The Bar Council's recent selection of institutions to teach the Bar Vocational Course from 1997 seems to be the latest example of the fixation with numbers which continues to mislead both halves of the legal profession over future requirements in recruitment and vocational training. At least one institution from the favoured nine in Band One which offers a unique and quality training package has been excluded.
When can we expect a co ordinated policy guiding the future of legal services and some leadership in training for the profession? Until this happens talent will go to waste and the opportunity lost to harness it in better ways than through the division of barrister and solicitor, with Ilex for legal executives still tacked on as the catch all for practitioner qualification outside the two camps.
The College of Law has proposed a new class of US-style 'attorneys' for those wishing to avoid existing practitioner labels; there is to be an NVQ for paralegals. But what is needed is a master plan for a system of legal services to rise above outdated issues. Legal practice is changing so fast that old measurements are irrelevant. We do not need petty squabbles over whether solicitor advocates should wear wigs. What is required is creative thinking based on keen observation and empirical market research. We need new associate professions, such as practitioners in ADR and mediation, and the "law clerks" Lord Woolf proposes to help judges in pro-active case management. When we have them, numbers in the existing legal professions will fall automatically.
Indeed, in the context of Lord Woolf's vision of an excellent and cost effective legal service – which could draw international litigation to England as much as deliver a better service to those of us already here – we need to repackage graduates' enthusiasm for working in the law to take advantage of (rather than to bemoan) the unexpected oversupply. At the same time as disposing of a glut (which is only embarrassing because it does not fit contemporary requirements) this would also unclog agendas and produce focused results.
If this means creating new courses and new qualifications we should do so. This is not over-specialisation because a law degree, or a degree in another discipline plus a CPE or Diploma in Law, is already a sufficiently broad background to form a base for vocational training.
Why would this resolve present problems? While there is now a nation-wide drop in LPC applications (and a small one in BVC numbers) one category of LPC applicants never seems to diminish – part-time students already working full time in law related employment, particularly in London and the South East. An increase in part-time study is inevitable for financial reasons, but many part-time LPC students, although talented in various ways, are not really suitable for the LPC; unless they want to be barristers, they are driven to apply for it if they want any formal vocational training.
As such the LPC is mostly unsuitable for two groups of students – paralegals or graduates with less than a Second Class Honours degree.
The first usually have a high standard of the skills the LPC was supposed to be an innovation in teaching, so their skills quickly outstrip more academically gifted members of the class. Yet sometimes they cannot make the grade intellectually in the taxing substantive law areas.
The second group, who have only scraped on to the course, are soon struggling with the intellectual elements though they too may shine in skills. Both may fail the demanding LPC examinations, despite these being open book to allow the skill of legal argument to develop, replacing parrot fashion learning. Usually both types would have shone on courses in the newest areas of practice, such as ADR and mediation, where great intellectual skill is not required, although a sound background in substantive law and practice usually is.
Repackaging qualifications and courses could solve quality and quantity problems at a stroke.