It's the new thing

They researched, they wrote, they slept in sleeping bags – Guy Fitzmaurice on the men behind the latest in textbooks

Catching up on those exam papers that you didn't pass first time around can be a problem but that's where part-time study comes in, explains Mick Kavanagh

It sounds like the plot for an Eighties mini series: two law students meet by chance during a college fire drill, get chatting, discover they've both been thinking over ideas for the ideal legal textbook, write it and then find they've got a sure-fire winner.

Yet there's nothing fictional about this rags to riches-style tale. Last year Gerald Montagu, a trainee at Macfarlanes, and Allen & Overy trainee Mark Weston wrote Legal Practice Companion – the kind of textbook they would liked to have had with them on the LPC.

“We wanted to produce a bridge from school to practice,” says Weston. “On the course, we amassed piles of paper and umpteen resource books. The question was, if we wanted a quick aide-memoire when we started practice, what would we use?”

Their book's appeal is that it avoids the dense approach of conventional resource books.

“We thought dealing with case studies would be much easier if you could see at a glance how an area of law works,” says Montagu. “Once you understand that, you can use your skills properly by using practitioner's works.”

The layout of the Legal Practice Companion is admirably clear, but any student hoping for an “LPC in five easy stages” will be disappointed. As Weston explains: “The book presupposes you've a certain level of knowledge, and that you've gone to teaching sessions and had things explained to you.”

The Companion is currently more up-to-date than any other textbook. “The Landlord and Tenant Covenants Act only received the Royal Assent on 19 July last year but we managed to include it,” says Weston.

The book is selling well, nearly 3,000 copies have been snapped up. Yet, despite its success, there were problems for the two in putting it together.

They nearly lost all of their work when a disk drive broke down. And at one stage, relates Montagu, the two authors were working such late hours that they were given permission by Macfarlanes to take sleeping bags into the office so that they could be closer to their work.

Feedback from students and practitioners alike has been very positive. “Practitioners find the book useful for getting a general feel when an area of law is unfamiliar to them,” says Montagu. “But the book is not detailed enough for them to rely on.”

He adds: “As a trainee, it can be very helpful when you move to a new department and things are not fresh in your mind.

“There can be up to a two-year gap from when you are examined in a topic on the LPC to when you first use it in practice. With the best will in the world, you can't be expected to retain everything.”

Already the authors are considering the book's future. “If demand is strong enough, we may produce two editions – one for practitioners and one for students,” says Weston, who is also debating the idea of a version on CD-ROM.

The authors are well aware that the Law Society is conducting a review on the future of LPC, and have a few ideas of their own. “The LPC addressed many of the problems of the Law Society Finals and all that rote-based learning. But the question now is, have we gone too far in the opposite direction?” asks Montagu.

They believe that there is too much emphasis on skills and not enough on black letter law. They point out that students coming to the course will have already done a three-year law degree or CPE, and reason that “if you haven't learned to assimilate large amounts of complex information by then, you're not going to on the LPC”.

They are also concerned about the course's expense, and ask whether students and firms are getting value for money.

Montagu would like to see the majority of PSC work taught on the LPC: “It pulls you out of work and is terribly disruptive in practice.”

If Montagu and Weston have one criticism of the LPC, it is that there is too much reliance on the resource books. “You are very rarely told to go back to primary sources and the books do not always give references,” they say. “But as a practitioner, you have to check primary sources. Legal research is taught but it is not applied consistently throughout the course.”

They hope their book will be revised annually and that the second edition is out in time for the new academic year.