Getting real about legal education

Life for law students is set to change and their future employers are hoping the developments will reflect more accurately the needs of a profession that is itself changing.

The change is happening at many levels. Students enrolling for the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at Leicester's De Montfort University this year, for instance, will be given laptop computers. Rival colleges dismiss the move. Nigel Savage, chief executive of The College of Law, says that his school has considered and rejected a similar idea, and calls the plan a “gimmick”.

That might be true, but De Montfort's move indicates the growing use of technology in law schools, the increasing competition between LPC providers vying for students and perhaps the fact that colleges are realising they have to provide multi-skilled graduates for a profession that is diversifying.

Savage's own college has realised that it needs to provide added value if it is to attract students and also keep the firms which employ them happy. He recently signed a series of deals with US law schools aimed at creating the first global law school, as reported in The Lawyer (12 April 1999), and a member of his staff is currently researching what firms want from the college's graduates.

Both the LPC and the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) have come in for criticism this year. City firms want the LPC curricula changed to reflect their needs more closely, while the Bar Council stands accused of training twice as many barristers as there are places available at the Bar.

There are currently 7,000 LPC places available at 31 Law Society-approved institutions throughout England and Wales. Cambridge University is investigating whether to set up an LPC course – potentially netting the law faculty an estimated £130,000 in fees and rivalling the course at Oxford University. It has met with some opposition from Cambridge academics who are dismissive of the idea on the basis that the LPC is not sufficiently intellectual.

However, City firms want greater input into the course content of LPCs, and some are openly attacking the quality of training provided by LPC courses. Herbert Smith personnel manager John Lucy says: “One particular provider is not quite up to scratch and we are in discussions about it. We have an expectation it will upgrade its standards, otherwise we will review whether or not to continue to use it for our trainees.”

Lucy refuses to disclose which provider it is or what the problem is other than that “the quality of the core content is not good enough”.

Herbert Smith, which recruits undergraduates then funds them through their LPC, chooses candidates on the basis of “intellectual ability, interpersonal and organisational skills, and whether they want to be a lawyer”, Lucy points out.

Although a survey conducted among trainees at Bristol-based Bevan Ashford last year revealed overall satisfaction with the various LPC providers, some complained of lack of facilities on their courses, and insufficient involvement from local firms.

Bevan Ashford personnel manager, Cathy Wadden, says: “Trainees come in fairly well prepared – commercial understanding grows in the real world and cannot really be taught.”

Both the BPP Law School in London and The College of Law are looking to create City-orientated LPCs.

Savage says: “We are working on a strategy which will enable us to provide a course which will meet the needs of different sectors of the profession. We will be unveiling it in the next two or three months for delivery in 2000.”

According to research undertaken by BPP into City firms' requirements for trainees and their attitudes to current LPC provision, the legal market has become increasingly commercialised during the last decade and educational establishments are yet to adapt to this.

BPP's research shows that City firms expect this change to a business orientated environment to double over the next 10 years. Respondents to the research placed “commercial orientation” – the conversion of an academic student into a business lawyer – at the top of their list when assessing the value of a law school.

According to the research, respondents are keen to develop close links with schools and they identify commercial orientation, academic rigour and client focus as the three key elements of LPC training. Respondents say that tomorrow's lawyer must thrive under pressure since “as restrictive practices go and MDPs grow, the lawyer's role will come under greater client scrutiny and pressure from the pseudo-professions”, and that “LPCs should have filters for those who know they want to specialise in, say, corporate law.”

Each year 1,500 students begin the BVC at a cost of £7,100, yet only 950 are called to the Bar. This has led to criticism from many students that the Bar is greedily profiting from students' fees, while offering unrealistic chances of success. One solution that has been mooted is the creation of a common professional course for solicitors and barristers alike.

However, Bar Council director of education Nigel Bastin denies any concrete plans have been formed. He says: “The two courses are very different – the emphasis in the bar course is very much on written and oral advocacy because that is the focus of the barrister's work, whereas solicitors will do conveyancing and business law.”

Bastin says that about 200 of the annual intake of BVC students are from overseas and a further 20 per cent of students either fail or drop out.

For students, money is always an issue. With fees rising, often to cover the cost of new resources, there are fears that some are put off from entering the profession.

Bastin, however, believes that debts now will be cancelled out later. “The Inns offer some scholarships and bursaries and some chambers help fund students through the course. The evidence we have is that students have little difficulty raising money from the banks and little difficulty paying it back – BVC graduates are still called to the Bar and that has a social cache which makes them very attractive to the City.”

It is clear that it is going to take more than providing laptops to create the sort of students that future employers demand and the main colleges are looking both abroad and at home for new ways to keep pace with the changing demands of the profession.

City firms want greater input into the course content of LPC's and some are openly attacking the quality of training provided by LPC courses.