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BLP's semester-long bespoke LPC could herald a new approach to legal education.
You might not have immediately recognised the fact, but Berwin Leighton Paisner's (BLP) decision to launch its own legal practice course (LPC) (The Lawyer, 3 March) marks out the firm as a trailblazer.
According to Phil Nott, executive director at Nottingham Law School, BLP's move is an indication of the way things are heading in legal education.
"I don't think it's a gimmick," he says. "Bespoke courses are about making sure that courses are relevant to what firms do. They're the way things are going."
Known as the LPC+, BLP's course will be run at the College of Law from September 2006.
Yet unlike bespoke LPCs currently offered at the College of Law for Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters, BLP's LPC+ will have just 35 participants a year and last just a single semester. So what's it all about?
"Relevance and motivation," says Scott Slorach, the College of Law's LPC director. "We're trying to provide students with the mix of law that will most benefit them at their firms, and are also looking at the context in which they learn."
It's all about instilling the firm's training culture as early as possible, argues Slorach. "Our role is to give the students the best course for where they want to go," he says.
Slorach says that BLP will work with the College of Law to combine elements of the college's current seven relevant corporate-focused electives into three BLP-specific ones.
Students will also be familiarised with BLP precedents and documentation "to make things more real", he says, by processing documents in BLP's fonts, format and style.
And despite lasting just a single semester, Geoff Griffin, HR director at BLP, says the LPC is no gimmick.
As well as the electives, he says, there are monthly seminars with BLP professionals, a BLP extranet for students to use and a buddy scheme with existing trainees, in addition to numerous BLP social events.
Griffin is frank in admitting that the move is part of the firm's efforts to appear a more attractive place to work than its competitors, but says the LPC "is not to do with PR".
Slorach adds: "The LPC is about saying to students, 'if you come to us, we've invested the time in our training and development'. It's about prestige and if that helps to set the firm apart then that's no bad thing."
Nott's view, that the future lies in bespoke courses, may not be all that surprising given that, along with the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (Oxilp), Nottingham was dumped by the 'City five' firms (Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May) cooperating on the City LPC back in 2004 and has offered bespoke course ever since.
However, as he concedes, firms need critical mass to make a go of it. "A certain scale is essential to making it viable," he says. "It takes a lot of fee-earner time. Whatever route they take, firms are making a very substantial investment, but one that reflects their expectations. Each firm will take a different view."
Peter Crisp, chief executive at BPP, the law school that still offers the City LPC, is gently sceptical when he points out that his college is offering "an LPC developed by five top City firms".
"I think that pooling resources is a sensible approach," he adds. "The City LPC offers a lot of benefits, including the opportunity to mix with students at other firms. Students have told us they value that collegiate approach."
Crisp confirms that BPP itself offered a bespoke course for "a major City firm" in 2001, but dropped it after both the school and the firm received negative feedback from students - including concerns about making mistakes in front of classmates who would later become colleagues.
Nott spells out the options for those firms large enough to consider developing their own model. "The choice is between going for a very specific tailored course, or a more general one that allows students to mix with students headed for other firms," he says.
"My only reservation is that these are the people you're going to be working collaboratively with later on in your career and it can be useful at the start to learn different approaches to dealing with the work. It's a question of when exactly in your LPC to focus on your particular firm."
However, Nigel Savage, chief executive at the College of Law, is bullish about the concern. "The LPC+ students won't be kept in silos," he argues. "And when firms are spending £8,000/£9,000 a year on their students, the LPC should be more than just a social experience."
Although investment in customised LPCs is not cheap for the firms that can afford to take that route, Savage argues that it makes financial sense. "The quicker you can get your students up and running," he adds, "the quicker they'll affect the bottom line."
If BLP can prove that it makes financial sense for an intake of just 35, there is little doubt that other firms will follow its lead. After all, it is all about learning.
The 'City LPC': A Whirlwind Tour
The City's eight top firms - Allen & Overy (A&O), Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Linklaters, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May - create their very own, corporate-focused LPC. The new course, dubbed the 'City LPC', is offered at three institutions: BPP Law School, Nottingham Law School and the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (Oxilp).
Left out in the cold, College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage says he would "never preside over a law college that is devoted to serving the needs of an exclusive few at the expense of the many".
The College of Law is back in play. A&O, Clifford Chance and Linklaters abandon the City LPC, opting for their own bespoke courses at the College of Law (in spite of Savage's earlier protestations).
The remaining members of the 'City Eight' - Freshfields, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughters - hold together, but dump Nottingham and Oxilp and entrust the LPC exclusively to BPP.
Berwin Leighton Paisner announces its own LPC, entitled the LPC+, for an intake of just 35 - barely more than a third of the number who attend the other firm-specific LPCs.