Race to the finish
28 October 2009 | By Corinne McPartland
02 November 2009
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12 July 2009
As competition in the LPC market hots up, who will finish on top? Corinne McPartland reports
”The major LPC [Legal Practice Course] providers have become like giant fish factories, whereby they’re sucking up all the fish and processing them out. That’s why smaller providers are having to think outside the box to survive,” says Nottingham Law School’s (NLS) LPC head Bob White.
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) have been the catalyst to one of the biggest shake-ups of the course since it was set up in 1993.
But what has the relaxation of the rules governing the way the LPC is delivered meant for students shelling out thousands of pounds to study it?
When the initial plans were first unveiled, providers across the country all said it would create greater choice and flexibility. But has it? Will the greater choice of courses and rapid expansion of larger providers cause the LPC to lose credibility in the market and cause smaller institutions to go under?
First, a bit of history. In September 2009 the LPC was split in two. This has enabled 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 is now possible - in theory - to start a training contract after completing the compulsory stage of the LPC.
Those who opt for this route will be able to study the electives in their own time or be given time off by their employers. This means students will now be able to earn while they learn and tailor their electives with the practice areas they want to specialise in.
NLS was the first provider to announce its decision to split the LPC in two by disengaging compulsory subjects from the electives and it has even introduced an exempting law degree.
Following in the footsteps of the universities of Northumbria and Huddersfield, NLS has created a course whereby students can combine a four-year sandwich course in law with the LPC.
“We only have a relatively small intake and require high grades, so the quality of students taking this course is extremely high,” says White. “And, of course, it will be significantly cheaper than the normal route.”
NLS students can undertake their degree course in their first and second years of study; then, during the sandwich period, they will start to study part of their LPC. The would-be lawyers will be then left to complete the rest of their LPC during their fourth year of study.White says: “The reason why Nottingham will always have a place in the market alongside the big machines such as BPP [Law School] and the CoL [College of Law] is that it focuses on quality on a smaller scale and is not afraid to pioneer new things such as this course,” believes White. “We’re not a big fish factory but more of a Spanish fishing trawler and are much more of a niche.”
In London, the University of Westminster has also introduced a new course combining an undergraduate law degree with the LPC. The four-year course is the first of its kind in London after it was introduced in September.
According to David Roberts, principal lecturer at Westminster University’s school of law, the new course will give students greater client exposure than the average law degree.
“Students will have the benefit of working with real clients for the last two years of their degree, which will prepare them for legal practice,”
Westminster University is the only law school in the capital that runs an SRA-validated elective in conjunction with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. It is also hoping to run a similar elective with the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice.
The exempting law degree at Westminster should also work out cheaper than studying the LPC separately as the law school plans to charge students the cost of the top-up fee only.
“The great thing about exempting law degrees is that it makes law more accessible to students who might not have the necessary financial means to fund the courses themselves,” explains Roberts. “But it isn’t just the cost that makes our course more attractive. Our students will spend a lot of their third and fourth years doing clinical work, which will make them more attractive to future employers.”
The entrance requirements for the exempting degree is AAB or 320 Ucas points, which is the same as for the three-year undergraduate LLB.
Since the first few providers announced that they would be revamping the LPC to fit in with the SRA’s more relaxed rules, many other providers have said that they too would be using the new guidelines to change courses. Some providers, including BPP, have even introduced fast-track options.
In a radical move by BPP, the LPC has been slashed from 10 months to just seven and a half months for those trainees due to join one of the firms in the five-strong City LPC consortium, which comprises Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May.
Slaughters head of training Louise Stoker backs the SRA’s decision to adopt a more flexible approach to the way the LPC is delivered and taught.
“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,” she explains.
toker insists that there has been minimal change to the content of the course and there is more face-to-face contact with tutors, with both lectures and small group sessions run exclusively for the consortium trainees.
However, 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’.
“The current LPC is fine as it is, so I don’t think you should change something that’s working already,” argues Warwick University student Chrissy Vassiliou. “But if they’re making it shorter for some, they should make it shorter for everyone. Every student should have the choice to take a fast-track option if they want to.”
Not everyone is unhappy about the shake-up, though George Igler, a 32-year-old mature student who started 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 that makes the transition from studying to starting work and putting money in your pocket faster can only be a good thing,” says Igler.
BPP is also launching a third branch in London later this year in premises opposite Norman Foster’s iconic Gherkin building. The school also announced that it had secured a new site in Bristol - just days after its arch-rival the CoL went public with its plans to open in the city. In addition, BPP is planning to launch in Birmingham, where the CoL already has a branch.
The expansion is going ahead despite BPP making 11 LPC staff redundant at its Manchester branch in July this year.
But what does this mean for the Bristol Institute of Legal Practice (BILP)? Is there enough room in Bristol for all three providers?
According to BILP’s LPC director Kerry James: “We’re well-known with law firms in the area and have spent years cultivating our relationships. We also offer a totally different learning experience to the CoL and BPP.”
BILP has also teamed up with Central Law Training to launch a national part-time distance learning LPC. BILP, which is part of the University of the West of England, is currently validated to offer the LPC course to 400 students.
The CoL hopes to attract 190 LPC and GDL students in Bristol in 2010, while BPP hopes to sign up to 60 LPC students to its course.
But Julie Brannan, LPC director at the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (Oxilp), says the CoL and BPP’s constant attack on the LPC market is unfair to students because they are not maintaining a balance between pupil numbers and recruitment.
“We already have an excess in capacity of LPC students in the market so I don’t understand why these big schools are so keen to keep expanding when they know the jobs aren’t out there for the students,” explains Brannan. “I think it’s a volume game for them and making money is paramount. They’ll push the smaller providers out of the market and that’s not giving students any other choice but to go to the big institutions.”
Oxilp is also concerned that the continued drive to sign law firms into exclusive deals will eat away at student choice aswell.
“BPP and the CoL signing up so many law firms will will mean that it won’t give those that maybe can’t afford to study in big cities the choice to live at home and take the LPC at a smaller provider,” says Brannan.
Elsewhere, after a shaky start, Kaplan Law School, the newest entrant in the London legal education market, recently signed up its ninth LPC client.
But Kaplan chief executive Giles Proctor says that although the contracts are not all exclusive, it is still a good sign that the school is making real progress in the market.
“The law firms are looking to us as offering something different than BPP and the CoL so they want to point their students in our direction,” he maintains.
The school has also secured validation from the Bar Standards Board to run its first-ever Bar Vocational Course from September 2010 for up to 60 students and it is also about to introduce a new part-time LPC from September 2010.
But Proctor denies that the steady expansion of the school will saturate an already overcrowded legal education market.
“We plan to grow further, but we want to grow by quality and evolve at a comfortable pace,” he insists. “I think there’s enough room in London for us because it means that students now have a choice.”
A choice they may have, but with nine schools in London already providing LPC courses to students who are finding it increasingly difficult to secure training contracts, is there really a need for them all?
Surprisingly, the CoL has decided against launching accelerated courses. LPC director Scott Slorach argues that doing so is likely to diminish standards.
“Any fast-track LPC will be challenging for students,” he claims. “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.”
But whatever the big providers say there is no doubt that the smaller providers are really going to have to start penning pretty good battle plans to survive the LPC onslaught.
The question you really have to ask, however, is that if more revamped courses flood the market and even more law firms sign exclusive deals with law schools, will there be extra choice or just more confusion for students?