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Diploma or not?

19 April 10

The Society is trying to manage students' expectations of the prospects of finding a training place, but has also begun a free service to help match hopeful applicants with firms offering places

by Heather McPhee

The decision each LLB student faces of choosing whether or not to apply for the Diploma in Legal Practice has never been an easy one, but in recent years the difficulty has become even more acute. Students are required to weigh up a variety of factors before taking the decision of whether to apply, including the availability of postgraduate funding; the prospect of securing a traineeship; financial concerns; and career ambitions.

Securing a traineeship has never been easy, but in recent times it has become even more competitive as the number of available traineeships has considerably reduced due to the downturn in the economy. The Society considers it vital therefore, that students are armed with relevant information and hard facts before parting with their savings or taking on more debt to reach the next stage of the route to qualification.

Tell it like it is

For the first time in 2009, and again in 2010, the Society issued a guidance note, as part of a package of measures to ensure students are supported throughout their route to qualification. The guidance note is distributed with all the application forms for the Diploma and is designed to lay out the realities students need to know if they do decide to proceed with the Diploma.

The Society considers managing students’ expectations to be vital throughout the route to qualification. What we hope to achieve by producing this guidance statement is that the students entering the Diploma in Legal Practice and then ultimately the legal profession will have made an informed decision to do so. The legal profession can be assured that those graduating from the Diploma are genuinely committed to entering the profession, and to do so, many have made tough decisions and sacrifices along the way.

Liz Campbell, Director of Education and Training at the Society, is delighted by the positive response the guidance note has had among the students and universities: “We produced the note for the first time when there were many uncertainties about the future of postgraduate funding for the Diploma, and wish to provide accurate information and facts. The guidance note has already proved itself to be an important element of the work we do with new lawyers. Our aim is to ensure students are making an informed decision about their future.”

In the past, around 70-80% of applicants to the Diploma secured a place on the course. In 2009 every applicant was successful. This is a strong indication of the fact that students are well aware of the current market position and the real risk of paying for a Diploma in Legal Practice with no guarantee of a traineeship at the end. Happily hundreds of Diploma graduates do commence a traineeship each year, but for some the training contract will elude them. The Society is working hard through a package of measures, to ensure the number of those Diploma graduates who will not secure a training contract is minimal.

Key resource

Part of this package is the new website This site, part of the Journal’s recruitment website lawscotjobs, is the first of its kind in Scotland and seeks to advertise available traineeships and summer placements through a central website. The aim of the site is to allow training organisations to advertise their vacancies and build awareness of the organisation among students and graduates. The site is free for recruiters and job hunters and is designed to encourage a wide range of traineeships and summer placements.

A Diploma student’s primary concern typically is securing a traineeship. The Society has recognised this and developed the site to meet a real demand from the student population. The site was launched at the end of 2009 and though it is in the early stages, it aims to become the first port of call for recruiters during 2010.

One Diploma graduate is delighted with the development of the site: “I completed my Diploma in May 2009 and had been looking for a traineeship for a couple of years even before that. I’ve used lots of websites and written speculative applications before, to no fruition. An advert for a vacancy in a firm in Inverness appeared on the site and I applied straight away. To my delight, I was successful and will be moving from Glasgow to Inverness to start my traineeship next month. The website is a great way of connecting training organisations with students and I hope other new lawyers will also benefit from it.”

Ensuring new lawyers have the information they need to make informed decisions, and helping them to build direct links with training organisations, are two of the key principles of the Society’s work with new lawyers, regardless of the economic climate. To read the guidance note visit For information on the new recruitment website visit .

  • Heather McPhee is Development Officer, Education & Training at the Law Society of Scotland

Have your say

Your comment

Thursday April 22, 2010, 11:23

It is interesting to note, "In the past, around 70-80% of applicants to the Diploma secured a place on the course. In 2009 every applicant was successful."

I completed the diploma in the 2008/2009 session.

Given initial advice that 120 places would be available at the institution, students were surprised (and perhaps dismayed) to discover approx. 181 were enrolled. I understand a number of the additional places were offered to students shortly before the course commenced. I would agree that it is acceptable to "consider" offering such additional places in very exceptional circumstances, perhaps to borderline students with secured traineeship offers. However, to offer additional places to those without is surely damaging the traineeship prospects of others.

The point was, of course, raised with staff numerous times throughout the diploma. The only explanation given consisted of claims that certain applicants were extremely "anxious" to obtain a diploma place. In my opinion such an approach is counter-productive and detrimental to all.

I also note that as of the 2010/2011 session, a seventh institution will be providing the diploma. I can only assume that this will result in an even higher number of available places.

The diploma is an expensive, demanding course and I can fully understand the frustrations of those who have attempted to follow the path towards a legal career only to find the competition has been unnecessarily increased.

Sunday April 25, 2010, 22:44

Those looking for a traineeship might be interested to note that I have yet to come across a single legal firm that gives two hoots about performance on the Diploma.

Access to the Diploma is (with only rare exceptions) based on performance in the "Law Society" subjects and not the final class of degree.

Yet most (if not all) law firms will only interview those with a 1st or 2:1. Therefore the situation is that despite the Diploma being mandatory firms place no importance to it, other than a tick in the box. This can be seen in the practice of many firms who recruit from the 3rd year of the LLB.

The Law Society is not in a position to make firms recruit in a particular way. Fair/unfair, open/opaque, each firm can recruit how it likes.

If the Diploma is only a necessary evil for those who wish to gain a traineeship, but does nothing to improve their prospects of actually obtaining a traineeship, is the Diploma itself really necessary?

If a lawyer from another jurisdiction is allowed to practise here by means of the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (for example), why are indigenous prospective lawyers forced to seek a traineeship and place themselves at the mercy of the prejudices (legal or not) of those who are recruiting? How much talent is being wasted because the recruiting firms simply don't "fancy them"? The current system is also blighted by nepotism and patronage.

Scrap the Diploma I say.

Scrap the traineeship system I say.

Set up a system of rigorous "Bar Exams" and allow everyone to take their chances. Those and such as those would still secure the traineeships with the big commercial firms. But the rest of us would get the chance to prove that we have what it takes.

In any respect the current system is untenable and something has to change.


Thursday April 29, 2010, 12:18

I was fortunate enough to take part in a grilling of a member of the Law Society about this time last year. Tempers were running high and with only weeks until some of my cohort were due to start work, they had traineeships cancelled or deferred. The common theme of questioning was the role of the Society as gatekeeper to the profession. The facts were simple, massive number of diploma places were and still are being made available while the number of traineeships decreases rapidly. I suggested that it was for the Law Society to regulate “service providers” (universities to the man on the street) as there was no incentive for any institution to impose a cap on numbers unilaterally. Think about the maths:

Where I studied there were approx 150 students. At £5,000 a time this is a lot of money for old rope. All this for a 26 week course which is notoriously badly run and which employers see as basically useless. Let’s be honest, if it was any good, why would we need the PCC?

However, I was informed that the Law Society is not going to intervene. Rather they are proud of their "guidance note approach" (see above), something I’m sure is of great comfort to all those with the letters DipLP after their name, significant debts and a bar job instead of a traineeship. My point is that the universities will not kill the golden goose that is the Diploma, nor even clip its wings.

Would the Law Society acknowledge, as the profession does, that there are diplomas of differing qualities on offer? It is widely acknowledged (by students at least) that if you want to spend 9-5 in class then pick Edinburgh, while if you wish to pursue a "more active social life" you should head north to Aberdeen. The Law Soc rep seemed flustered at this point. I suggested that apart from public perceptions, there were also differences in price. Did the cost of providing the course really differ by as much as a grand between our fair capital to other cities? Or was this merely a reflection of quality? When, for example, had the service providers last been checked or audited to make sure they stuck to the curriculum and that we really were receiving like for like education in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow etc? That’s simple he said, when the diploma was launched. Seeking clarification, I asked when this was exactly. The answer delivered to a room of shocked faces? 1981.