Poor priced out of legal profession by extraordinary cost of studies

According to the Guardian, the new chair of the Bar Council (the regulatory body for barristers) has suggested that the cost of becoming a barrister is up to £127,000 in various student fees. This extraordinary amount of money is not the only problem facing future barristers, since the poor job prospects at the end of training mean that despite this investment they may still fail to achieve their ambitions.

The main bulk of this figure is comprised by the cost of undergraduate studies. Like all students, those studying law suffer the burden of huge debts caused by the rise of tuition fees to £9000. Of more immediate concern are the skyrocketing rents, which force many students to sacrifice good grades in order to work increasingly long hours since they are simply unable to live off their low-value maintenance loans. Law students, however, must cough up for a whole raft of further costs, because of the need to study extremely expensive vocational courses before entering the legal profession. This means that the vast majority of working class students have no hope of being able to afford to become a lawyer, at least not without burdening themselves with incredible levels of debt.

The job prospects for those who have completed all their studies (usually those from well off families or those lucky enough to gain one of the very small number of scholarships) are also worse for barristers than most professions. The legal careers website Chambers Student has suggested that 4 times as many aspiring barristers take the Bar Professional Training Course (a professional course that must be studied after gaining a law degree) than the number of pupillages available (a period of  2 years of shadowing an experienced barrister where the pupil will becoming a qualified barrister upon completion). The BPTC is of course useless for any other profession so the money paid for the course and living costs will be lost for 3 out of 4 of those who complete it.

The prospects for those who do manage to become a barrister are also often very poor. While for those who are experienced the earnings may seem to be quite high (estimated at around £60,000 per year), this overlooks the fact that out of this a large proportion must be paid to the barristers chambers (as most barristers are self-employed) which is a significant amount to cover office costs and also the debt accrued during student years and early years of being a barrister wipe away the majority of these earnings. For those who are recently qualified and generally undertake publically funded legal aid work, the earnings are nothing short of shocking. While legal aid work has always been poorly paid, the recent cuts have meant that many young barristers are paid below the minimum wage when completing this work. For a barrister who works on a criminal legal aid case, they are able to claim just £3.05 per hour for sending a letter or making a telephone call relating to the case. This extraordinarily low figure for someone with a debt of £127,000 shows why barristers have recently gone on strike for the first time ever.

The fact that barristers have been taking strike action for the first time ever demonstrates what a significant impact the crisis of capitalism has made. Barristers have always been seen as middle class and well off but even they are beginning to self-identify as working class. With the huge debt being amassed in order to qualify as a barrister, the actual take home pay for barristers is far lower than the figures being stated by the government who attempt to justify the legal aid cuts on the basis that those who do such work are well paid.

The leaders of the legal profession represent the problem as one of social mobility rather than understanding that the huge debt is only one part of the problem facing law students. Whilst campaigning against the £127,000 figure of tuition fees for aspiring barristers, we should be clear that this is only one side of the struggle. Law students and legal professionals must join together and unionise in order to fight for free education and against legal aid cuts.

This campaign must not be limited to the legal profession. We must demand that the TUC leads a united struggle of all workers against capitalism. It is necessary to understand that increasing costs and lower salaries is not a problem facing the legal profession alone, but a consequence of the crisis of capitalism. This crisis is affecting those in many professions – such as the junior doctors, for instance – who previously didn’t consider themselves working class. The crisis ridden capitalist system – whose ‘justice’ is heavily biased towards the rich even in the best of times – is no longer be able to afford the reforms granted in the past, such as legal aid or free tuition fees. The only solution is the nationalisation of the banks and monopolies in order that we may utilise their vast wealth for the benefit of all, the abolition of capitalism, and the socialist revolution.

by Scott Leonard, Sheffield Marxist Society