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18 October 2013
The hike in tuition fees has sparked renewed interest in extended law degrees. Could the pilot of a five-year option spell the end of the training contract altogether? asks Jonathan Ames
Becoming a lawyer in the UK has always been academically challenging as well as dauntingly complex, involving an alphabet soup of courses – the LLB, GDL and the LPC, and, further down the line, the PSC. But change is looming, and soon the process could be as easy as ABC.
Currently, students either take an undergraduate law degree (an LLB) or, if they take their first degree in another subject, they have to gain a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before tackling either the Legal Practice Course (LPC, for prospective solicitors) or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC, for those targeting a career as a barrister). The next step is either a law firm training contract, during which trainee solicitors will be subjected to the professional skills course (PSC), or a bar pupillage before ultimately qualifying.
In contrast, the Americans and many Continental Europeans seem to have it much easier. For the most part, a high-flying Wall Street lawyer has had a strenuous but relatively straightforward route to a 12-hour-a-day job and six-figure salary at a white-shoe law firm. That path involves a four-year undergraduate degree followed by three years at law school and the short, sharp shock of a state bar exam, which normally lasts no longer than two days. No vocational so-called ‘training’ that involves little more than photocopying bundle after bundle for partners and senior associates, and no being routinely patronised by junior associates for having
to spend two years with the label ‘trainee’ Sellotaped to your back.
Indeed, the English system is not only complex, it is also often humiliating. Despite having jettisoned the Victorian title of ‘articled clerk’ nearly 20 years ago it has retained a labyrinthine path to qualification, but there are signs that progress and change are on the way.
As long ago as 1992 the regulators of the solicitors’ profession approved the first ‘exempting’ law degree at Northumbria University’s law school. Northumbria’s ‘M Law’ programme sees elements of the then recently launched LPC merged into a four-year programme. Over the past few years a clutch of competitors have jumped into the market, with the law schools at Westminster, Huddersfield and Nottingham Trent universities all promoting four-year degrees while Northumbria has gone a step further and kicked off a revolutionary five-year course that blends in the training contract.
Is faster better?
Does this burst of activity signal a major shift in the structure of legal education and ultimately sound the death knell for the separate training contract? Is England –
and perhaps the UK – moving towards a more streamlined academic legal qualification process? And do extended degrees provide a better or worse experience for those who really matter – the students?
The history of the four-year law degree in England can be traced back to the legal education shake-up of the early 1990s. The Law Society – which then had responsibility for regulating and training would-be solicitors – overhauled its outdated finals exam and launched what it billed as the more practical and skills-based LPC.
In 1992 Northumbria Law School – renowned as a hotbed of legal academic innovation – seized the mood and launched its first extended programme.
“We took – and still take – the view that students learn the law better if they understand how legal rules work in the real world,” explains Kevin Kerrigan, the law school’s acting dean who was also on the ground at the time of the launch. “They also better understand legal practice if they develop skills and professional awareness at the same time as they are learning relevant legal rules. The key concept is integrated learning whereby a student is developing knowledge and awareness of legal principles, theory and doctrine and at the same time developing their awareness of legal practice, client care and legal procedure.”
Northumbria was so much at vanguard of the new structure that it seemed it would be ploughing this innovative path alone. A spokeswoman for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) – the body hatched in advance of the Legal Services Act 2007 – says that while over the years other institutions have flirted with following suit, they all got cold feet for a variety of reasons.
That is until four years ago, when the law school at Huddersfield University took the leap. Its head, Paul Richards, confirms that for the past 10 years he has been toying with the idea and even got some course designs on the blackboard.
“I kept pulling it off the shelf and putting it back again as various colleagues would say ‘forget about it – you’ll never get it validated; government isn’t going to fund such degrees and the regulators won’t approve them’,” Richards recollects.
It is the funding issue that has given renewed impetus for change. A perennial
and increasing problem with the LPC is affordability, with fees setting students back
as much as £13,000 for the one-year course.
It is an upfront cost that those who do not have law firm sponsorship need to
obtain either from commercial lenders (an increasingly hard market) or cash-strapped parents (perhaps an even harder market).
So while the Government’s recent tuition fee reforms have caused general anger among students they have given extended law degrees a boost. The four-year programmes fall under the Government’s deferred loan repayment scheme, meaning that students will not have to begin repayments until they start earning more than £21,000 per year.
While a traditional three-year degree with the LPC on top could total as much as £40,000 (with £13,000 of that having to be repaid immediately and at commercial rates), even the most expensive four-year degree will come in a couple of grand cheaper and be on more favourable repayment terms.
Indeed, the market has reacted even further. From September next year the College of Law (CoL) will offer a two-year law degree which, combined with its LPC,
will see students ready for training contracts in three years for a total fee of around £28,000, albeit with the LPC element still having to be repaid outside the government deferral scheme. BPP Law School is providing a similar two-year-plus-LPC option.
What’s on offer
But just what is on offer to students in this changing route to legal qualification? Northumbria has the most mature programme, with some 300 students each year signing up for its four-year exempting degree, which since 2009 has evolved into a Masters of Law.
“We integrate elements of what would have been the LPC into the course from day one,” explains Kerrigan. “For example, litigation and evidence are done during years one and two. Then we have property and business in year three; in year four they do probate and clinical legal education, where students work on real cases for real clients.”
Huddersfield takes about 130 students annually on its four-year degree, while Westminster last year accepted 55 and Nottingham is restricting its four-year degree to no more than a dozen students. Although there are subtle differences between the courses the overriding principle remains the same – providing an integrated degree that combines elements of theory and practice.
“Year one is fairly low-key because the students don’t know enough law to take advantage of their skills,” explains David Amos, head of applied and professional legal studies at Westminster University’s law school. “But it picks up in year two when we do advocacy, practical legal research, document drafting and dispute resolution. In year three it becomes an even more integrated course because they finish their compulsory academic studies and really start on the LPC elements, looking at litigation and a year of clinic work that is either done as a placement or at our student law office. That process continues in year four.”
Crucial to all the courses is flexibility – not least the ability to bail out through an escape hatch back to the traditional LLM if a student falls out of love with the four-year route. At Huddersfield there is an additional element of a mandatory hurdle.
“At the end of year two, the students have a gateway to pass through – they must score an average of 55 per cent in their year two studies,” says Richards. “If they don’t meet that criterion they are moved sideways to the three-year degree.”
Bailout provisions vary. For example, at Nottingham students have the option to shift to the three-year degree at any stage in their first two years of study, while at Westminster students can transfer to the standard LLB at any point.
“With this sort of course you get a self-selecting group,” says Amos. “These are people who know before they start what they want to do.”
At least two providers – Northumbria and Westminster – incorporate practical work in what are known as ‘student law offices’ as an integral part of their extended degrees.
“It’s a mandatory component of the exempting degrees,” says Kerrigan. “It entails meeting and representing real clients under the supervision of lawyers. We run it in a range of areas of law, much like a legal aid firm would do – employment, housing, benefits, crime, environmental law and a small business clinic.”
Indeed, it was the success Northumbria achieved with its universally admired law office that partially prodded the law school’s administrators to take the next step – in 2009 the SRA validated the law school to run a pilot five-year full-qualification degree that effectively incorporates a training contract into the bargain. Kerrigan describes the move as “the best example so far of English law schools becoming more like the US and Continental institutions”.
Northumbria is working with a group of about 10 leading law firms in the North East, including the Newcastle office of national law firms Irwin Mitchell and Watson Burton. Between years three and four the students are placed on a three-month internship with a participating law firm. They return to university study in year four, spending most of their time doing a double module at the student law office under the supervision of practising lawyers.
At the end of year four the students return to law firm practice for a 15-month full-time placement that is combined with some academic study. As with a traditional training contract the students are paid during the second placement, although they are not remunerated during their initial three-month internship. Northumbria is currently investigating deals that would see participating law firms sponsor students during their fourth year of the five-year course in place of the current system whereby firms sponsor the LPC.
Northumbria currently has 10 students on placement between years three and four
and three students on the final year on the five-year course who will graduate this year
as solicitors. Officials at Huddersfield and Westminster are keen to follow Northumbria’s lead and explore the possibility of launching their own five-year pilots.
The end of the training contract?
Will this move from four to five-year extended degrees consign traditional vocational education – including the current two-year training contract – to history? One of the longest-standing and most vocal proponents of change has been Nigel Savage, chief executive of the CoL. For some time he has been lobbying the SRA to ditch the training contract in its current form, describing it as an unfair block to qualification. But his main concern about extended degree courses is quality assurance.
“In principle it’s good for students that there’s a massive amount of choice,” acknowledges Savage. “But they need good, solid, verified information about the courses and the employability of the students coming out of them. In the old days there used to be Law Society monitoring visits in which monitors sat in classrooms and rated the quality of courses, and all that information would be published. That has by and large gone.”
Wait and see
Others are wary of promoting radical change. Andrea Nollent, dean of Nottingham Law School, says her university is not interested in launching a five-year degree as she maintains it is not for academic institutions to set the agenda.
“Will extended degrees become more the norm?” she asks. “It’s for the SRA to work that through. It should not really be the role of universities to position themselves to engineer the training contract. You can get into difficult places by second-guessing what professional bodies want to do. Our role is to work with them and be responsive.”
The SRA is in the midst of a far-reaching legal education and training review, being conducted in conjunction with the regulators at the bar and the Institute of Legal Executives. While not commenting specifically on the authority’s position, a spokeswoman says it is likely that “in this country there will always be a period of work-based learning, but it could take a different form than now”.
Ultimately, how radical the evolution becomes could depend on the students themselves – if they vote with their feet for streamlined extended degrees, market forces could leave law schools and regulators with little option.