Tailor-made for controversy

CONTROVERSY is stalking the newly-reformed Legal Practice Course, set to make its debut in law schools around the country this September. At stake is the future of the LPC as we know it.

Last month the Law Society put a 'freeze' on the number of LPC places available or, in the words of chair Simon Baker, the Law Society training committee “will not consider yet more applications…for the time being”.

This month, law schools, most notably the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice and Bristol University, are considering challenging that decision in the courts.

And while the Law Society and the colleges battle it out, some City firms are thinking of setting up their own in-house law schools specifically catering for their own trainees.

Allen & Overy applied to the Law Society last year for permission to set up its own law school, and 30 City firms met Baker last month to discuss the implications of the recent LPC review, the first since the original course was set up in.

Baker – who believes the profession “needs less hue and cry and more constructive dialogue” – has found himself fighting the corner of the society, which regulates the LPC, on two fronts.

To the City firms who want to set up their own tailor-made courses, he says it is important for the “gold standard” of the solicitor's qualification to be maintained. He says he fears the qualification would become confused and diluted if alternative courses were set up.

But from the profession's point of view, an up-to-date course designed to meet the needs of City firms (who often pick up the tab for the already-recruited student) would appear to make common, and commercial, sense.

Indeed, a key function of last year's LPC review, the first since it was set up, was to meet the demands of the City by making the course more flexible – to allow City sponsored students to focus on the most relevant areas of the law.

And, for the moment at least, the City is keeping its powder dry, encouraged by the fact that another LPC review is expected this autumn, possibly with the additional help of an “impartial third party with no axe to grind”, according to Baker.

Deborah Ball, head of education and research at Lovell White Durrant, says her firm is not currently planning its own course, but if the new one does not match up to its expectations it will explore alternatives.

Ann Halpern, head of training and development at Norton Rose, says her practice will “wait and see”.

A more pressing challenge facing the Law Society is that posed by the disgruntled law schools, who accuse it of imposing the freeze on places without consultation.

Baker argues that colleges with overbooked courses, such as the Oxford Institute, could transfer places to those which cannot fill all their places. He says only two out of the 31 courses on offer have filled all their places.

The figures clearly show supply exceeding demand: a total of 6,921 students enrolled on LPC courses in 1996 whereas there were 8,166 places available (6,844 full-time and 1,322 part-time) not including 110 law degree places at the University of Northumbria, which is exempt from the LPC.

Student demand for LPC places has been falling for the past three years and, out of those completing their LPC last year, only 4,388 succeeded in gaining training contracts. The rest followed different careers.

But Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, retorts that the regulator is interfering in a marketplace which depends on winners and losers.

And he adds ominously: “This needs to be sorted out as soon as possible, because if there is a breakdown of relationships then the system breaks down.”