PSC gets back on course for '98

Alan Pannett explains how the Law Society has overhauled the Professional Skills Course which is to take effect next year

The Professional Skills Course (PSC) is and has always been disliked. Trainees do not like it because it is imposed on them at a time when they thought they had finished with exams on the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Training directors do not like it because parts of the course are seen as irrelevant or at least as belonging to the LPC and as such taking up valuable time during the training contract. Partners hate it because it distracts their trainees from what they see as their primary objective – client work. And then of course, there is the cost of providing the PSC.

Now it is all changing. The training committee of the Law Society is implementing a series of wide-ranging reforms of the PSC which will come into force from July 1998.

At present the PSC comprises five modules: accounts, investment business, advocacy, personal work management and professional conduct. Accounts and investment business are examined modules and advocacy is assessed.

Under the new regime, the number of core modules is reduced. The reduction will allow for a more flexible programme of study and introducing electives for the first time which will enable firms to focus on the specific training needs of their trainees rather than follow an entirely prescriptive programme.

Another significant step is that for the first time elements of the PSC can be undertaken without the need for face-to-face training sessions.

The three core modules that make up the new course are:

Financial and business skills accounts for three training days – 18 hours of face-to-face tuition. This module is formally assessed and incorporates investment business, financial awareness and interpretation of financial information – business accounts, in other words. Electives based on this core module may include discrete investment business, drafting business documents and so on.

Advocacy and communication skills comprises a minimum of 18 hours' face-to-face tuition and trainee appraisal. The focus of this three-day programme is the core skills of an advocate, both in open court and interlocutory applications. Electives can be more broadly based and will include mediation, alternative dispute resolution, tribunal advocacy and information technology support in litigation.

Ethics and client responsibility comprises a minimum of 12 hours' face-to-face tuition. This is an entirely new module which replaces the much criticised personal work management and professional conduct modules of the current PSC. This module focuses on client care issues and the prevention of money laundering and fraud. Its stated objective is to build on the experience and knowledge which trainees will gain during their training contract as well as the principles of professional conduct which they are taught on the (LPC). Electives may include complaints handling and matter management.

The electives, which comprise 24 hours' tuition, can be weighted to meet the specific training needs of individuals and training establishments. This element of the new PSC will normally be undertaken by trainees after completion of the core modules.

Electives which are designed to expand on the core modules are acceptable. Equally, electives which are relevant to one or more of the core modules but are not directly derived from them are possible – electives based on practice areas within the firm, such as litigation, corporate, property, banking, private client electives will be possible.

This recognises the many specialist areas of practice, as well as the sophisticated training which many firms provide for their trainees during the training contract and enables such training to become part of the PSC. For example, a PSC elective for property lawyers might include property market analysis, investment strategies, lease negotiation, drafting property documentation and file management in conveyancing transactions.

The clear benefit of the new electives is that they are flexible in terms of their content, which can be tailored to meet the needs of firms and individual trainees. Hopefully they will enable providers to offer more dynamic and practical training as part of the PSC.

As for study methods, all of the core tuition must be undertaken by face-to-face tuition. However, up to half of the electives can be undertaken by suitably supervised or assessed distance learning.

The Law Society has also closed the loophole which has in the past enabled LPC graduates to begin the PSC without having entered a training contract.

The new PSC must be undertaken within the training contract – with only specific exemption being made for Fellows of Ilex, who are not required to enter into a training contract.

The College of Law is embarking on the planning phase of the new PSC for its clients. This entails consultation with firms, in-house legal departments, government and public sector lawyers to determine both the content and delivery of the new PSC.