A revolution in legal education

The world of legal education took centre-stage last week after it experienced the biggest shake-up since the City LPC was introduced in 2001.

As first revealed on www.thelawyer.com (17 March), the eight City LPC consortium firms are to dump two of their existing providers, while three – Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy and Linklaters – will be developing radical bespoke courses when the existing contract expires in two years’ time.

The City LPC was introduced in 2001 in response to concerns that trainees were failing to gain the skills needed from the course to work in a commercial environment. In a rare show of collaboration, eight leading firms, dubbed the City Eight, formed a consortium and hired the three colleges – BPP Law School, Nottingham Law School and the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (Oxilp) – to run the course, snubbing the College of Law, the country’s largest LPC provider.

But from September 2006, five firms – Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May – will run the City LPC exclusively with BPP Law School in London, leaving Nottingham and Oxilp out in the cold. The remaining three firms – A&O, Clifford Chance and Linklaters – are entering unchartered territory with the College of Law, which will design and run bespoke courses tailored to each firm. The move is designed to reflect more closely their practice areas.

The outcome is a huge coup for both the College of Law – back in favour after the consortium’s original snub – and BPP. Based on current fee levels for the LPC, the new three-year contract will be worth almost £10m to BPP. Nottingham and Oxilp stand to lose their guaranteed yearly income streams of £1.63m and £825,000 respectively.

Fee levels for the College of Law bespoke courses will be consistent with existing City LPC costs, so they will generate an estimated total revenue of £2.57m a year from A&O, Clifford Chance and Linklaters.

When the City LPC was first introduced, fears were voiced that the course was elitist and divisive.

One of the loudest detractors was College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage. Never one to mince words, Savage attacked the idea, saying he would never “preside over a law college that is devoted to serving the needs of an exclusive few at the expense of the many”.

Ironically, Savage now faces accusations that the bespoke courses are even more divisive than the City LPC ever was.

Under the plans being carved out, the College of Law will run three separate LPC courses for each of the three firms. Students on these courses will be taught in separate classes from all other students.

In contrast, all the colleges running the City LPC currently allow all students onto the same course, including those with training contracts at firms outside the City Eight and self-funding students.

BPP Law School chief executive Peter Crisp labelled the creation of firm-specific courses a “spooky turn of events”, while Slaughter and May executive partner Melvyn Hughes described them as “not particularly healthy”.

Crisp said Linklaters had asked his college to run the course but it had refused, and said Savage appeared to have gone against his principles. “Was he that desperate to get the business?” Crisp mused. He argued that teaching students separately would not produce “well-rounded” individuals and called into question the attractiveness to other firms of a lawyer who had completed such a “narrow” LPC.

Crisp also cast doubt on whether these courses would sit with the college’s charitable status, because it would be running a course that could not be accessed by all.

Savage rejected these criticisms. “We are still committed to the whole profession. We will be announcing more programmes like this in May,” he said, signalling that the college may be looking at courses tailored to the high street or legal aid sectors.

Money from the new deals will be pumped back into the college’s pro bono initiatives and its careers service, “not shareholders’ pockets”, he added, in a swipe at BPP.

Linklaters trainee partner Simon Firth denied that the move to a separate LPC was fuelled by elitism.

“What we are trying to do is integrate the LPC course into our own training programme,” he said.

In the Linklaters LPC, for example, students will use the firm’s own forms when drafting precedent documents.

“It might seem minor, and in a sense it is, but if you are familiar with the style and layout when you get into practice you are much more effective,” said Firth.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Law Society is backing the bespoke courses. It has already approved the Linklaters LPC, which is now awaiting final validation.

The society’s more flexible stance is in keeping with its ongoing review of the training framework for solicitors.

A&O graduate recruitment partner Alison Beardsley said the firm had wanted to create a firm-specific LPC for the past 10 years, but had previously been barred by the society. Now, she said, there was “more openness” to the idea.

When news of the arrangements emerged last week, all the firms involved – even those leaving the consortium – lined up to say how successful the controversial City LPC has been.

Hughes said the decision to move entirely to BPP was based purely on location.

“It’s much easier to call your trainees to give them that sort of training if they are in London,” he reasoned.

Rumours, however, have circulated for some time about growing discontent with the quality of the Oxilp course. The departure of director Nick Johnson, followed six months later by his replacement Amanda Clarke, cannot have helped. It is understood the five remaining consortium members originally approached both BPP and Nottingham about continuing the contract.

New Oxilp director Julie Brannan, who has been at the college for 10 years, denied there were problems and was upbeat about the development.

Brannan, a former Herbert Smith litigation partner, said: “The contract has been very useful and now we can use that as a springboard.”

She claimed Oxilp would be able to fill its LPC places, a sentiment echoed by Nottingham Law School managing director Professor Phil Knott.

But once all the new arrangements roll out, if you are a student with aspirations to work at a City firm, the clear perception will be that the London colleges are really the only place to be.

‘The college, as the leading education provider in the country, exists to serve the needs of all parts of a diversified profession. I am not prepared to preside over a law college that is devoted to serving the needs of an exclusive few at the expense of the many’
College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage, February 2000

‘What we have done in the past three to four years is create a diversified law school but what we didn’t have was the presence of the large global firms. Now we have that and it is what I wanted to achieve’
College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage last week

‘We believe that working with one provider on our own course will allow us to have the flexibility that we want’
Julia Clarke, Clifford Chance graduate recruitment partner

‘It is producing a product which is not going to benefit anybody else’
BPP Law School chief executive Peter Crisp on the College of Law’s firm-specific LPCs

‘My understanding is that it was straightforward competitive advantage. Not all the firms were comfortable with it’
Nottingham Law School managing director Professor Phil Knott, on the splitting of the City Eight

College of Law makes a comeback
The news that Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters have opted for the College of Law to run their bespoke courses completes the legal education provider’s renaissance. Four years ago, it suffered a huge blow when the City Eight chose BPP, Nottingham and Oxilp over the college.

Since then it has sought other ways to mark itself out, first by spending £7m on launching its own commercially-focused LPC and by working with City firms in innovative ways, such as teaming up with Linklaters to run the litigation seat for the firm’s trainees. This was the first time a major City firm had contracted with an external provider for training in basic seats.

The college’s pro bono activity has gone from strength to strength and encompasses 35 projects and 1,200 students.

Now the college is gearing up for the launch of its revamped commercial LPC in the autumn, which will form the basis of the course for the three former consortium members. Changes include more face-to-face sessions, e-learning, and learning in small teaching groups.

Savage said: “The school has changed beyond all recognition in the past five years.”

If the trend towards firm-specific LPCs catches on, the College of Law will be in pole position to capitalise.

Gemma Charles is senior reporter on Lawyer 2B