Learning curve

Deciding on a law school can be a daunting task and there are plenty of factors to take into account, as Husnara Begum discovered when she went behind the scenes at Londons two highest-profile colleges

I went back to school last month. In an unusual move I was given exclusive behind-the-scenes access to arch rivals the College of Law (CoL) and BPP Law School. In addition to the usual tour of the law schools London branches and interviews with students I sat through classes, watched demonstrations of their online learning resources and even reviewed teaching materials.

The exercise not only gave me a fascinating insight into what each institution has to offer aspiring lawyers, but it also taught me how far the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and indeed the legal education landscape has changed since the mid-1990s when I was embarking on my postgraduate legal studies at Nottingham Law School (NLS).

Dominant players

Today CoL and BPP dominate the legal education market, notably in the area of the commercially focused LPC. Indeed, current students from both organisations tell me that other LPC providers did not feature on their radars when they applied for the compulsory year-long vocational course. Once I decided I wanted to do the LPC in London, I knew I had to make a choice between BPP and the College of Law, explains one LPC student.

The battle for dominance between BPP and the CoL dates back to 2001 when a consortium of leading City firms struck an exclusive deal with BPP, NLS and the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice for their trainees to study a new commercially-focused City LPC. But after six years of being left in the cold CoL returned to the market with renewed confidence. In a major coup, once the City LPC consortium contract expired, the college signed up former members Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters for its bespoke LPC, which is now in its second year.

BPP, meanwhile, continued to be the LPC provider of choice for the now fivestrong City LPC consortium comprising Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Slaughter and May. As first reported in Lawyer2B.com last August BPP fought off competition from CoL, Kaplan Law School (NLSs fledgling London arm) and the Bristol Institute of Legal Practice to win a new contract with the City consortium in a deal that is expected to last until 2012.

In addition to the City consortium BPP is also the exclusive LPC provider to Addleshaw Goddard, CMS Cameron McKenna, Macfarlanes and Simmons & Simmons and SJ Berwin. Meanwhile, CoL has signed up Baker & McKenzie, Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Cobbetts, Halliwells, Stevens & Bolton, Wragge & Co and most recently US firm Weil Gotshal & Manges as clients.

There is no denying that both BPP and CoLs law firm roster is very impressive. Indeed, in that respect you would be hard-pushed to differentiate between the two providers. But, as my recent visits to Moorgate and Holborn revealed, there are some major differences between the law schools including the cost.

Value for money

As reported on page 5 of this issue BPP is the most expensive law school in London and plans to charge full-time LPC students a whopping 11,550 for the 2008-09 academic year. On a more positive note though, the law school gave away more than 275,000 in scholarships during the last academic year.

CoLs LPC for the same period will cost 10,340 but can be paid in two equal instalments of 4,995 by 21 August and 5 December. In contrast BPP only provides instalment options on its part-time programmes and full-time courses in Manchester and Leeds.

Surprisingly, the BPP students I met who are funding the LPC themselves claim cost was not a factor they looked at closely. I think its just accepted that the LPC is an expensive course so the fact that BPPs course is 1,000 more expensive is irrelevant, argues one student.

E-learning

One of the principal differences between CoL and BPP is the colleges stance on e-learning. In a radical move CoL has scrapped all its lectures in favour of i-tutorials, which students access via the internet. BPP, meanwhile, puts all its GDL lectures on MP3 files and, after a trial on its LPC Business Law and Practice module, this facility will be offered across all LPC modules. Previously I had been sceptical about online learning and questioned whether students would be disciplined enough to watch them because I certainly would not.

However, I viewed a couple of i-tutorials during my visit to CoL and was quite impressed. Even though some of the presenters, who I understand are all tutors from the college, were a tad dull, I could not fault the content, which is so closely linked to the workshops that it would be daft for students not to watch them as part of their preparation.

The CoL LPC students I met during my visit were generally in favour of i-tutorials and argue that they did not miss contact with tutors and other students. I tend to lose concentration halfway through a lecture so the fact you can pause an i-tutorial and then make a cup of tea is great. Also, you can watch them as many times as you want, explains one student.

Some of the students claim they experienced some technical problems with the i-tutorials, while one says he failed to get the technology to work at home altogether.

However, he did later admit that this may have had more to do with him being a technophobe. That said, for those of you who own a Mac it is worth noting that the i-tutorials are not compatible with these machines. One student also pointed out that some of the content was out of date, meaning the notes that accompanied it were different to what the presenters were saying. This is an issue that is less likely to arise during a lecture as a tutor can update the content right up to the day it is delivered.

CoL students typically have four workshops per week and to compensate for the abolition of lectures these have been increased to two-and-a-half hours each. The college, however, recommends that students put in a 40-hour working week, which includes i-tutorials, tests and feedback, preparation and independent research.

In contrast BPP students receive four lectures a week and six small group sessions each lasting two hours.

Relevant content

The most revealing part of my visits to CoL and BPP was sitting through the workshops. For my visit to BPP I observed a small group session on private acquisitions made up of students from the City LPC consortium. So, as expected, the students were incredibly bright, well prepared and very engaged throughout the two hours. The biggest surprise, however, was just how relevant the content of the workshop was to the work the students will be handling during their training contracts. Indeed, even though the session was on the mundane subject of due diligence it was such fun that I wanted to stick my hand up in the air and join in which is a far cry from some of the small group sessions I had to endure as an LPC student. When I started my training contract I had no idea what due diligence was but was something I was often involved in as a trainee.

The aim of the workshop was to help the students to appreciate the role a data room plays in the sale of a company via an auction and to help them to critically evaluate typical documents found in a data room such as finance agreements, employment documents and a companys constitutional documents.

The materials, including the tutors slides, which accompanied the small group session were very well written, meaning it was relatively easy to follow what was happening. The flipside to this was that it did create the impression students were being spoon-fed.

The CoL workshop was not that dissimilar to BPPs and used a similar format. The students did, however, take slightly longer to warm up. Whats more, the tutor used fewer slides meaning at times during my observation I struggled to keep up with the class. That said, the part of the class I sat through was perhaps a little bit more technical, dealing with the case law surrounding the breach of warranties following the sale of a business.

The length of CoLs classes also concerned me. After sitting through a two-hour small group session at BPP I had had enough, so I personally do not think I would cope very well sitting through a two-and-a-half hour CoL workshop, especially one that ran through lunchtime that is, however, very personal to me as I have a shorter than average attention span. Indeed, this did not seem to bother the CoL students who seemed to take the class in their stride.

Careers advice

The service offered by the careers library is not something I thought future LPC students would look at closely when choosing a law school. But as many of the students I interviewed highlighted, this is of great significance to those who do not have a training contract at the start of the LPC year.

Prospective BPP students, for instance, have access to information from the schools careers consultants from the April in which they accept their places, giving them access to valuable advice and guidance for an additional five months. The careers service also runs the Access to Practice Scheme, which allows students who have limited access to the legal profession to buddy a practising solicitor, thus giving them opportunities to network as well as seek advice on applying for training contracts.

CoLs careers department, meanwhile, gives prospective LPC students online access to materials and vacancy databases once they have accepted a place, which is also usually around April time. This is then stepped up to one-to-one access to a careers consultant from 1 July and combined with a series of workshops for pending students during the summer prior to the start of their course. CoL also runs a mentoring scheme for students with limited previous access to the legal profession.

Examination time

Another major difference between CoL and BPP are their policies on exams. CoL operates a system of open-book exams, while BPP runs closed-book exams. As is the case with online tutorials it is up to you to decide whether you would prefer to take your textbooks into exams. CoL defends its position on open-book exams by arguing that it tests the application of knowledge.

I am on CoLs side on this one because being a good lawyer is not about memorising facts. But as one BPP student puts it, the idea of taking a suitcase load of textbooks into an exam may end up being more of a hindrance.

I would worry about the amount of time it will take me to wade through my textbooks to find the right answers, explains the student.

Factors to consider when choosing an LPC provider

Can fees be paid in instalments and what do the fees cover?
What rating has the Solicitors Regulation Authority given the law school?
What are the facilities like? Is there overcrowding in the library?
What is the local area like and does it have good transport links?
How big are the workshops?
What electives are on offer?
How many hours of face-to-face teaching will you receive?
What is the pass rate?
What teaching methods are used?
Does the school operate an open- or closed-book exam policy?
What scholarships/bursaries are available and are you eligible to apply?
What careers service is on offer? How long before and after you enrol on the LPC do you have access to it?

Degrees of success

CoL made history in 2006 when it became the first non-university-affiliated law school to win degree award-winning powers, leaving BPP to play catch-up. Indeed, it took BPP another 18 months to secure the same status from the Privy Council. But the move caused controversy in the legal education market as the law school became the first privately owned institution to hand out degrees.

But, like it or not, the trend of topping up the LPC and the GDL into LLBs and LLMs is here to stay and is something offered by both CoL and BPP as well as many other providers. For instance, CoL students can convert their LPC into an LLM by completing three similar study modules, plus an assignment of 15,000 words. Meanwhile, students who complete the GDL and the LPC or Bar Vocational Course at CoL automatically gain an LLB.

BPP operates a similar system with GDL students and alumni (who finished their GDL in 2003 or later) having the option to work towards an LLB by completing two additional modules in company law and legal analysis and research. Meanwhile, students can top up their LPCs into LLMs by completing an advanced skills module, which focuses on developing research, critical analysis and evaluation skills and submitting two 7,500-word practice-based assignments.

The choice is yours

When I embarked on this exercise I thought there could only be one winner in the battle between CoL and BPP. But the lesson I have learned is that though both providers have adopted different approaches in the way they deliver lessons, when it comes to quality the two are difficult to tell apart.

Indeed, without meaning to sit on the fence, it is up to you to decide which style of teaching suits you. It is also worth attending as many open days as possible and talking to current students as this should give you a better insight into both schools. But whatever you decide to do, an LPC from either CoL or BPP is never going to look bad on your CV.

 

Clarification: The LPC pass rates for the College of Law and BPP were reported the wrong way around in the May issue of Lawyer 2B. The table in this article contains the correct pass rates.