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Legal education providers are agreed on one thing: training is changing fast. Nowhere has this been more underlined than by Berwin Leighton Paisner's (BLP) decision to launch its own legal practice course (LPC) (The Lawyer, 3 March).
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 confirms. "Bespoke courses are about making sure that courses are relevant to what firms do. They are the way things are going."
Known as the LPC+, BLP's course will be run at the College of Law from September 2006.
But 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 is 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 we're also looking at the context in which they learn."
It is all about instilling the firm's training culture as early as possible, argues Slorach, who says: "Our role is to give the students the best course for where they want to go."
Slorach says 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.
The course will familiarise students with BLP precedents and documentation "to make things more real", he says, processing documents in BLP's fonts, format and style.
And despite it 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 he 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."
Return on investment
However, as Nott 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 Law School, which still offers the City LPC, is gently sceptical, pointing 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 models. "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 in your career and it can be useful to learn other approaches to dealing with 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 eight or nine thousand a year on their students, the LPC should be more than just a social experience."
And 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 says, "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. It is all one big learning curve. n