While delivering the Chancery Bar Association's spring lecture a couple of years ago, Mr Justice Lightman compared a person who took the common professional exam (CPE) route to becoming a lawyer to 'a person who studied O level biology and had a good bedside manner' practising as a doctor.
Unsurprisingly this comment caused a storm. Roger Smith, the head of legal education and training at the Law Society dismissed it at the time as 'poppycock', adding: 'There is a world full of lawyers who have made the crossover to law and performed extremely well…it is absolutely clear that employers like CPE students.'
Indeed, the average CPE intake at major firms runs at about 30 per cent, although this figure varies between firms.
Many employers are aware of the benefits a non-law background can bring. Of course, the fact that CPE students have studied other subjects gives them a significant advantage in some areas of practice (see bottom box, page 31). But there are different methods of thinking and analysis too, which are of great value. Most firms make a deliberate attempt to employ a wide range of individuals – and different intellectual techniques are vital to any practice which offers its clients creative legal solutions.
Moreover, do not forget that undertaking a CPE after your first degree also shows a certain amount of commitment. Having made a conscious, considered decision to become a lawyer is a powerful bonus in a competitive recruitment market where all would-be lawyers have to prove themselves. Graduate recruitment heads and pupillage committees are all too aware that some law students have merely gone through the motions of becoming a lawyer since they chose the LLB at 17 or 18.
But what of the course itself? There are in fact two conversion courses that students can take – the CPE and the postgraduate diploma in law (PgDL). There is little difference between the two and potential employers do not prefer one over the other. Both are one-year full-time courses, although part-time and distance learning variants are also available – each lasting two years. The actual courses are set by individual institutions but must cover the seven foundations of legal knowledge. These are:
Obligations 1 (contract law)
Obligations 2 (tort law)
Foundations of criminal law
Foundations of equity and the law of trusts
Foundations of the law of the European Union
Foundations of property law
Foundations of public law
Students also study an additional subject, known as a substantive topic. The choice of topics offered differs from institution to institution.
The exams for each subject are set by each institution and usually comprise of a three-hour paper. Some institutions offer a dissertation option for the substantive topic.
Although full-time students are allowed up to three years to complete the course (part-time and distance learning students are allowed up to four years), students are not allowed to attempt the same paper more than three times.
Full-time students can apply for the courses through the Central Applications Board (CAB), PO Box 84 Guildford, Surrey GU3 1YX (phone: 01483 301 282).
Forms are available from November in the year prior to starting the course and the closing date for submission is the following February. Students should receive offers in mid-March.
Students who wish to apply for a part-time or distance learning course should apply directly to their chosen institution. The course costs between £3,500 and £4,000.
If you are the sort of person who dreads the sound of your bank statement thudding through the letterbox you are probably not going to get that excited about paying course fees. So how do you get your hands on the much-needed cash to fund your study?
If you are planning to be a solicitor, the best funding deals are law firms' sponsorships. Most commercial firms will sponsor you through the LPC and some will also pay for the CPE year. Packages can be highly competitive, including maintenance and fees during training and good starting salaries.
To get sponsorship for the CPE you should apply to firms in the summer before you start the course. Although a lot of students leave this as late as possible to ensure they can apply with the best possible grades, firms tend to appreciate earlier applications.
Most chambers offer some financial help during pupillage but very little else. In short, BVC students do not get nearly as much help from their profession as their counterparts on the LPC. If you are doing a CPE, your best bet is to look to as many other sources of funding as possible.
The Bar Council runs a scheme of interest-free loans of up to £4,000 for those in need of financial assistance. Unfortunately, there are only between 8 and 18 loans, although the Inns of Court offer scholarships and bursaries of varying amounts. You can only apply for a scholarship at one Inn.
The Law Society has a bursary scheme from money left in trust by former solicitors. Approximately £30,000 is awarded each year. The society usually receives about 250 applications, interviews about 20 students and awards 15 to 20 bursaries.
The awards are usually between £500 and £5,000 and are allocated in July. Grants are given for both the LPC and the CPE but CPE students must submit a written statement expressing their intention to be a solicitor rather than a barrister.
Although local authorities have a discretionary grants policy, the trend seems to be very much against providing funding for the CPE, LPC or BVC. You may have better luck with your bank (see funding box, below). You could also try The Directory of Grant Making Trusts and The Grants Register. Most libraries should keep copies.
Vivienne Wilson is deputy editor of Lex
Most firms make a deliberate attempt to employ a wide range of individuals – and different intellectual techniques are vital to any practice which offers its clients creative legal solutions