Par for the course

When the City Legal Practice Course (LPC) movement was gathering momentum at the end of 2000, it was considered by some to be such an anathema to any spirit of inclusiveness that Chancery Lane consulted its own lawyers over the potential for charges of discrimination. One outspoken critic was the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, who memorably damned the plans of the eight top firms and their breakaway course as “elitist”. Another critic appeared to be the College of Law. The leading legal education provider, snubbed by the City consortium, appeared to seize the moral high ground.

“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,” pronounced College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage in February 2000.

Not any more, it seems. Three of the ‘City Eight’ – Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy and Linklaters – have broken away from the consortium to sign up with the College of Law. In the intervening years, the college has not only come to embrace the idea of a City-focused course, but has now taken it one massive step further by offering bespoke LPCs to the three firms. The approach promises a plethora of customised LPCs for everyone from the prospective high-street practitioner to the City litigator.

The remaining five consortium firms – Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May – appear to have voted against such radicalism. They have chosen to deal exclusively with BPP Law School in London, leaving the two regional consortium providers, Nottingham Law School and the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice, out in the cold.

The Lawyer talked to the main players about the big questions. Is this really “a radical new step in the development of legal training”, or is it the start of a “two-tier legal education”? Will the other colleges follow suit? Do students on a bespoke City LPC face the prospect of being taught the finer points of contract law by their future managing partner?

Nottingham Law School: ‘We weren’t dumped’
Nottingham Law School chose to stay local and won’t be a provider of the City LPC from 2006.

“We did exercise a choice and we’re comfortable with that choice,” insists Professor Phil Knott, head of professional legal studies at Nottingham Law School.

The school, as “the market leader with the only consistently excellent-rated LPC”, was not “dumped”, he adds. Instead, Knott says the school was asked to continue jointly with BPP to provide the City LPC to the consortium trainees in London. It went so far as to cost a London set-up, but decided that “logistically and financially” it was not the right move at that time.

Nottingham boasts 650 LPC students, 200 of which came from the consortium, but it remains confident that it will retain its numbers.

“We deliberately kept that proportion fairly low,” Knott says.

The school is also confident that many firms and students will be unhappy at “the level of direction” required by some firms, as well as the extra expense of being compelled to study in London.

“It’s something that the next tier of firms may use to distinguish themselves against,” he says. “There’s a perception – I’m not saying it’s true – that the biggest firms are like a factory production line and there’s more attention when you go to the next tier. This will exacerbate that distinction.”

Knott has reservations about the College of Law’s proposed single-firm courses.

“It was a huge blow for the college [not to be involved in the consortium] and it was going to do whatever was necessary, but whether it will regret this move could take a little while to percolate through,” he says.

The concept raises “question marks” about whether all LPCs will be of the same quality, he adds, and, for example, whether bespoke courses will have access to different tutors.

“What’s happening now is what you might call the law of unintended consequences,” Knott says. “Some of the firms have decided to take it one step further and say not only will they have specific types of LPC but they will be firm-specific. Three firms have taken that view but, interestingly, quite consciously five firms didn’t want to take that step and wanted a more accessible approach. That is the consortium we would have joined.”

His experience of the City LPC is that the consortium worked “remarkably well”. “The difficulty is that some of those firms didn’t want to collaborate because they were collaborating with their keenest competitors,” Knott comments.

BPP Law School: The Myth of the City LPC
BPP Law School won the big prize last week when it was selected as the exclusive LPC provider for Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May from June 2006.

“There’s this myth that we’re running a ‘City LPC’ and I don’t know where it started,” says BPP Law School chief executive Peter Crisp. “We’re running one enhanced course for the whole profession.”

Not surprisingly, Crisp regards retaining the bulk of the consortium work as “an outstanding endorsement” of his college’s courses and claims that BPP is going from “strength to strength” and opening two more law schools in Leeds and Waterloo, London, this summer.

The official line is that BPP won the contract because it was the provider with the London base. “I’m not going to deny that the geography is an issue for the course – it must be,” says Crisp. “We’re the only excellent-rated law school in London, where the biggest market is for this course. But I think we’ve got the best tutors as well and most have come from the major firms.”

Last week Crisp labelled the College of Law’s decision to run firm-specific courses a “spooky turn of events”. He also claimed that a consortium member had asked BPP to run the course along similar lines and he refused. Why?

“I don’t think it’s particularly healthy to have a series of courses run at the same institution that are focused in different directions,” he argues. “You could end up with a two-tier system if you have one course which is only for one firm. How will students going elsewhere feel if the firms say they want certain tutors teaching on that course?”

It’s easy to see “resourcing issues” as well, Crisp predicts, with materials for one course not being generally available elsewhere.

“The principle that has been established in legal vocational training in this country is that everybody goes through the same basic groundwork,” he says.

“Otherwise you end up with specialist law degrees where people don’t cover crime because they were only ever going into City practice. The danger there is that you end up with a narrow view of what legal education is about.”

Aren’t the legal educationalists following an agenda set by the City firms throwing their weight and money around? “They’re obviously major clients and know what they need for their trainees,” Crisp replies. “But this is an incredibly competitive profession and the City firms recruit the brightest and the best, and they want to make sure the training they receive on the LPC is the best. But in terms of education, I have some qualms about the way things are developing.”

Oxford Institute of Legal Practice: ‘Time for a rethink’
The Oxford Institute of Legal Practice (Oxilp) will not be working with the consortium from 2006.

Oxilp is putting on a brave face following the decision by the remaining consortium firms to stick with a London provider. “It’s good for the firms to have made their decision now, rather than waiting longer because we know where we are,” says Tony Morgan, Oxilp’s new business manager. “We’re now in a position, completely independent of anybody else, to decide for ourselves what can be done.”

However, Oxilp, which has only 350 students, is losing its biggest client. Prior to last week’s news, it had launched a major strategic review ahead of the Law Society’s Training Framework Review, which is due to report by the end of the year. As Morgan sees it, there are two-and-half years to deal with the loss of the eight City firms. “That’s an incredibly long time to have to plan to deal with it,” he adds.

Oxilp was told by the remaining consortium firms that they intended to send all their trainees to a single provider based in London. It is a move that the college could not make.

“Historically, Oxilp hasn’t been prepared to operate in locations outside Oxford,” explains Julie Brannan, the institute’s director and former Herbert Smith partner. She adds that Oxford University, which together with Oxford Brookes University, founded Oxilp in 1993, was “particularly unhappy with the idea of any franchised course”.

Both Brannan and Morgan take issue with reports that there were concerns about the quality of the Oxford course.

“One thing that’s really galling from our point of view is that we don’t have quality problems, the City doesn’t think we have quality problems, but these stories keep running in the press,” Brannan says. “The consortium has told me that not only was its decision not based on quality, but also it doesn’t have a concern about quality.”

According to Morgan there were “teething problems” of the kind associated with a business that had to grow rapidly when the City LPC first started, but they were sorted out a long time ago.

So what do they make of the College of Law’s apparent change of heart? “I won’t make a comment to say other than it’s a complete U-turn,” Brannan says.

What about the notion of firm-specific LPCs? “Historically, it wasn’t something we were prepared to do when there was the far less radical step of groups being organised by firms when the City LPC started,” she says. “It was something that none of the three providers were prepared to do and it was something that the Law Society would have been unhappy with. But clearly things have moved on since then and the Society has become more flexible.”

College of Law: No U-turn
Last week, the College of Law pulled off a major coup after winning three of the big City firms – Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy (A&O) and Linklaters – back into the fold on the promise to develop radical bespoke courses when the existing contract expires in two years’ time.

So, has the College of Law effected a policy U-turn on the City LPC? Not at all, protests chief executive Professor Nigel Savage.

“I wasn’t a critic of the consortium at the time. I did criticise some of the providers because they were giving themselves completely over to the consortium. I think actually it has been a great benefit because it has focused law firms in general on looking at the LPC and questioning what their strategy is.”

It also focused the minds of Savage et al, who regrouped after the humiliation of losing out on the consortium work and revamped their own courses. The Law Society’s validation panel praised the new course as “radical and innovative” when it was launched three years ago. The College of Law’s present LPC offers students the opportunity to opt for one of two pathways, corporate or general, for the business law and practice element of the course. It has a greater emphasis on black-letter law and more skills training. Savage regards the new tailor-made courses as a natural progression of that strategy.

When Savage joined the college from Nottingham Law School, he saw his role as “taking control of the largest law college and giving it a sense of purpose and serving the needs of the whole profession”.

“I’m now doing that completely because we have the big global firms back and what we’ve done over the past three or four years is to develop a clear strategy to serve the entire profession,” he says.

The basis of that approach is “to take the same law but deliver it in a context appropriate to the students and the firms they are going to”. “Competition law is competition law and litigation is litigation. Why not deliver it in an appropriate context?” Savage asks.

Nor is the recent brouhaha apparently all about responding to City firms. Savage says he was hoping that “this story wouldn’t break until May”, when the college would be ready with “a programme for everyone”.

So how will the new courses differ from standard LPCs? “First is the emphasis given to particular subjects and the context in which the teaching takes place. The second is the structural element: the arrangement of the elective subjects,” explains Professor Scott Slorach, the director of LPC at the college. “What we can do with a course for the likes of Linklaters, A&O and Clifford Chance is look at the make-up of these three electives and make them reflect the balance of the firm’s practice.”

The Linklaters course has been put forward for validation under the Law Society’s existing written standards and is waiting for final approval.

So what about charges of elitism? A series of “urban myths” arose when the first City LPCs were launched, says Slorach – that the firm’s partners would teach on the courses, the hours would be longer and courses tougher. It is, he says, simply not the case.

“If firms want to use the LPC to get these young people up and running much quicker to learn about their business and client base, why not?” asks Savage. “My conscience is clear. Business schools have been doing it with MBAs for donkeys’ years. This course will be available in a public version all round the country in all our branches.”

The only thing “spooky” about the new courses is that no-one has offered them before, he adds.