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Law schools must be realistic about graduate job prospects

Senior charity executive calls for more honesty and greater transparency

21 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 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.

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.

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.

Richard Owen, associate head of the law school at the 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. “The expectation of students has to be modified, but if we said to young students today that they will be paralegals there would be disbelief,” she said.

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

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