Law schools: Spoilt for choice

 It has been a long time coming, but the new-look Legal Practice Course (LPC), one of the biggest shake-ups of the course since it was established in 1993, has finally landed.

Human resources directors at law firms across the country – not to mention partners – will be watching developments closely. Each year a firm’s new crop of trainees is a major cost, and with the increasing ­availability of bespoke courses and exclusive tie-ups with providers on offer this latest development with the LPC is a big deal.

It is also big news for the UK’s law schools. When the initial plans were first unveiled, providers across the country 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 result in smaller ­institutions going under?

“The major LPC providers have become like giant fish factories, whereby they’re sucking up all the fish and processing them out,” says Nottingham Law School’s (NLS) LPC head Bob White. “That’s why smaller providers are having to think outside the box to survive.”

NLS was the first provider to announce its decision to split the LPC in two by disengaging compulsory subjects from the electives. 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.

“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 isn’t afraid to pioneer new things such as this course,” argues 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’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,” he claims.

Westminster is the only law school in the capital that runs a Solicitors Regulatory Authority (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 only the cost of the top-up fee.

Relaxed rules

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,” she says. “Looking at feedback from students, we found that there was a bit of slack, particularly during the electives term.”

Stoker 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.

BPP is launching a third branch in London later this year in premises opposite Sir 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.

But what does this mean for the Bristol Institute of Legal Practice (BILP)? Is there enough room in ­Bristol for all three providers? BILP’s LPC director Kerry James believes so.

“We’re well-known with law firms in the area and have spent years ­cultivating our relationships,” she says. “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 Graduate Diploma in Law ­students in Bristol in 2010, while BPP hopes to attract 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 as well.

“BPP and the CoL signing up so many law firms 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 eighth and ninth LPC clients, Field Fisher Waterhouse and Mills & Reeve.

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. 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 to 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?