Change of course

After 15 years the LPC is about to get a facelift, but what could this mean for providers and employers?

After years of discussion and consultation, the Training Framework Review now has a real impetus. Legal Practice Course (LPC) providers await the final version of the new LPC Framework which, it is intended, will apply to programmes commencing in 2008. The unoriginal, yet aptly, titled, ‘LPC2’ is on its way, nearly 15 years after the original course came into being. There have been radical changes in the legal services market in the past 15 years and the coming years will see further change. The LPC2 offers opportunities for flexibility to meet changing market requirements, raising standards of learning. Given that LPC providers have little more than a year before students start applying for the LPC2, will these opportunities be seized?

A different experience

A single sentence in the draft LPC framework summarises the new approach being taken by the Law Society. To date, its role has involved ensuring that, in terms of content, structure and approach, there has been comparative homogeneity in LPC provision. There are part-time versions of the course and a small number of programmes that cater for specific firms or market sectors. However, methods of delivery, balance between subjects, general course structure, face-to-face learning hours and resources required for delivering LPC programmes have been required to be broadly equivalent.

The framework now states: “The key regulatory role for the Law Society Regulation Board is to achieve consistency of the learning outcomes and demonstration by candidates of the minimum standards, rather than to ensure that all LPC students have a consistent or equivalent experience.”

This flexibility is developed in a number of ways within the framework. Elective subjects – students choose three from a range covering the spectrum of legal practice – should now be separable. That is, students should be able to study their electives at different LPC providers. This is to allow students to find employment to fund their studies. What is not known is whether students could finish the first part of their LPC then start a full-time training contract, studying their electives at some point during this period. If this is the case, it would signal a major change. The main element of the LPC could become a full-time, six-month course, with the electives becoming more a form of continuing professional development. This would present opportunities for firms to develop better-integrated training within the training contract. For providers, there could be a demand for elements of the LPC to be offered on a more frequent basis.

The corporate market has, in the main, led LPC developments to-date and there is a discernable business law bias in the current LPC. In the future, providing that minimum standards are met, programmes can be more tailored towards particular market sectors. There are opportunities for smaller providers to produce programmes that, as they have wanted to do for some time, meet local demand. This can be achieved by having a different balance between compulsory subjects and giving more weighting to the electives, to produce more specialist programmes. This approach will also be attractive to corporate firms, whose specialist needs have been restricted, to an extent, under the existing framework.

Arising opportunities

The opportunity to raise standards of learning arises in three main ways. First, providers have an opportunity, in the context of the proposed changes, to review their approach to learning. Many providers still adopt comparatively traditional methods of learning. The new flexibility offers a chance to follow best practice in the professional sector and produce more integrated learning programmes.

Second, programmes could take students beyond the minimum standards. The market is, more than ever, requiring trainees to display personal and professional skills at as early a stage as possible. There is scope to consider how these skills can be added to the required legal skills within LPC2.

Through LPC2, the Law Society is responding to feedback from the profession on written and research skills of trainees. Students’ skill levels are often low when they commence the LPC, but the profession looks to the course to provide trainees who are capable researchers and written communicators. The Law Society’s proposals include an increased number of skills assessments on LPC2, but these will not, by themselves, lead to higher standards – repeated sittings of a driving test are unlikely, without additional practice, to make you more likely to pass. Providers will have to review their programmes with a view to providing students with more opportunity to develop these skills in context. Skills training is resource hungry – the challenge will be to raise standards without increasing the cost of such training for students.

The final opportunity, building on flexibility and potential improvements, is to look at what the LPC2 enables students to do. There are more students coming on to the LPC than ever before, but the number of training contracts has been comparatively static for the past few years. The profitability of the major law firms, which provide a very large proportion of training contracts, has increased, but the number of trainees being recruited has not. That said, the market for legal services will continue to expand and there will be demands for personnel who have relevant knowledge and skills to work in this market. From the point of view of the consumer, there is a need to know that the standards of knowledge and skills of those working in the sector are adequate.

This may be the time to consider the status of the LPC again. Is it merely a stepping-stone for those who are then fortunate enough to complete a two-year training contract and qualify as a solicitor? Or could it become a recognised qualification for those working in the legal services market in the broadest sense?
If so, this would allow the regulatory arm of the Law Society to achieve a number of its goals: providing diverse and flexible access to a career in the legal services; maintaining standards of access; and promoting consumer confidence in the market. With the LPC2 about to become a reality, it is right that it should properly reflect the reality of the emerging needs of those who want to work in and those who want to make use of the legal services market.

Scott Slorach is LPC director at the College of Law

but what could this mean for providers and employers? By Scott Slorach