Early learning centres

Collective action. It may make the hearts of old Marxists sing, but it's not quite the done thing in the City, until eight City firms – Allen & Overy (A&O), Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Herbert Smith, Linklaters & Alliance, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May – rewrote the rules. Last year, after years of grumbling about the relevance of the LPC to their own training programmes, the eight banded together to establish a City LPC with three favoured providers. The purchasing power of the eight is formidable. Together, they employ some 800 trainees and spend nearly £8m on LPC fees and sponsorship annually – and that figure does not take into account CPE fees.

The project has given legal education the biggest shake-up in a decade. And from being a relative backwater, education and in-house training is now suddenly seen as one of the key strategic issues for every type of law firm.

The City Eight's revolt was prefigured several years back when A&O threatened to set up its own LPC. That idea petered out when it became clear that the Law Society would not accredit any course that was set up by the firm on an independent basis. But dissatisfaction continued. Clifford Chance recruitment partner Simon Davis says: "We thought, 'Why are we all beating this drum separately?' We're all unhappy and training very large numbers of lawyers, and people are saying to us, 'I've just been through a year that was thoroughly uninspiring.'"

But the plot went a lot deeper than just a specially tailored LPC. The City Eight seriously considered setting up their own City law school.

At the beginning of 1999 the City Eight commissioned legal educator Mike Semple Piggott to come up with a report. The report went into huge detail on the feasibility of setting up a City law school to service the firms' trainees. It even sounded out Roger Smith, director of education at the Law Society, on the matter. It read: "Portability of the qualification within the profession was an important tenet… [but] Roger Smith could see few bars to the establishment of a new law school… provided the new law school met Law Society accreditation criteria and complied with equal opportunities legislation."

According to the report, five firms out of the eight indicated a strong preference for establishing a new law school. The calculations made were for an intake of 800 students, and a building covering 80,000 square feet. It even picked out two sites in Coopers Row, EC3, and Tea Trade Wharf, part of the Butlers Wharf development.

So why did it not go ahead? Even at this early stage, it was clear that project-managing eight "cooperating, yet still competing" firms was fraught with difficulties. What was more, Semple Piggott warned of "charges of elitism… ill-informed reaction which could impact on your core business in terms of publicity generated". But perhaps what put the eight firms off more than anything else was simply the cost of it. After spending on property, salaries and equipment, the final bill would have totalled £5m – simply too much to stomach. The logistics, too, were offputting. A source says: "In the end, we're lawyers in private practice, we're not educators."

The firms and providers are extraordinarily sensitive about the charge of elitism, particularly since the intervention of Lord Woolf earlier this year. "We're developing a number of electives for City-bound students, but will continue to offer a range of other electives to suit different tastes," says BPP law school's chief executive Jacqueline Siers. "The LPC 2001 initiative between providers and firms marks a tremendous opportunity to improve the course for the benefit of students and firms alike."

Peter Jones, dean and chief executive of Nottingham Law School (NLS), argues: "Of course, our collaboration with the City firms reflects the needs of corporate and commercial practice, particularly at elective stage, but not in any way which is exclusive to the firms." Slaughter and May partner Melvyn Hughes says: "If we get this delivered in the right way, it will be of genuine benefit to everyone on the course. What we're doing has struck a chord across the profession."

Another source, however, breaks away from the party line: "Elitist? Of course it's elitist. Competition is founded on elitism. Discriminatory? No. That's different."

Certainly, other major law firms were rattled by the news, although since then things have mellowed. "I did a consultation of the Legal Education and Training Group (LETG)," says CMS Cameron McKenna training partner Melissa Hardee, who is chair of the LETG. "The message that came back was that the people didn't have an issue with the City LPC as such. Many are concerned about the rigour of the course. It raises wider issues that have needed to be discussed for a long time." Nabarro Nathanson's graduate recruitment head Jane Drew says: "It's actually been a good thing for us. It's made us think about the LPC more, so we took a proactive approach to it."

On the student side, though, the mood is tinged with uncertainty. Dinah Crystal, law lecturer and careers adviser at Manchester University, says: "Students understand the reasoning behind why the City firms want to do it, but at 19 they're a bit nervous about having to specialise at the age of 21. And there's a financial consideration here. If you want to be in the North to do the LPC, you've only got Nottingham as your choice."

The choice of providers certainly proved to be politically fraught. Davis at Clifford Chance says: "All firms look at the numbers of people coming through and where they tend to go to. [People] predominantly use one [provider] in London and a couple outside. You have to offer the London alternative to students." After a series of presentations, Nottingham Law School, the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice and – the big surprise – in London BPP, won the contract. But BPP was not the only surprise. For example, the University of the West of England (UWE) and Cardiff Law School are both rated as "excellent" by the Law Society, yet neither was asked to pitch for the City LPC. "Cardiff was never in the running," says a source. However, a number of sources agree that UWE's omission from the pitch list was particularly mysterious, given its increasingly strong status.

Nottingham was always a no-brainer. With a rating of "excellent", it was the clear frontrunner. In a strategy initiated by Nigel Savage – then the dean of NLS – but built on by current management Peter Jones, Phil Knott and Bob White, Nottingham had astutely developed strong links with City firms. It had a teaching team which was widely regarded as the strongest in the country and easily had a reputation for being the most innovative school. Nottingham had built up a substantial intake of City students, while at the same time managing to cater for those going into smaller firms with the simple expedient of streaming.

The Oxford Institute of Legal Practice was a relative newcomer to the legal education scene. It was a recent joint venture between the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University, and it has particularly strong links with Freshfields and Herbert Smith; Julie Brannan, the LPC course director, was formerly at Herbert Smith. Although widely admired among City firms, its "excellent" rating was downgraded this year to "good". It was certainly a blow to the establishment's reputation, but by then it had secured its contract with the City Eight.

With two of the regional places having gone to Oxford and Nottingham, it was clear that the battleground was London. BPP's coup was considerable. "A lot of people were surprised about BPP," acknowledges a training head at a top 20 firm. BPP is hardly part of the establishment – it is funded by the private sector and is part of professional education group BPP Holdings. At BPP itself, the mood was triumphant – it had managed to beat off arch-enemy the College of Law.

But then, the College of Law was never going to get the contract. Rather like an old state-owned industry, the College, by that time headed by maverick Nigel Savage, was the object of huge criticism. Savage joined the College of Law in 1996 from Nottingham, where he had been gleefully aiming potshots at his lumbering foe for years. Nigel Savage – a man who has ruffled a few feathers in his time – may have done wonders at Nottingham, but his job at the College of Law was a tough one.

In the battle for the London slot, the College of Law was putting up its weakest branch. Chester and York have long been regarded as its better outposts, and the Store Street branch has traditionally been regarded by law firms as verging on abysmal. Quite apart from the perception of teaching quality, the facilities – notably the library and provision of books – were considered exceptionally poor.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the whole process was almost designed to snub the College. As Semple Piggott delicately stated in the report: "I noted a great deal of frustration with the College, and in some instances, antipathy towards Nigel Savage. While one is confident that complex business decisions will not be based on 'general' antipathies of a personal nature, it is important to accept that these may exist. In his defence, the College of Law is a very large organisation and he inherited a regime, which if nothing else was fairly complacent about its place in the educational firmament."

Time and time again, the College of Law was criticised in the City Eight meetings as the worst performer, with its London branch in Store Street being singled out. Despite endless promises of change, it was perceived not to have delivered. And its pitch failed to help matters. One insider claims: "The College of Law had the worst presentation by far."

Although the three chosen LPC providers have declined to go into any detail about the City LPC until the validation process is over, one thing is apparent – fees are going to go up. One source claims that the fees will rise to £8,000.

Meanwhile, the fundamental irony about the City LPC is that the much-maligned College of Law has started to get its act together. Savage says: "The City consortium is old history. We have not been deflected from our original strategy, which is to move the LPC forward, and the way to do that is to deliver it in context. I'll be judged on my record, not my personality." The College is in the middle of getting its new corporate LPC accredited earlier than the three providers which were chosen, whose validation is understood to be coming up over the next month. "To do Savage absolute credit, he's gone ahead and done his commercial LPC and will have it open for everyone to see," says an educator. "But where are the details about the three chosen providers? I do wonder whether everyone will end up copying the College in the end." Savage declined to comment about the College of Law's new course.

And Slaughter and May? Melvyn Hughes sounds a warning note: "We will be reviewing [the three providers'] performances on an annual basis. If we find that they don't cut the mustard, and if the College of Law is offering a better course, than we'll act on it. Our prime interest is having our trainees educated to the highest possible standard."