Legal Practice Course (LPC) providers have known that the death knell sounded for the LPC some time ago. However, there is now irrefutable proof that the message has got through to would-be lawyers: there are better and cheaper ways of learning and becoming a qualified lawyer than going on the LPC.
In all, 5,198 students enrolled with the 27 LPC providers for 2013/2014, according to data from the Central Applications Board, the admissions service for full-time LPC and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) applicants. This was 475 fewer than last year, and means that more than 6,500 course places theoretically approved by regulators are unfilled.
On average, courses are only 44% full, the figures show. Since 2008/09 the total number of students applying for LPCs has plummeted by 37.5%, from 10,933. That is a massive downturn in the market by anyone’s standards.
Peter Crisp, chief executive of BPP Law School claims ‘The figures reflect a market correction” but the reality is that this is not a correction but the continued decline of a course that is increasing irrelevant to learners wanting a career in the legal services market of today. The LPC is too expensive, students think that the course is unsatisfactory, and those in practice still complain (and have done for that last 20 years) that LPC graduates are still unprepared for work on Day One. It’s taken a while, those in the LPC industry with most to lose have been in a state of public denial, but it ’s now time to recognise that change is actually happening, both from the bottom up and the top down.
Learners are voting with their feet. The Regulators are saying that the pathways to qualification have to be more flexible, more accessible, and produce competent practitioners who can illustrate how they have at least achieved Day One outcomes. True, it will be a slow death (painful I believe for those still undertaking it) for the LPC and it’s likely that the content-crammer short version will continue, at least for those going to Big Law who desire lawyers from the Oxbridge/LPC route. But for the vast majority of future learners looking for a career in legal services, there is a need for something different. In three words: work-based learning.
Work-based learning allows people to ‘earn while you learn, and learn while you earn’. It provides hands-on, real-time, practical experience that cannot be gained by any amount of reading and discussion, not that reading and discussion should not feature as part of work-based learning. The idea that a person practices a discipline whilst at the same time learning theory and continually developing their skills and knowledge, is the very essence of what it is to be a professional.
There seems to be a general endorsement of work-based learning from Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Alternative Business Structures, and many other employers. CILEx has always had work-based learning qualifications. As a young ‘Articled Clerk’ (remember those, you 40 somethings out there) back in the mid-80s, I worked in a 7 partner firm mainly staffed by experienced Legal Executives at various stages of membership or fellowship. Their knowledge and experience was a match for any of the firm’s partners (who of course were all Solicitors) and they were valued and respected by both their peers and their clients. Even the young ones knew far more than me, because their knowledge was based and their skills honed on real life, real time experience under the supervision of colleague’s acting as mentors. True, I was a product of the old Law Society Finals but I doubt whether today’s graduates from the current LPC are on the whole any better off. My point is that whilst there has always been work-based learning in legal education, legal education has not always been about work-based learning and that has got to change now.
The signs are that the SRA has recognised this in its current ’Training for Tomorrow’ (T4T) project (though note that the current LPC pathway is still envisaged until 2017/18), we are now waiting to hear more from the Bar Standards Board about its response to the Legal Eduction and Training Review (LETR).
Two of the main themes that came out strongly during the SRA T4T roadshows and recent webinar were (1) risk-based regulation and (2) qualification based on Day One outcomes with assessment of competencies and ethics.
Risk based regulation means regulation should be directed. One size does not fit all. There are lots of diverse legal services now being provided under the auspice of a small number of regulators. The variety of legal services will only continue to grow in the future and that poses a problem to a regulator that wants to cover all of the various risks but does not want to either be overly prescriptive or guilty of a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
This dilemma is epitomised by the SRA’s consideration of a standard assessment as a gateway to qualification as a Solicitor. For the LPC or its successor pathways, it sounds like a return to the Law Society Finals although I’m sure that the SRA only wants to lay down the standard rather than prescribe the content or be responsible for the setting or administration of the assessment itself.
A standard across all legal services may be possible and acceptable for the assessment of ethics, but it would be difficult for competencies. We could all list, or at least attempt to list, the ethics by which we wish to see lawyers abide (honesty, integrity, confidentiality, trustworthy, etc) but it is difficult to do the same for competencies without being too prescriptive in specific areas or falling into a one-size fits all trap
It also follows that if we can produce a standard assessment of ethics applicable to all ‘lawyers’ (ie all those providing legal services) then the distinction between Barrister, Solicitor, Legal Executive, and Paralegal disappears in that regard. They are all ‘lawyers’ abiding by the same ethical rules. If those distinctions disappear (and I’ve got a great many more reasons why I can see that happening already) then is there a need for separate regulators of professions that not longer exist or are merged? Are we looking at a Legal Services Authority instead of a Solicitors Regulation Authority and what does that mean for the very existence of the other regulators?
Finally, for now, what does it mean for learners, for those wanting to become lawyers in the future?
Well as I’ve said, the evidence is now clear that they are voting with their feet and deciding against the current LPC route. Nevertheless, there is little urgency for the big LPC providers to change their teaching and learning strategy until their market has been seriously compromised despite the fact that there are signs that that is already happening. However, if you have a short term strategy of maximising profit, there is everything to be gained from squeezing everything out of what you’ve currently got and little incentive to invest in innovation that might not pay off. Remember, the current LPC pathway is still going to be relevant until 2017/18 according to the SRA, the likely time that Montagu will sell the University of Law (the largest LPC provider) as part of it’s business plan. Those with more innovative ideas and a view to the longer term should be looking to embrace work-based learning with everything they have and so achieve not only a pedagogical but also a commercial advantage.
Work-based learning: LETR recommended it, the Regulators are encouraging it, and most importantly the learners of today and tomorrow are demanding it.