What's gone wrong with the LPC?

Stephen Nathanson says the Legal Practice Course must shed its vocational skin and focus on providing all entrants with professional education. Stephen Nathanson teaches at the University of Hong Kong and is a consultant to Nottingham Law School.

The move by a group of City firms to enrol their law graduates on a tailor-made Legal Practice Course (LPC), highlights a problem that has plagued the LPC since its launch.

The problem is that it was originally conceived as vocational training, but it should not have been, and in fact, is not.

What the LPC actually is all about is unclear. It aims to prepare people for legal practice, but questions about how it is to do this are constantly surfacing. Is it supposed to train students for City or high street firms? Is it supposed to emphasise skills or law? Should it maximise career options or should it try to cater for specific markets? These are all questions that characterise debates about the LPC, but they are not the right questions and they show how muddled the LPC is.

Vocational training is about teaching people specific knowledge and skills in order to perform specific tasks to meet the needs of employers. But which specific tasks? And which employers? There are bound to be disagreements about the curriculum. And, as time goes by, specific content once thought to be relevant is no more.

That's when the powers that be suggest that the content be changed. In 1997, the Law Society jettisoned the skill of negotiation from the timetable saying it was no longer relevant. It is now happening again as the City firms seek to develop their own courses.

What the LPC should really aim for is professional education, not vocational training.

Professional education is not about specific content for employers. It is about providing people with the chance to learn in a way that helps them develop later as professionals.

Formal education uses theory to systematise learning. Without theory, formal education is as haphazard as real-life experience, and therefore hard to justify. Professional educators need to develop theory not to make them appear more academic, but to make their students better lawyers. A theory of effective commercial drafting, for example, might use simple concepts to prescribe principles that are helpful in a variety of contexts.

It is this ever-broadening compre-hension that helps learners transfer what they have learned to identify a variety of new problems they will encounter in practice.

If the aim of professional education is to enable students, aided by theory, to transfer learning to new problems, the most important question for professional educators must be this: how can professional education be designed so that learning is accelerated at the fastest possible rate after the program is completed?

This complex question must be viewed as a curriculum-design question. Frequently debating content, changing the specifics, adding options and restructuring the timetable to meet employers' training needs severely detracts from the coherence and enthusiasm needed to produce accelerated learning. It makes a mess of what is already quite messy.

And debating whether the LPC should focus on City or high street- practice, skills or law, and how many options it should offer, confuses the entire endeavour, undermining the educational goal. They are the wrong issues. They are vocational training issues floating around in an environment that cannot and should not be dealing in vocational training.

Vocational training should follow professional education, not substitute for it. It should not be foisted on students when their education has ill-prepared them for training. Vocational training should be provided by firms and solicitors who are experts in the specific tasks they want their employees to perform, not by teachers who may be proficient, but not usually expert, in those tasks.

All of which, sadly, brings us to the primary source of the present controversy. What is wrong with the LPC can be traced to a fundamental flaw in the legal education system: the system has very little professional education in it.

Given the existing state of affairs, the solicitors' profession must look out both for itself and the community by providing first-class professional education to all its entrants and only then begin to think about vocational training. All solicitors should take note: how can there continue to be a solicitors' profession without professional education for all solicitors?

The soap opera that needs to be axed