Should Law Schools Refund Students if They Can’t Get a Job?

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By Alex Aldridge on

In a move that may interest jobless British law graduates and the bigwigs on the panel of the ongoing legal education and training review (LETR), two Yale Law School professors are championing a controversial plan to refund law school tuition fees if students fail to secure a job.

Professors Akhil Amar and Ian Ayres want Yale to be the first law school to reimburse students’ tuition fee loans if the student realises the opportunity for a successful legal career is doubtful while enrolled on the course – a scenario that has affected large numbers of US law students since the onset of the recession.

The origin of the plan lies in an anonymous US law students’ letter posted online two years ago. In it, the student wrote: “I am willing to leave law school, without a degree, at the end of this semester. In return, I would like a full refund of the tuition I’ve paid over the last two and a half years.”

Could this idea gain traction in Britain?

Despite the severity of our legal education problems – LPC graduates far out-number trainee lawyer places, and only around one in five BPTC graduates secure pupillage – it’s unlikely; mainly because law school in this country is shorter and cheaper than in the US (where law is a postgraduate-only three-year course with fees in excess of £100,000). Because British law graduates have opportunities to defer their studies – between, say, the GDL and the LPC – and don’t carry the same level of debt as their Americans counterparts, the case for allowing them to claim back their fees is less compelling. However, the sentiment behind the idea – encouraging law schools to take more responsibility for the fate of their graduates – certainly has the potential to catch on to a greater extent on these shores.

Most agree that the only realistic way to get UK law schools to better look out for their students’ interests is by forcing them to restrict entry onto their LPC and BPTC courses – allowing either only students who have passed an aptitude test to enrol, or perhaps even limiting entry to students with training contracts or pupillages already lined up. However, such a restriction could fall foul of competition law; when a proposal was made in 2009 to limit BPTC places – via the introduction of a compulsory aptitude test –  it was blocked by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

Since then, though, as the recession has dragged on and money has become tighter, the mood has changed. Following Kaplan law School’s initially controversial, yet successful, introduction of its own BPTC aptitude test – raising the percentage of its graduates securing a pupillage to 46% last year (well above the 25% average) – there is a renewed enthusiasm to consider some form of restriction on entry to postgraduate legal education.

Will this actually happen, though? So far, the LETR panel members have talked a good game, but amid law schools’ powerful lobbying in favour of maintaining the status quo, and the tendency of law students’ and recent graduates to stay silent on the matter, there’s a danger that the appetite for change will fade.

Yesterday a junior barrister summed up the problem on his blog, ForTheDefence:

“We weren’t brave at bar school. Again, we were outside moaning, we’d send the occasional clipped email, but we never wanted to rock the boat. The fear was, that by rocking the boat our BVC (now BPTC) provider could narrow those pupillage odds even further. I had vowed to email, or write to the powers that be when I got pupillage. But, I didn’t. There’s a lot wrong with our current system of legal education, in particular the BVC/BPTC course and some of the providers, ne’er shall it improve without the intervention of barristers.”

Happily, this barrister has decided to make his voice heard.

“I am going to write to Professor Andrew Sanders the Chair of the Education and Training Committee of the Bar Standards Board. I am going to make some suggestions to him about how we can improve the BPTC. In particular, I am going to suggest that each provider has local junior barristers who are available to be contacted about problems with courses. I am going to ask that those junior barristers visit the local provider and are accessible. I am going to ask what is being done about numbers of entrants compared to pupillages. I am going to ask that a junior barrister as well as a senior barrister is part of the team that does the annual provider visit. I am going to ask that real thought is given to having discussions with banks about their finance packages for BPTC students. Is there anything else you want me to write?”

Contact ForTheDefence with your comments on Twitter or via his blog.