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The Judge Rules: career-focused millennials spell doom for the GDL

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Like James Blunt, the law conversion course is just so 2005

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Remember 2005? If you are a law student or junior lawyer today, this picture is likely to sound totally alien — but for those a bit older, let’s pause and reminisce.

A former guards officer, James Blunt, was crooning his way into the hearts of teenage girls, Chelsea won the Premier League by a 12-point margin over Arsenal, and Islamic fundamentalist bombings were unleashed on London’s streets.

But despite worries about the “war on terror”, the economy effectively boomed — Britain’s GDP in 2005 increased by about 4%. In the legal profession, law firm training contracts more or less grew on trees; City solicitors had conquered Europe and were going global.

Wannabe lawyers could adopt a relatively relaxed attitude by reading an interesting and “fun” subject at university before knuckling down for a year of pain on the law conversion course.

Undergraduate tuition fees were seven years in the distant future and the process of qualifying as a lawyer was generally a damn sight cheaper.

It was very much a roll on Friday era. Students and even young lawyers could be far more carefree about the legal profession, adopting if not quite a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, then a far more blasé approach to training contracts and pupillages than those following a decade later.

Then came the global financial crisis and crash of 2007-08.

Today we are in a roll on Monday era. Forget the pub — the beer is unaffordable in any event — and concentrate on which legal recruitment fairs to attend, that pile of law firm summer vac scheme or mini-pupillage forms to complete, and ultimately the crucible of training contract or full pupillage applications.

Law students and junior lawyers might never have been described as frivolous — even during those halcyon days of wine and roses in 2005 — but in 2015 they have really been forced to get their heads down.

There is no better barometer of that climatic change than the declining interest in the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), for which applications have plunged from 5,980 in 2008-09 to just 3,690 last year.

The course can set students back by as much as £10,000. That is a heavy price for all but those from the most wealthy families to pay for the privilege of spending three years studying a subject that actually interests them.

The potential withering of the GDL could herald more than just a few sleepless nights for law school financial directors. It could signal a profound move towards an accelerated version of the US legal education process.

How far away are we from a qualify regime that sees students required to complete a four-year undergraduate programme that combines the LLB with a version of today’s legal practice course before going on to do some form of shortened on-the-job training?

In the US, the process takes about seven years in total, but that jurisdiction’s undergraduate degrees are a year longer than those in the UK and law school in America is still all post-graduate study.

But the over-riding point is that qualifying as a lawyer in the US is an extremely expensive business, and it is becoming much more expensive in this jurisdiction.

Of course, many wannabe commercial solicitors are fortunate to have training contract offers from law firms willing to pick up the cost of their post-graduate study. However, as budgets tighten, how keen will even the biggest hitting City firms be to finance the GDL?

Will a time come when the policy shifts — albeit even informally — to a point where economics dictate that those students with law degrees are preferred for training contracts and LPC sponsorship?

Many lawyers from older generations will regret the passing of the conversion course in England and Wales, if indeed it does shuffle off. There is a strong argument that completing a non-law degree is not only more fun for students, but actually results in the moulding of better-rounded lawyers.

But in roll on Monday world, will the legal profession continue to allow itself the luxury of having a higher educational grounding in anything but the subject of law?