Independence becomes a unique selling point for NLS

After the shock break-up of the City Eight, Gemma Charles asks Nottingham Law School where it will go from here

Nottingham Law School (NLS) has begun to contemplate a life where its students are not heading for the cream of the legal profession.

Earlier this year, news broke of a massive shake-up in legal education. From 2006, the City Eight will become five, with Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters going it alone with the College of Law to pioneer bespoke LPCs.

The remaining members Freshfields Bruckhaus Derin-ger, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May will be signed exclusively to BPP Law School. The five firms asked NLS to set up in London so their trainees would be geographically near to them, but the school turned down the opportunity.

The attention has focused mainly on the renaissance of the College of Law, which, after spending years in the wilderness, found itself back in favour with its new-style courses. But what does the future hold for NLS, which for so long has been the key destination for top-flight trainees?

NLS head of professional legal studies and managing director of the school Phil Knott is sanguine about the way ahead for his institution and is certain there are advantages to being an independent provider operating largely from one base.

We did think very carefully about that, but we felt that a lot of students and firms want choice about the location, so we didnt want to do everything in London, says Knott. We place a lot of premium on our operation from a single site. We know weve got all our best tutors in one place. We can be very responsive from a single site and that suits our approach best.

The school must be doing something right. This summer the Law Society awarded NLS an unprecedented eighth consecutive excellent rating for its LPC, making it the only provider to have achieved the top grading on every visit since the course started in 1993. This came as the top rating again eluded the College of Law, which was awarded a very good.

However, the College of Laws chief executive Nigel Savage thinks NLS should have taken the plunge in the capital. He said: At the end of the day, if youre operating in the market and youre customer-focused, if your customers want you to do something, you do it. If you dont do it theyll very quickly lose interest in you.

Knott, however, insists that NLS has made the right decision. What weve started to do now is talk to a whole range of firms, and what we feel we can do is be more responsive because were going to be independent of any grouping of firms, he says. We recognise the success of BPP and the College of Law, but theres room for a strong, high-quality independent provider as well as the two conglomerates.

Inns of Court School of Law course director Melissa Hardee agrees, arguing that NLS could actually benefit from leaving the consortium. Hardee, who was previously the training partner at CMS Cameron McKenna, says she has always regarded NLS as a standard-setter and says it would be freer to continue in this vein as an independent provider.

Hardee argues that the situation with the City Eight having to agree a standard LPC to be taught in a uniform way across the three academic providers BPP, the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice and NLS has hampered the efforts of NLS tutors to bring their own ideas into the classroom. The room for innovation and creativity will be very little, she says. Its very much a template that has to be followed.

Despite all the excitement surrounding bespoke LPCs, there are many that continue to be wary. Hardee is one of the opponents and expresses concern at too much specialisation. She says she would prefer for her institution to produce students with good solid lawyering skills.

The teachers at NLS are also no fans of the bespoke route. Knott says the school is a little wary of getting students to make career decisions too early.

A more far-reaching change that all legal education pro-viders will have to adapt to is the advent of the training framework review. NLS claims it is in pole position to capitalise on the moves to bring more flexibility into the qualification process.

NLS dean Peter Kunzlik took over last year after the previous incumbent, the influential Peter Jones, was promoted to the role of pro vice-chancellor of the university.

Kunzlik says: Were very much a full-service law school. In the training framework review climate, that gives us particular opportunities.

The school sees its sandwich degree the longest running degree of this type in the country as a crucial tool in being up to speed when the review becomes a reality.

There is also a growing emphasis on post-qualification training. While the graduate disciplines make up around two-thirds of the operation, the professional side accounts for the remainder. The school wants to expand this part and has made a number of new appointments to run new courses in the areas of management, dispute resolution and commercial and regulatory.

Last year, the school teamed up with Freshfields to create a postgraduate training programme for the firms environmental, planning and regulatory lawyers across Europe, which can lead to an executive LLM qualification. It is believed to be the first time that an LLM qualification has been made available to lawyers as part of a firms internal training programme.

NLS has also just been contracted to train the Royal Bank of Scotlands law firm relationship managers on law firms and the legal sector, which Kunzlik described as a major contract for us and a new kind of blue-chip customer.

Although losing the City LPC contract is undoubtedly a blow, it would seem that NLS is nevertheless fit to service the educational needs of the legal profession as a whole.