Spears fly across the spires of Cambridge

The rounded vowels are being twisted into growls of personal abuse and heels have been dug into the manicured lawns. Cambridge University's law faculty is divided over whether to establish a Legal Practice Course (LPC) – the final, year-long vocational training that law students must pass through before they win the right to call themselves a solicitor.

That such a mundane course of action should ever be considered by such a prominent university, and that it should cause such a squabble, says much about the pressures on legal academics these days and raises questions about their relationship with the profession.

LPCs were introduced in 1993, replacing the Law Society finals. While still based around a core curriculum, they give tertiary institutions more say over what they teach and how they teach it. Currently 7,000 places are available in LPCs at 31 Law Society-approved institutions throughout England and Wales.

One more course would be no big deal in the grand scheme of things, yet it is this very mundanity that is the problem at Cambridge. The world-famous university is supposed to be above vocational pursuits. Yet in a decision last May that was always likely to draw the law's purists out of their libraries howling in protest, the faculty board agreed in principle that it was “desirable that the Faculty of Law should become involved in vocational training”.

Board chairman Kevin Gray was sent off to explore the possibility of a collaborative course with Anglia Polytechnic University.

The board's repeated support of the idea signals the extent to which the high-brow university culture is being forced to compromise. Polytechnics have become universities and the Government is pressuring traditional universities to become more “practical” in their teaching. Faculties are being forced to look closely at any way of generating hard cash and there is increasing competition for the best students.

In this climate an LPC, complete with high fees, must be appealing, especially when arch-rival Oxford has successfully established one. Gray even suggested a possible annual profit of around u130,000.

One moderate on the board, who didn't want to be named, summed up the two sides: “In favour of it, there's a feeling that the model for the future is greater involvement in professional education, less ivory tower. Also there's the possibility that the law faculty could get money out of it. The minus is that it's not the sort of thing we're about. LPCs are not of a very high intellectual quality.”

The “minus” voices seem to be dominating the debate at the moment. In one letter to Gray, John Baker, of St Catharine's College, warned that “the scheme looks awfully like selling our good name and reputation in order to make money”.

In another, Dr Pippa Rogerson, Director of Studies in Law at Gonville and Caius College, wrote: “I am not convinced that this vocational course is appropriate for us.” She added that the course's reputation “is terrible – whatever the provider, wherever it is at. It is a mindless, tedious, expensive exercise that has to be followed to qualify. The students hate it…”

In a letter dated March 11, the same day a faculty meeting last debated the issue, Gray wrote that “faculty-wide consideration of the LPC has now descended to the level of personal abuse”. Staff who support the scheme were too intimidated to speak up, and free and open discussion was impossible, he wrote.

In the faculty corridors, the debate rages on. A firm decision has yet to be made and tension is still said to be high. Gray has resigned as faculty chairman and when The Lawyer asked one board member whether this has anything to do with the LPC debate, he answered “yes and no”, even though the official line from the faculty is that the two issues are unrelated.

Cambridge is not the first university to stumble on the issue of LPCs. Of the five “old universities” to introduce them, two have struggled. Bristol closed its course last year in turmoil, unable to make a profit, and consequently faced threats of legal action from its staff. Exeter University's course is only half full, but the faculty is fully committed to continuing the course.

Nick Johnston, Director of the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice, which runs the much-heralded LPC offered jointly by Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University, says that treading the path between academic and vocational worlds can be “awkward”.

For example, the best LPC teachers come directly from practice. But employing such people, rather than researchers, can threaten an institution's invaluable research rating.

And experience refutes the hopes, widespread in the early days of LPCs, that the courses could be a cash cow, subsidising research and other projects.

“Some of the initial enthusiasm for the LPC as a money-maker has worn off,” says Roger Smith, Law Society director of legal education and training. “If you are doing an LPC properly, you're not going to make much money.”

Course providers have doubled the price of fees to between u5,000 and u7,000 since the LPC's inception against widespread protest, yet Professor Bob Lee of Cardiff University's A-grade course still says: “We haven't made money from it at all. These days we just about break even. I don't think these things are goldmines.”

The Law Society requires a student to staff ratio of around 12.5:1, which is not cheap.

So the Cambridge academics' concerns aren't merely a matter of intellectual snobbery. As Smith says: “training lawyers is one thing and legal research quite another.” Yet while the dons' worries may have merit from an academic viewpoint, they could give the profession cause for concern.

Firms want to employ graduates who will be effective staff members as well as clever thinkers, and the view of opposing staff at Cambridge – that the day-to-day practice of law is of little importance to them – must have senior partners wondering if students are being properly prepared for the reality of a legal career.

“Academia has got some problems in its relationship with the profession. I think there's been too big a gap [between the two],” says Lee. “Look at Slaughter and May. Half of its intake are from non-law students. They want the brightest people whoever and wherever they can get them. But it means they're not seeing a great deal of added value from the people who have done three years of law school.”

Johnston is blunt: “I would say that an awful lot of academics just don't keep up with the changes in the profession.”

Both men say perhaps the greatest advantage of running an LPC is one which hasn't featured highly in Cambridge's debate – it builds a bridge between academia and the profession. Lee has local judges and senior partners on his board and says he has done work for local firms. “I think that the law firms are making more use of the fact that they have a law school on their doorstep. We have more to learn, not less, from working closely with the profession.”

According to Smith, firms are starting to wise up to the fact that the universities need them as much as they need the universities. “The courses are being substantially subsidised by the profession and firms are beginning to recognise their bargaining power and influence over what is being taught.”

The Law Society sees this as “highly desirable”, but it will only add to the unease of the Cambridge protesters, who will raise concerns about academic freedom, especially as their students largely head for the big City firms.

Other universities await Cambridge's decision with mixed feelings. Some are wary of the competition, others are dismissive of their choice of Anglia as partner.

“It's like joining Harrods with KwikSave,” laughs one. But Oxford is surprisingly encouraging of its old sparring partner. Johnston says: “It's important the old universities have an interest in vocational education. They bring a depth of thinking to the courses.”