Why do they want to be lawyers?

Observations on graduates

When I was an undergraduate two years ago, I knew a historian who planned to work with refugees in Uganda, an Eng-lit student who felt born for the stage and a biologist who insisted she would be the next UK ambassador to Iraq, her home country. And what are they all doing now? Why, studying to become lawyers.

In the past few years, there has been a stampede of non-law graduates into legal careers. They must endure a conversion course, the Common Professional Examination (CPE), which squeezes a complete law degree into two strenuous years. Nationwide applications soared from 3,800 in 2000 to 6,000 last year.

Peter Crisp, chief executive of the top London law school BPP, cannot contain his excitement. He breathlessly describes an "incredible growth in demand" as applicants for the part-time CPE at his school have doubled in the past year alone. In 2000, the school accommodated just 320 CPE students at its modest premises in Lincoln's Inn. Now its headquarters are a vast, glass-fronted building in Holborn and it has opened new premises in Waterloo solely for the 864 students who will start the course this September. It has a new regional branch in Leeds, with another due in Manchester next year.

Why this growing enthusiasm among young people? The law is hardly the most glamorous of careers; children may dream of working in television, medicine or even the police, but surely not many aspire to the legal profession.

Budding lawyers recognise this themselves. When one girl announced she would pursue a legal career, friends who were already signed up e-mailed her: "You are better than that. We thought you would do something interesting."

Some no doubt want the money that lawyers are said to earn. Others want security. A few admit to studying law so as to buy time and get their parents off their backs. For them, law is "not a choice but a reflex", as one student put it. Perhaps the most convincing and positive reason I heard for studying law was that employers are uninterested in people who have economics, history or science degrees. They employ them, but don't quite know what to do with them. Lawyers are not so easily ignored. "We all end up in some grey office somewhere," one graduate said. "At least as a lawyer you will not be a complete nonentity sitting in the corner."

Perhaps there's more in the law than meets the eye. After all, Franz Kafka, Henri Matisse, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela all started out by studying law. (Let's leave Tony Blair out of this.) And the historian who dreamt of working in Uganda is now learning how to defend human rights.