Testing times for the LPC

The Legal Practice Course is responding to changing circumstances with several important revisions, says Nigel Savage. Professor Nigel Savage is chief executive at the College of Law. The Legal Practice Course (LPC) was introduced in September 1993 and represented a radical change from what had gone before. In one bound the Law Society departed from a single, centrally-set examination with tight control on content, syllabus, assessment, numbers and a restrictive approach to one in which colleges should be permitted to prepare students for the professional examinations by a free market model, doing their own thing within a given framework.

The old system and the previous Law Society Finals Course was a product of the society's desire to control numbers coming into the profession and a long-held suspicion of university law schools which dated back to the 1950s, culminating in the decision in 1962 to create The College of Law.

Such changes are often the result of several factors coming together at once. The principal pressure for change was not so much the desire for a new course as the profession's massive demand for new recruits.

The large commercial firms simply could not get enough trainees. At the same time the society had a visionary president in Tony Holland, who took a special interest in education and training, a powerful team in the directorate and massive growth in law schools with a growing interest in legal skills.

All of the above combined to produce a radical solution. The Law Society devolved delivery and assessment of the professional qualification to providing institutions within a framework of standards, validation and assessment visits. The result was the creation of a marketplace, a certain loss of control on the part of the society, but a much better course and one which genuinely prepared young people for practice. There were faults, inevitably, but the Law Society deserved great credit for setting up and controlling a system that resulted in courses being delivered in more than 30 different locations.

Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons why the LPC was a success was the creation of the LPC Board, which has been able to win the trust and the support of all the providers; hopefully, current changes and conflicts within the society will not damage that trust irreparably.

If the LPC has been so successful, why the changes so soon? Changing circumstances play a large part in the decision. The LPC was inevitably a compromise in terms of its focus; it was very largely built with a general practice emphasis, which, some might argue, no longer reflects the reality of life in practice.

In recent years the profession has become fragmented and, like all sophisticated markets, there has been greater segmentation. The needs of the firms in the high Street, niche areas of practice and the City, are different. The changes in the LPC are, therefore, partly driven by the fragmentation of the profession.

The major concerns and consequent changes are as follows:

the need for greater flexibility, which in turn will bring diversity. The new course will allow providers to tailor courses to meet the legitimate needs of particular areas of practice, such as the City;

the desire for a better balance between the compulsory and option subjects. In effect, the new course will give greater weight to the electives and thus underpin the above;

the feeling that Wills, Probate and Administration did not warrant its core status. Thus it is no longer a compulsory subject, with the exception of those aspects of it that are 'reserved';

a need to give greater emphasis to research, writing and drafting, and less to negotiation;

the need to raise the profile of information technology;

a desire for a greater measure of uniformity in terms of assessment and a feeling that the old course was over-assessed;

the need to accommodate accounts in the syllabus;

the need to give more time and weight to Business Law and Practice. In effect, therefore, Business will take up as much time as that devoted to the aggregate of Conveyancing and Litigation.

The changes will result in greater diversity of provision and it is vital that those intending to start an LPC in September this year get themselves briefed on how providers intend to respond to the changes.

It is also important that firms take a greater interest in familiarising themselves with the greater diversity and are aware of the providers that can respond to their needs.