

Flash forward to today, and AllAboutLaw’s research shows that more students than ever are getting their careers advice online, with 81% of students preferring websites to print. It’s a preference that has its roots in quality as well as ease - almost all students rate online advice over printed advice (3). The students applying for university today have never lived without the internet - it is the natural place to turn to when seeking careers advice.

The AllAboutLaw Research Report shows that law students are geared towards the internet 

The internet can provide comprehensive and expansive advice about the law recruitment process, and it can start conversations between prospective applicants. “Had the internet been available I think I would have been much better informed, and for example would have known that I needed to apply for a training contract at least a year ahead”, said Scott.

But what exactly is it about the internet that’s made it so instrumental in drawing students into the legal sphere?

There are a number of reasons why today’s prospective lawyers are not drawn to print - the inaccessibility of some print publications, the ease with which websites can be updated and revised to reflect changes in the market, and the occasionally cumbersome nature of print. The internet is the perfect adviser, as it can grow and change with the legal industry.

It is possible that students are finding what they need online, and can tailor what they read and consume to their questions. “It’s more streamlined”, said Leah, an LLB second year student. “I can find out exactly what I need without picking up a bulky guide or spending hours at an event”.

These changes in how people find out about a career in law - along with the consolidation of a popular ‘pathway’ to becoming a lawyer - has made it more straightforward to develop a competitive and well-tailored application.

 

The common goal

Students aspire to take one of two routes - they are either drawn to the Bar, or want to become solicitors. But even within the massive umbrella term of ‘solicitor’, they aspire towards a very specific type of role. AllAboutLaw research revealed the law firms at the top of students’ minds: the top contenders were Clifford Chance, Allen and Overy, Linklaters, Slaughter and May and Freshfields. These are all magic circle firms, with international presence and high turnovers, which explains their popularity. There’s also the appeal of earning, on average, £39,000 at the start of your career - the highest average starting salary out of any industry (4). 

“Students are unaware of options beyond magic circle firms”

The top-mentioned law firms: Clifford Chance, Allen and Overy, Linklaters, Slaughter and May and Freshfields were mentioned by law students 

The fact that these firms spring to mind for students says a lot about what those students expect a career in law to be like. On one hand, there’s the picture of thousands of law students aspiring to be corporate, London-based lawyers. On the other, there’s one where they are simply unaware, or less aware, of the other options. “I think I’m definitely drawn in by the myth of working in the city for a big name”, said Chris, a second-year LLB student.

Interest in working for a city firm is all well and good - indeed there are a lot of benefits - but the fact that so many people are concentrating on the top spots perhaps hinders the chances of some students.

In reality, there are lots of other options for law undergraduates. The dream of being a solicitor need not be abandoned, with options to move in house after qualifications, with companies such as Adidas, Google and Coca-Cola. As brands increase in prominence within our society - expanding into retail giants - the need for in-house legal representation will become all the more valid. There are also different types of firm, from local regional firms that serve the community, to huge international operations which have branches all over the world. For students who are aware of the type of firm they want to work for, the journey will be a lot easier.

There’s also the option to work in a different industry for a few years, and then return to training contract applications. This could, in the long run, be a huge asset in the career of a discerning lawyer: commercial awareness is of huge importance, and there’s no better way to gain it then by working in a business environment for a few years. Law graduates could also pursue academia, or legal journalism - not as a substitute for a law career, but in order to shape it further down the line.

 

Diversity in law

There is a silver lining to the rise in law students: a rise in diversity. The representation of BAME people within law is rising, and women are both outnumbering and outranking men in law degrees (5).

“The skills and knowledge needed to become a successful lawyer are no longer isolated within more traditional groups”

female law graduates 2016

At 64%, the majority of law graduates in 2016 were female. 

This slow and steady expansion of previously underrepresented groups could point back towards the availability of information online. The skills and knowledge needed to become a successful lawyer are no longer isolated within more traditional groups, schools and classes, due to the all-encompassing nature of the internet, and efforts made in recent years by law firms to be more inclusive.

Women currently make up 47% of lawyers in law firms, while people classified as BAME make up 18% of all lawyers. There is still some way to go - these figures do not represent the undergraduate body, and there is still a lack of diversity at the partner level. But many law firms now recognise the benefit of having a team of lawyers who are representative of the society they work within - including a mix of genders, sexualities and ethnic backgrounds.

The big focus of the law sector is social mobility, according to the Institute of Student Employers (ISE). In order to stimulate this change, there are diversity schemes in place to identify talented students from underrepresented backgrounds, and support these groups within their working life once they arrive at the firm. One example is Baker Mckenzie, which won the AllAboutLaw Diversity & Inclusion Award 2017.

There’s evidence across the board that law firms are doing more, on average, than other industries when it comes to diversity. 93% of law firms took specific actions to attain diverse intake in 2017, compared to the 71% cross-industry average. Law firms adopt a number of approaches: university-blind and name-blind recruitment, outreach events for undergraduates, and contextualised recruitment. Law firms are using these diversity-enhancing techniques more than other industries (6). 

proportion of BAME law students

Almost two fifths of the students accepted at undergraduate level were BAME students. 

While law has not historically been known for its diversity, the rise in graduates - and the increasing diversity of these graduates on a cohort-to-cohort basis - has spurred law firms on in their efforts to diversify their intakes. Hopefully, as the diversity of graduates increases, the law sector in general will soon become proportionately diverse.

 

An expanding industry

Law students today face an unprecedented challenge in navigating recruitment processes, work experience, corporate etiquette, and competition. But in reality, the world will always need lawyers. While training contract numbers remain fixed, this is less a pessimistic hurdle, and more a chance for law students to be creative in how they pursue their careers. For those considering training contracts, there is a whole system of studying - alongside the academic requirements of the LLB - to understand the application and recruitment process for these coveted places. Online resources make it much easier for students to understand how to do this, as well as understanding the nuances of law in general. The internet has opened a new door into law, that did not exist 20 years ago. As a result, more people are informed enough to submit compelling applications, at every level from undergraduate degree to training contract.

In spite of the competitive spike in the number of law students, it’s hard not to see the benefits it brings. As diversity rises - albeit slowly - the law industry is set to feature a dynamic and all-encompassing range of minds. Hopefully, it will become proportional to the society it endeavours to represent.

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1. Law society annual statistics report 2017.

2. HESA Data and analysis 2015/2016

3. 94.21% gave websites a rating of five or higher out of 10, compared to the 75.39% who gave print publications a rating of five or higher. AllAboutLaw research report 2017.

4.  Law starting salary median: £39,000. ISE: "Recruitment Trends in Law"

5. 34% of the students accepted at undergraduate level were BAME students: This figure has increased, slowly yet steadily, over the years. In 2010/11, 31.7% of law students were BAME. women make up 64% of law graduates.: 13% got firsts and 58% got upper second class degrees, compared to men’s 11.7% and 54.6% respectively. Source: HESA. 

6. Contextualised recruitment: ? of law firms compared to 3% of non-legal employers. Outreach for undergraduates: 34% law firms, compared to 22% non-legal employers. Name/university-blind recruitment: 34% law firms compared to 15% of non-legal employers. ISE - “Recruitment Trends in Law Firms”. 

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