Nigel Savage is in an extremely good mood. During the photoshoot for this piece, the College of Laws chief executive is full of banter and more than willing to strike any pose requested of him. But then the energetic 56- year-old does have ample reason to smile: he has presided over an amazing turnaround at Store Street, which has seen the law school evolve into an organisation ready to meet the exacting standards of the legal profession in the 21st century.
The colleges nadir came in 2001 when a consortium of leading City firms struck an exclusive deal with BPP Law School, Nottingham Law School and the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice for their trainees to study the new commercially focused City LPC. Excluding the college was the firms way of giving it a good kicking for failing to respond to their needs.
Looking back on this, Savage, the consummate spinner that he is, contrives to turn the knock-back into something positive. We were just in the middle of turning the college around. I didnt think it at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight it was a good thing because we were able to continue the change process, he says.
Six years on and the situation could not be more different. In a major coup, once the City LPC contract expired, the college signed up former consortium members Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters for its bespoke LPC. From its award-winning pro bono activity to its move to i-tutorials, under Savage the institution has become a leader in legal education. The college also scored a notable first last year when it was granted degree-awarding powers, meaning that its GDL and LPC students will now graduate with an LLB instead of a diploma.
Savage, who is fiercely competitive in his professional life, is quick to gloat that arch-rival BPP is still waiting to get similar powers. The designer stubble of old may have been eschewed for a smoother look, but he still cuts a spiky figure one that is not averse to a spot of industrial language or mischievous comment.
One college initiative that he is particularly proud of is the Pathways to Law scheme, which is aimed at widening access to the legal profession. Persuading his governors to invest the cash is one of his biggest achievements. The ambitious programme aims to help youngsters from non-privileged backgrounds become lawyers, and the college has backed the scheme to the tune of 1.25m over the next five years. The scheme has already seen Leeds, Manchester, Southampton and Warwick universities and the London School of Economics sign up.
His interest in this area stems in part from his personal history. Savage, who grew up in rural Nottinghamshire, came from a modest background; no one in his family had attended university. It looked for a while that the trend would continue when he failed his 11-plus and was told by a teacher that he would never amount to anything.
Being told as an 11-year-old that youre no f***ing use to anyone was a defining moment for me. I didnt have a great deal of parental support, but I refused to accept it, he says.
After leaving school at 16, he took on a series of dead-end jobs, including turkey insemination (dont ask), but did haul himself back into the education system and went on to pass his O and A-levels. He then studied business law at Manchester College of Commerce (now Manchester Metropolitan University), where he became the first person to gain a first-class law degree.
I made sure I was in the local paper and told them about the teacher who said Id never make it. I got my own back in the end, he grins. In many respects I find it more difficult now because Im part of the establishment. Im not the underdog anymore. But on the other hand, Im now in a position where I can change the system.
Savage maintains that the biggest barrier to entry into the solicitors profession is the training contract. He expresses disappointment that the long-running training framework review, now being run by the Solicitors Regulation Authority after the Law Society split its functions, is not addressing fundamental questions on the definition of a solicitor and how this relates to workers who are providers of legal services.
So what is the solution? Savage proposes a system that allows potential lawyers to gain the status of solicitor and then build up credits in a similar way to the accountancy profession. This, he says, would improve standards and give some status to kids that might not be able to get an orthodox training contract.
It is a radical proposal, but with Savages determination, anything is possible.