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Is a 2:1 the new 2:2 for law students?

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Miss out on Oxbridge and it’s increasingly a first class degree or bust if you want to make it to the bar or the magic circle

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As pretty much everyone knows, a 2:2 law degree might as well be a fail. With so many aspiring lawyers out there, why would firms or chambers consider such candidates?

It didn’t used to be this way, with many partners and QCs having got Desmonds. If they were to be graduating these days, they’d have been contemplating very different careers. In fact, they may have found themselves struggling even with a 2:1.

Recent years have seen changes in the legal market shift the balance even further away from aspiring lawyers and towards top firms and chambers, which are inundated with applications to an unprecedented extent.

The number of undergrad law students has increased dramatically by 5,215 (28%) since 2007. Concurrently, the number of training contracts has fallen since the 2008 financial crisis, from 6,303 to around 5,000.

Pupillage numbers keep dropping too, and even fell below 400 for the first time in living memory last year. The growing creep of technology has chipped away at trainee job numbers — a trend that is likely to accelerate. And, unfortunately, the government’s brutal and sustained onslaught on the legal aid budget has wounded students’ chances of forging a career in a more welfare-orientated area of law.

No wonder law school has such a hostile, Hunger Games-eqsue reputation.

So how do you go about making it in this inhospitable environment?

One way is to worm your way into a firm or chambers by taking advantage of family ties and connections. This can be directly through a friend or family member at your dream firm or set, or indirectly by bolstering your CV through work experience placements that you didn’t find yourself. But in an era of increasingly structured graduate recruitment, this way in is getting harder.

Others land top jobs by flexing their “extra-curricula activities” muscle during interviews. Don’t know what a merger is? If you are captain of the uni football team, hold cupcake sales for Amnesty International and go to life drawing classes every Thursday, that might be less of a problem.

Route three is to sign up to a diversity recruitment agency. Some law firms are now considering students’ grades within the context which they achieved them, helping place those from disadvantaged backgrounds on a level playing field with more privileged applicants.

Everyone else has few options beyond being a super-high achieving child prodigy or university workhorse.

Just take a look at the intake of Oxbridge grads into the profession. A disproportionately high number of legal profession success stories went to one of the country’s two most prestigious unis, and it’s a trend that’s hardly letting up.

Chambers are the worst culprits — a staggering 19 out of the country’s 50 top chambers (38%) has recruited solely Oxford or Cambridge grads over the last five years.

The Oxbridge bias at top law firms is nowhere near as pronounced, but it’s still there. As we reported earlier this month, a whopping 44% of partners at firms in the magic and silver circle attended Oxford or Cambridge. This figure has dropped for most firms’ current trainee intakes — but many still recruit an Oxbridge ratio of around 30%.

It’s worth noting that of the 24,000 students who accepted an offer to study law at a higher education institute last year, only about 400 of the places are at Oxford and Cambridge.

With Oxbridge graduates in a class of their own, then, students who attended other unis often find that anything other than a first is not enough. Indeed, for pupillage at a leading chambers, it rarely is. At 11KBW, Maitland Chambers and Wilberforce Chambers, to name but a few, all five of the newest tenants graduated with top level degrees.

Unlike chambers, most firms don’t publish trainees’ CVs on their websites, but a scan of magic and silver circle firms’ trainees’ LinkedIn profiles reveals a similar pattern — if they didn’t go to Oxbridge, there is a high probability that they got a first. And you can be sure that the ones who didn’t have a good reason for falling short.

A Russell Group 2:1 may impress your parents, but for law students hoping to start out at the top it may already be the new 2:2.

Is a 2:1 the new 2:2 for law students? We’ll be discussing this question and much more on Tuesday evening on the first ever real-time Legal Cheek open thread, with two pupil barristers from Hardwicke. Join us from 6-7pm — and fire away with your questions.