E-learning, shorter routes to qualification and massive debt are the hot issues thrown up by our exclusive poll
Despite the Lawyer2B Big Student Survey revealing that aspiring lawyers prefer full-time face-to-face tuition, law school giants BPP Law School (BPP) and the College of Law (CoL) argue that flexible modes of study suit postgraduate students.
“Universities’ traditional market – the average 18-year-old school leaver – doesn’t want much online experience as they want to meet lots of new people. That’s part of the university experience,” says Peter Crisp, dean of BPP. “In the postgraduate field, things seem to shift. The students want more flexibility as they may need to work to fund their studies or may be commuting from a distance.”
CoL board member for programme innovation and design Scott Slorach agrees that postgraduate students want variety in their modes of study. He says that the attractiveness of e-learning will ultimately depend on the programme’s design and whether it is successful in achieving high levels of knowledge retention.
“It comes down to what you’re buying and your investment in your learning,” says Slorach. “We build something from the ground up, building it for individual users. It’s designed to ensure that students are interactive – there’s a vast difference between what we do and just showing a video online.” (See Education, page 76.)
Elsewhere the survey reveals that the bulk of aspiring lawyers are keen to fast-track their legal education, with almost 70 per cent of the students surveyed agreeing that the training contract should be merged with the Legal Practice Course (LPC) to cut the cost and length of time it takes to train as a solicitor. Only 18.8 per cent disagree with this.
Merging the two levels of training is not a new concept in the legal education sector, with Northumbria Law School launching a five-year full-qualifying degree pilot last year (Lawyer2B.com, 21 March).
The groundbreaking course, approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), could be the first step in consigning the two-year training contact to legal-profession history (see Education, page 72).
“There needs to be more creative thinking about how best to qualify as a solicitor as we shouldn’t limit ourselves to a traditional two-year training contract following the LPC,” insists Northumbria Law School’s associate dean Kevin Kerrigan. “There needs to be more integration between the law degree, LPC and the training contract. I think that Northumbria’s programme is one example of how that might be done, but there are many other possible ways of innovating the period prior to qualification.
“We need to have more of a holistic approach to qualifying as a solicitor, as we shouldn’t have rules, followed by skills, followed by practical training. We should have all three elements blended to an extent.”
The Northumbria course allows students to qualify as solicitors in five years rather than the usual six by combining all levels of legal education with professional training.
“But students need to be aware that merging the training won’t necessarily cut time,” warns Kerrigan. “With our course, students are working throughout the summer. Therefore, in the face of it, the overall time they are studying is no less than the traditional route.”
Kerrigan believes that if legal education regulators transform the traditional training contract, the LPC should be absorbed into the training period rather than the two being merged.
A few companies with in-house training contract programmes have adopted this idea. BT, for example, combines a part-time LPC into its three-year training contract (see Careers, page 56).
But CoL chief executive Nigel Savage believes that if law firms made this move, it could throw up issues surrounding diversity.
Instead he advocates the total abolition of the training contract.
“The point for me is that the training contract is the obstacle. Kids are getting on to the LPC but the blockage is the training contract,” argues Savage. “There are very few jurisdictions that have retained the training contract, neither Australia or America asks for a two-year training contract – America’s global law firms only require you to complete the New York Bar.”
In a paper released last year, CoL think tank the Legal Services Institute called for the abolition of training contracts (Lawyer2B.com, 25 November 2010). ’The Education and Training of Solicitors: Time for Change’ report put forward sweeping changes, including making the LPC the gateway to the solicitors’ profession instead of the training contract.
The survey further reveals that the majority of students anticipate debts of between £20,000 and £30,000, while 16.4 per cent believe it will reach nearer £40,000. Help from parents and family tops the tables as the key means of funding legal education, with a whopping 43.3 per cent choosing this option. Part-time jobs, bank loans, personal savings and law firm sponsorship all sit at around the 30 per cent mark.
“The driving force behind looking to shorten legal education is the cost of it all,” says Savage. “[The CoL] have gone down the route to reduce the length [of training] by introducing our two-year LLB and seven-month LPC, but there’s only so much you can take out, especially if the programme delivers a professional qualification.”
The CoL followed in rival BPP’s footsteps by launching a fast-track LPC this year, which allows all law students to embark on the condensed course, regardless of whether they have secured a training contract (Lawyer2B.com, 24 May).
More than 50 per cent of those surveyed said they would choose to complete the LPC on the fast-track mode if they were given the option, with 24.9 per cent against the alternative course.
Kerrigan, however, says there are significant risks in reducing the length of key legal education courses, specifically in cutting the LLB to two years.
“Learning the law is difficult and I find it hard to envisage that a student could go from A-levels to qualifying with a degree after two years,” he explains. “You need three years to absorb the knowledge and wisdom from the degree.”
Kerrigan believes that to reduce the length and cost of legal education, law firms need to join with law schools to deliver the necessary training.
“I think the 70 per cent of students that want to merge the training contract and LPC think that it would cut costs, but it might not,” says Kerrigan. “At some point I expect someone would want the student to pay fees for the LPC-part of training, as I don’t think all law firms would be in the position to fund an in-house LPC course.
“It could also be difficult for the SRA to properly regulate the quality of the learning students are getting in the workplace context. Law firms would have to work with law schools and the regulators for it to be a possibility.”