Nottingham Law School (NLS) has begun to contemplate a life where its students are not heading for the cream of the legal profession.
Earlier this year, news broke of a massive shake-up in legal education. From 2006 the ‘City Eight’ will become five, with Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters going it alone with the College of Law to pioneer bespoke LPCs.
The remaining members – Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May – will be signed exclusively to BPP Law School. NLS was asked to set up in London by the five firms who want their trainees geographically near to them, but the school turned down the opportunity.
The attention has focused mainly on the renaissance of the College of Law, which after spending years in the wilderness found itself back in favour with its new-style courses. But what does the future now hold for NLS, which for so long has been the key destination for top-flight trainees?
NLS head of professional legal studies and managing director of the school Phil Knott is sanguine about the way ahead for his institution and is certain there are advantages to being an independent provider, operating largely from one base.
“We did think very carefully about that, but we felt that a lot of students and firms want choice about the location, so we didn’t want to do everything in London,” says Knott of NLS’s self-imposed exile. “We place a lot of premium on our operation from a single site. We know we’ve got all our best tutors in one place. We can be very responsive from a single site and that suits our approach best.”
This attitude has raised a few eyebrows. College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage thinks NLS should have taken the plunge in the capital, branding the school’s decision “a little bit self-indulgent”.
He adds: “At the end of the day, if you’re operating in the market and you’re customer-focused, if your customers want you to do something, you do it. If you don’t do it they’ll very quickly lose interest in you.”
Knott, however, insists that NLS has made the right decision. “What we’ve started to do now is talk to a whole range of firms, and what we feel we can do is be more responsive because we’re going to be independent of any grouping of firms,” he says. “We recognise the success of BPP and the College of Law, but there’s room for a strong, high-quality independent provider as well as the two conglomerates.”
Inns of Court School of Law course director Melissa Hardee agrees, arguing that NLS could actually benefit from leaving the consortium. Hardee, who was previously the training partner at CMS Cameron McKenna, says she has always regarded NLS as a “standard-setter” and says it would be freer to continue in this vein as an independent provider.
Hardee argues that the situation with the City Eight of having to agree a standard LPC to be taught in a uniform way across the three academic providers – BPP, the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice and NLS – has hampered the efforts of NLS tutors to bring their own ideas into the classroom.
“The room for innovation and creativity will be very little,” says Hardee. “It’s very much a template that has to be followed.”
Despite all the excitement surrounding bespoke LPCs, there are many that continue to be wary. Hardee is one of the opponents and expresses concern at too much specialisation. She says she would prefer for her institution to produce students with “solid lawyering skills”.
The teachers at NLS are also no fans of the bespoke route. Knott says the school is “a little wary of getting students to make career decisions too early”. He says that, instead, NLS will adapt its LPC because the course will be taken by fewer students heading for the biggest City firms.
A more far-reaching change that all legal education providers will have to adapt to is the advent of the training framework review. NLS claims it is in pole position to capitalise on the moves to bring more flexibility into the qualification process.
NLS dean Peter Kunzlik took over last year after the previous incumbent, the influential Peter Jones, was promoted to the role of pro vice-chancellor of the university.
Kunzlik says: “We’re very much a full-service law school. In the training framework review climate, that gives us particular opportunities.”
The school sees its sandwich degree – the longest running degree of this type in the country – as a crucial
tool in being up to speed when the review becomes a reality.
There is also a growing emphasis on post-qualification training. While the graduate disciplines make up around two-thirds of the operation, the professional side accounts for the remainder. The school wants to expand this part and has made a number of new appointments to run new courses in the areas of management, dispute resolution and commercial and regulatory.
The professional division is already regarded highly. Lovells international head of legal training Suzanne Fine says: “From our point of view, we rate them very highly for litigation training and also their commercial drafting programme.”
Last year, the school teamed up with Freshfields to create a postgraduate training programme for the firm’s environmental, planning and regulatory lawyers across Europe, which can lead to an executive LLM qualification.
It is believed to be the first time that an LLM qualification has been made available to lawyers as part of a firm’s internal training programme.
NLS has also just been contracted to train the Royal Bank of Scotland’s law firm relationship managers on law firms and the legal sector, which Kunzlik described as “a major contract for us and a new kind of blue-chip customer”.
Although losing the City LPC contract is undoubtedly a blow, it would seem that NLS is nevertheless fit to service the educational needs of the legal profession as a whole.