Law's creaking conveyor belt

Are law schools churning out incomplete legal drones who are not fully prepared for the real legal world? Matheu Swallow gauges the opinions of firms, students and the law schools.

The second year of the reformed Legal Practice Course (LPC) has just got under way, but questions remain as to whether it will produce the fully rounded students that law firms really want.

Complaints about the old LPC course persist and new problems are compounding the situation.

The most serious and commonly voiced complaint from students is that the course costs too much and that students are left shackled with debt that lasts well into their working life.

Bob White, head of Nottingham Trent Law School, accepts this is a “major problem”.

Recent research from the Trainee Solicitors' Group (TSG) shows average fees for the LPC at #5,600, with an average increase of 6 per cent each year – more than twice the current rate of inflation.

Nick Armstrong, TSG chair, says: “These figures are extremely worrying. Of particular concern is the fact that the increases may be being driven by a small number of providers. The College of Law, for example, has consistently increased its fees by more than 6 per cent each year for the past three years and last year their percentage rise was 11 per cent. These fees translate into crippling debt for students and trainees. They require explanation.”

Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, says the changes to the LPC, which include new courses and a greater emphasis on certain subjects – commercial law in particular – have forced all the good providers to substantially increase their costs. Meanwhile Bob White at Nottingham Trent argues that course fees are inevitably high because the LPC is so labour intensive.

Chair of the LPC board and Law Society council member Mike Long says the driving force behind mounting debt problems for law students is the Government's “parsimony in not providing adequate grants and student loans”. However, the TSG and many students question why the Law Society, having made a profit out of LPC fees, does not dig into its own pockets to make amends and help needy students.

Not only is massive debt debilitating for the current crop of trainees, it is going to get worse with the introduction of #1,000 tuition fees for undergraduates this year.

“Will you, the student, really be brave enough to pursue a career in the law with #10-15,000 of debt?” asks Bob Lee, who heads Cardiff Law School.

One debt solution proposed by the Law Society on a recent questionnaire to the profession is the idea of a levy on firms, including those not providing training, to provide a bursary fund to help students.

Mike Long of the LPC believes that this “does not go far enough. There should be a general training levy to train enough people for the future”. He says people who cannot afford to train themselves should get assistance and guidance in areas of the law such as the high street, where there is a shortage of young practitioners.

“Without change,” says Long, “it will be the rich and not necessarily the meritorious who will enter the profession. It really undermines the whole basis of access to solicitors across the country and the ability of those who wish to become solicitors. It is as important to have solicitors to look after the public's personal freedoms as it is to have doctors to look after their health”.

As far as the LPC course content and its presentation are concerned, Lawrence Simanowitz, a new trainee at Lewis Silkin, voices a common complaint when he says that during the course he “felt no real connection to the legal profession”.

The redesigned course is supposed to place greater emphasis on the so-called soft skills such as drafting and negotiating.

However, Virginia Glastonbury, a partner at Herbert Smith, complains that there is “still not enough emphasis on commerciality in practice” and that “oral and written skills are often not up to scratch”.

The problems within the current system may be unsolvable. While trainee Lawrence is thanking his lucky stars for a great firm librarian to cover up his “woefully inadequate research skills”, David Taylor, head of the commercial property unit at Berwin Leighton, argues that the practical emphasis is now being run “almost at the expense of the law”.

Cardiff's Bob Lee offers another perspective. “It is very difficult to convey the reality of practice in the classroom,” he says.

This is backed up by one student who says: “They [the tutors] wasted a lot of time on 'negotiations' and 'interviews' that rarely worked because they were so contrived.”

Some of the blame for this, argues Nottingham Trent's White, must go on the students' undergraduate legal training where, he says: “You are taught about rights and obligations, but not how to live with them.” He adds that firms do not realise how badly students are prepared when they arrive at an LPC course.

Although Stefan Phillips, who is studying at the College of Law, feels students should be making the leap of faith from academic-vocational learning to relevant practical training by their own efforts, many other students place the blame for poorly prepared trainees squarely on “inexperienced” and “highly variable” teaching practices.

Richard De Friend, branch director at the London College of Law, accepts that the high rate of staff turnover on all LPC courses creates a problem.

But he questions the actions of the Law Society regulators, complaining that their ever-shifting criteria for course requirements means some of what is being taught is at “utter variance with what they [the law school teachers] were told to teach by the regulators two or three years ago”.

The conflict is not just between theory and practice. While many City firms would argue for a still greater emphasis on commercial law, there are other firms who would favour the retention of a broader basis of learning.

“There will be calls to take account of the changing rules governing rights of audience, meaning pressure to give more criminal and civil litigation training – but the legal market is continually changing and it's tough,” says Lee at Cardiff.

Within the current system it is impossible to accommodate everyone, as one trainee explains: “I found it very tedious learning about criminal litigation, wills and residential conveyancing, knowing full well that I wouldn't need them in a City practice. These three courses alone took up over half our teaching for the year.”

But TSG chair Nick Armstrong says early specialism is not in the interests of those entering the profession. “It is often not until a trainee has experienced a subject area in practice that they know whether or not they wish to specialise in it,” he says.

Of course it is not all bad news. Many qualified solicitors say they still refer to their LPC course books and find the interview, negotiation and advocacy plans extremely useful in practice.

However, the problems of crippling debt, practical awareness and theoretical understanding cannot properly be reconciled within the current teaching system. Despite this, Savage at the College of Law still argues for a “period of consolidation”, while even Armstrong and the TSG accept that with recent LPC changes, it would not be politically expedient to press for radical change now.

Armstrong contends that the TSG model for an integrated on-the-job system of training is the best option. Bob Lee at Cardiff agrees. “The move to a part-time mode of education in some way shape or form seems inevitable,” he says.

“I do believe the ideal model would involve some kind of experiential learning.”

Armstrong argues that on-the-job training would resolve the debt problem, would alleviate employment uncertainty and would be educationally better. But for now, many law firms may find their new trainees have little idea about what day-to-day life as a lawyer is all about.