On the right track?
20 February 2009 | By Husnara Begum
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The fast-track LPC is ready for action, but will shorter courses mean lower standards? And who will benefit - the students or the law schools? Husnara Begum reports
It has been a long time in the making, but the new-look LPC has finally landed, and the changes introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) signal the biggest shake-up of the course since it was set up in 1993.
So what will the relaxation of the rules governing the way the LPC is delivered mean for would-be solicitors?
It should result in greater choice and flexibility, as from September 2009 the LPC will be split into two, enabling students to complete the second stage of the course, which covers three elective subjects, at a later date - and in some cases with a different provider.
What is more, it will be possible to start a training contract after completing the compulsory stage of the LPC. Those who opt for this route will be able to study for their electives in their own time or be given time off by their employers. This means students will be able to earn while they learn and tailor their electives with the practice areas they want to specialise in.
Cardiff Law School is one of the many LPC providers that will be splitting its course into two stages from the start of the next academic year (see box, page 53).
“This should help students who otherwise might not be able to afford the course in the current economic climate to work alongside their studies,” explains Ian Brookfield, director of the Centre for Professional Legal Studies at Cardiff Law School.
In January the SRA unveiled the list of institutions that have been authorised to run the new-look LPC. Among them are BPP Law School and Nottingham Law School (NLS), with the former launching a fast-track course for trainees due to join firms in the ‘City LPC consortium’ and the latter a four-year exempting law degree.
Following in the footsteps of the universities of Northumbria and Huddersfield, NLS will allow students to combine a four-year sandwich course in law with the LPC.
“Trade is good for the course already,” says LPC course leader at NLS Bob White. “We’re only going to have a relatively small intake and require high grades, so we’re expecting the quality of students taking this course will be extremely high. And of course, it will be significantly cheaper than the normal route.”
Students will undertake their degree courses in their first and second years of study, then during the sandwich period they will begin to study part of their LPCs. The would-be lawyers will then complete the rest of their LPCs during their fourth year of study.
As first reported on Lawyer2B.com (9 January), BPP, which is one of the biggest LPC providers in the country, is slashing its LPC from 10 months to just seven and a half. But the accelerated course is only being made available to the City LPC consortium, which comprises Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May.
<strong>The fast-track LPC </strong>
The new course will have two intakes a year, in February and August. The first cohort will start the fast-track course in August 2009.
Slaughters head of training Louise Stoker says the SRA’s decision to adopt a more flexible approach to the way the LPC is delivered and taught provides an opportunity for the consortium to review its options.
“If there was one thing we could improve it’s the amount of time it takes to complete the LPC. Looking at feedback from students, we found that there was a bit of slack, particularly during the electives term,” explains Stoker.
Stoker insists that there will be minimal change to the content of the course and that there will be more face-to-face contact with tutors, with both lectures and small group sessions run exclusively for the consortium trainees.
Following the transition period, firms can make their own decisions on whether to make changes to trainee solicitor start dates. Slaughters hopes its future joiners will start their training contracts immediately after they finish the LPCs, with any students who wish to take gap years being encouraged to start the LPC the February after they graduate.
But BPP’s decision not to extend the fast-track course to those outside the City LPC consortium has enraged some students, who have dubbed it ‘elitist’.
“Why should people who don’t want to work for top City firms be penalised for making that decision?” argues the president of Birmingham University’s law society Chris Snell. “Letting a select few finish much earlier is elitist.”
“The current LPC is fine as it is, so I don’t think you should change something that’s working already,” agrees Warwick University student Chrissy Vassiliou. “But if they’re making it shorter for some, they should make it shorter for everyone, because every student should have the choice to take a fast-track option if they want to.”
Not everyone is unhappy about the shake-up. George Igler, a 32-year-old mature student who hopes to start his Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) at City University in September, is now keen to apply to firms in the City consortium
in a bid to speed up his studies. “In light of the current climate anything which makes the transition from studying to starting work and putting money in your pocket faster can only be a good thing,” says Igler.
Although BPP is only offering the fast-track LPC to the City LPC consortium, like a number of other institutions it is also launching a slimline part-time course that will enable students to complete the compulsory subjects over a year and then the electives over a further six months. Students will also have the option to complete their electives with another provider.
Surprisingly, BPP’s rival, the College of Law, has decided against launching accelerated courses. The college’s LPC director Scott Slorach argues that doing so is likely to diminish standards. “Any fast-track LPC will be challenging for students,” claims Slorach. “To maintain standards, the City LPC consortium students will have to work 15-20 per cent more each week and BPP will have to enforce a rigorous learning model. What they can’t do is replace text books, hand out sets of printed materials for students to learn by rote and then spoon-feed in classes, just to get students through in a shorter time.”
This sentiment is shared by a number of posters on Lawyer2B.com. As one puts it: “If the LPC full-time takes one year then I can’t see how a part-time course can also take one year without loss of depth and rigour. While the SRA may want flexibility of delivery of LPC courses, this should not be at the expense of rigour when our profession requires and, indeed, needs highly qualified solicitors who can provide clients with an excellent service.”
Saying that, Slorach admits that the college has not ruled out the possibility of launching a fast-track LPC in the future.
“If firms or the student market want us to deliver a fast-track LPC, we would do so,” he concedes. “However, we need to be very clear that fast-track doesn’t mean abbreviated in terms of content, workload or rigour.”
Other LPC providers are wasting no time in launching fast-track courses. But whether it will be the students who ultimately benefit from the reforms is anyone’s guess.