Primed targets

Legal education has changed dramatically but the future promises even more radical reform. LAwyer 2B reveals what the shape of training could be like for the next generation of lawyers.

Primed targetsSuccess as a City trainee is guaranteed for those whose legs are a blur on entering their firms hallowed reception area. Few legal education providers have not been informed by firms that what we want are trainees who can hit the ground running.

This ground, though, has moved a great deal over the past decade. Does the current training framework produce City trainees in peak condition? Could future training regimes provide better results? The Law Societys Training Framework Review proposes greater flexibility than the current model, so this is an ideal time to consider these questions.

The current academic and vocational training framework requires a law degree or GDL, followed by an LPC and then a two-year training contract, including a professional skills course (PSC). Neither the law degree nor the GDL is designed specifically for City practice. While both cover foundationsubjects,including contract, tort and trusts, subjects such as company law and tax are either optional or unavailable.

Most degrees are taught by academics who have not practised law, as are some GDL courses. The subject matter of problems and the many cases studied are in contexts removed from City practice. While legal research skills are now well embedded in most GDLs, realistic, high-level blue sky problem-solving skills could be developed further students are often presented with fact patterns bearing a remarkable similarity to cases on that weeks reading list. Most degrees and GDLs provide a valuable introduction to the law and a legal way of thinking, but there remains scope for greater relevance to practice. This is particularly so on GDLs, where most students have decided to practise law.

The LPC recognises increasing specialism in legal practice by allowing students to study three elective subjects. Prospective City trainees, in addition to the compulsory subjects of business, litigation and property, can study the principal corporate and finance areas of City practice: acquisitions, public companies, equity finance, banking and debt finance. There is the so-called City LPC, designed for a consortium of eight major firms by three LPC providers. The College of Law provides a corporate LPC and will, from September 2006, run three firm-specific courses for Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters. At the same time, BPP Law School will run an LPC for a consortium of five City firms.

So what might the Training Framework Review bring? Under its proposals, a prospective trainee is required to have an honours degree and then meet a variety of academic, vocational and work-based learning outcomes. The latter are to be assessed by a supervised learning portfolio, while the detail of the former two is still being worked on, as is the assessment regime. However, it appears that there will be no requirement to take specific courses such as the GDL, LPC and PSC. In addition, elective subjects will not be, as they are now, mandatory.

The changes are intended to allow for quicker, cheaper and more flexible alternatives to qualification.

For City firms, a number of opportunities arise. The academic outcomes currently achieved on a GDL could, following the current LPC lead, be taught fully in contexts relevant to City practice. Alternatively, the knowledge and skills currently gleaned from the GDL, LPC and PSC could be combined into a single pre-qualification course, still including the current electives, because these appear, broadly, to have improved trainees abilities.

Such a course could provide a more coordinated, developmental approach than at present, and might result in a reduced training period.

At present, these courses could be developed for individual firms or consortia. They might also include elements of the work-based learning requirements, particularly those regarding contentious practice, where firms can struggle to provide all trainees with relevant experience. These might follow the model currently used by the College of Law to provide a litigation seat for Linklaters trainees.

It is suggested that, overall, most firms will continue to want trainees with experience of structured training programmes. These ensure not only that students achieve learning outcomes to an appropriate standard, but that they also develop practical approaches to legal problems.

The big question is whether anyone will have the courage to break the mould. For example, will any follow the accountancy model and integrate structured training with work-based learning? This could result not only in trainees hitting the ground running, but it could accelerate their subsequent learning and route to qualification.

While questions remain about whether the proposals can maintain rigour and standards, they do present providers and firms with an opportunity to redefine how law students learn.

Professor Scott Slorach is director of vocational programmes at the College of Law