ULaw vs BPP: hostilities subside, war goes on and on

The law school war shows no signs of ending. But we have, perhaps, reached the end of the beginning.

One senior lecturer recently told Lawyer 2B that hostilities have subsided in the war of the law schools. The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), he said, has made all providers pause as they wait to see what the outcomes will be.

The retirement of one of legal education’s most combative generals, Nigel Savage (6 Feb 2014) has, perhaps, lessened the sabre rattling a little. But anyone thinking that the two main belligerents, BPP and the University of Law (ULaw), are about to lie down together like the lion and the lamb is sorely mistaken.

It would be fair to say, though, that the war has entered a new phase. 

For a while, BPP and ULaw fought up close and personal, for more or less the same ground. Like Mary’s little lamb, where one went, the other was sure to follow.

One opens up in a new provincial city? The other does too. (11 Nov 2009) One gets uni status? (22 Nov 2012) The other has to have it as well (8 Aug 2013).

The late noughties saw a frantic battle to tie firms in to exclusive deals for provision of the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC).

But now the battle lines have been drawn in cities across England, and most of the large firms have tie-ups with either ULaw, BPP or the third-largest provider, Kaplan. These factors decided, the law schools have started to diverge.

ULaw’s big thing has been its international focus. The job advert for Savage’s replacement as CEO stressed the university’s desire to expand internationally. The man eventually brought in, John Latham, has the credentials: he was formerly vice-president of international business development at Laureate Education, a network of private universities spanning 30 countries (12 Sep 2013).

The university launched an ’international LPC’ in 2012 and won some immediate admirers. Indeed, the new course managed to woo CMS Cameron McKenna (25 Apr 2012) and Dechert away from BPP.

“So much of the work that Dechert trainees do is multi-jurisdictional, so we’re very keen to get our future trainees thinking about law from a global perspective before they join us,” graduate recruitment partner Andrew Hearn reasoned (20 Jun 2012).

But ULaw hasn’t had it all its own way. Recently, a number of firms have decided that the business nous of their new recruits needs boosting, and this is an area where BPP has a distinct advantage. It has a business school to draw upon, something ULaw doesn’t possess.

That means BPP can claim real expertise when launching law courses with business modules incorporated, a concept proving attractive to firms. For example, Simmons & Simmons has been so pleased with its LPC/MBA mash-up, launched in 2009, that it has made it compulsory for all its future trainees (28 Jun 2012).

The course has sparked great interest among Simmons’ City rivals, says training principal Alan Gar, adding that firms that you might not expect to bother with such things have quizzed him about it. 

At the end of 2013, when Allen & Overy became the first magic circle firm to launch a business-focused LPC and business MA, it turned to BPP to provide it, dropping ULaw in the process (16 Dec 2013).

“We’ve been very happy with the University of Law and the quality of the GDL and LPC they provide,” says the firm’s training principal, David Campbell. “We put it out to tender and felt that BPP just had the edge on the business focus.” 

Walker Morris gave the same reason when it signed up with BPP in January (8 Jan 2014), while Osborne Clarke has also switched over from ULaw, launching ‘back to school’ modules for its junior lawyers in the process (23 Jul 2013).

In reality, of course, ’business focused’ versus ‘international’ is a false dichotomy. BPP is perfectly capable of catering to international firms and ULaw is perfectly capable of providing business acumen. Each will think up new products that chip away at the other’s USP.

But the factors the two providers are choosing to highlight are interesting in themselves, as they demonstrate what each institution views as most important to its future. 

ULaw has its sights set on global domination. The university’s focus on i-tutorials and regular reminders that its fastest-growing programme is its online LPC are also telling. But ultimately, it will remain a specialist law school. The clue’s in the name. 

In the long-term, it seems unlikely that BPP’s global ambitions are any less than ULaw’s, but for the moment it is more concerned with bringing its business and law branches closer together. That’s not even mentioning its school of health: the potential for crossover there is great.

As to who will win the war of the law schools, the demand for the LPC shows there are more than enough students for both providers – and their other competitors to boot. There is no ultimate victory in sight.

In the end, the side with the upper hand will not be the one with the greatest business focus, or the one with the most international branches, or the most students or law firm tie-ups. It will always be the one that can come up with the most innovative product focused on what the market is currently demanding.

And this is where the outcomes of LETR might just come along and shake things up again.

The initial skirmishes are over. The war continues.