A recent review of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) concluded that it required greater flexibility to meet the needs of different types of practice more closely.
But will the inevitable changes to the LPC set out in the review and now approved by the Law Society meet the needs of all practices when recruiting suitable trainees? Or does it simply meet the needs of the City-based and larger commercial firms?
The LPC, which began life in September 1993, replaced the old “Finals” course (LSF) as the vocational stage in a solicitor's training. Most solicitors will be aware of the perceived failings of the Finals course, having studied it and suffered recurring anxiety dreams as a consequence. The LPC aimed to address such failings by introducing a “skills-rich” syllabus teaching technical subjects in a practical context with an assessment regime which aimed to set out a route along which students built their knowledge base and were assessed on the practical application of the skills they acquired.
The course maintained central reference to four compulsory topics (business law and practice, litigation and advocacy, conveyancing and wills, probate and administration) but introduced a limited range of options and the concept of “pervasive” subjects – European Union law, Revenue law, financial services and professional conduct.
As an ambitious and well- thought-out alternative to the LSF, the LPC has won over its detractors. Most of us involved with the training of solicitors accept the ethos and approach of a skills-based course that teaches technical subjects in the context of legal practice. However, some take the view that the skills learned at different stages in the route to qualification should be re-scheduled with an increased emphasis placed on “hard” skills (practical legal research, legal writing and drafting) rather than “soft” skills (communication, negotiation and client interviewing).
In the three years since it started, the new course appears to have achieved most of its aims. According to the LPC review group – established to undertake a review of the LPC and assess whether the course was meeting its original aims and objectives as well as the needs of the profession – practitioners, trainees and course providers are all generally satisfied with the course.
In addition, says the group's report, published last month, there is “widespread recognition that it represents a significant improvement on…the Law Society's Finals Course, as preparation for…the training contract”. In conclusion, the group finds there is no evidence of any need for “root and branch” reform of the LPC.
But what has been acknowledged in the review process is the concern that since its inception, the LPC course still fails to be flexible enough to meet the needs of the varied types of practice taking on trainees – with the strong voice of the City firms leading the call for greater flexibility. What many of the City firms are seeking is a course tailored to meet the needs of their particular commercial practices.
The recommendations set out in the review group's report go some way to meeting this call by removing wills, probate and administration from the current list of four compulsory subjects and placing it into core areas and as an elective and, more importantly, by allowing trainees to pick three rather than the current two elective subjects from an improved range of topics. In other words, those intending to train in the City will be able to study an additional “commercial” topic such as banking law, corporate finance and commercial property.
While the recommendations aim to answer concerns expressed by the larger commercial practices, there are questions which inevitably arise from the proposed changes. The first must be, who will benefit?
Obviously, the City and more commercially oriented regional firms where, for example, trainees are unlikely to spend time in the private client department, will be catered for. But what about the traditional high street practice which, after all, dominates the legal marketplace in terms of numbers?
Will such firms be able to ensure that the revised LPC offers the range of elective subjects their trainees need? And what about industry and government lawyers? More particularly perhaps, what about the prospective trainee who wants to train outside the City?
All these are questions that should be addressed by both the Law Society training committee and providers. Some providers may argue that the way forward is to allow them to tailor their LPC to meet the demands of their chosen sector of the market.
There may also be a concern that the “rejuvenated” LPC will result in students specialising too soon. In addition, there is the potential for the larger City firms to dictate to the providers, to ensure they get the course they want for their trainees. The Law Society has a role to play in addressing such concerns.
A review of the LPC so early in its lifetime must be welcomed – the Law Society is clearly responding to the views of its members, whatever their area or type of practice. But LPC II must address the needs of all – including students – in order to build on the success of the first four years.
The LPC Review Group Report – LPC II From September 1997
Foundation course Proposed written standard for core areas (Revenue law, EU law, professional conduct and probate and administration of estates) which are designed to set various contexts for the LPC.
Compulsory areas Three subjects: business law and practice; litigation and advocacy; conveyancing (domestic or commercial context). Wills, probate and administration to be removed from the existing compulsory subject list.
Elective areas Current two subjects extended to three, from a range of private and corporate client topics approved by the LPC Board (under the auspices of the Law Society training committee).
Pervasive areas Existing course (Revenue law, professional conduct and EU law) expanded to provide greater emphasis upon taxation in business law and practice plus the inclusion of accounts for the first time.
Skills areas Removal of negotiation as a prescribed skill. Skills including writing and drafting, interviewing and advocacy to be integrated into the elective as well as compulsory areas of the course. Practical legal research as well as writing and drafting are to be assessed on two occasions, whereas other skills are to be assessed on one occasion during the LPC.