Law: On course to practical skills: Students have given the new legal practice course a mixed reception, says Barbara Lantin, but one innovation has been widely praised

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Today the 3,500 students who took the first legal practice course (LPC) at the College of Law receive the results of their final examinations. They are among the 6,600 students nationally who have recently completed the LPC, the successor to the Law Society finals, which breathed their last in 1993.

The new course represents a radical departure from the old, not only in content but also in principle. Institutions can apply to the Law Society for approval to devise and operate tbeir own courses, subject to the society's supervision. This gives the participating universities and colleges - currently 31 in all - new freedom and control.

The result is likely to be wide variation in style, content and quality. University students about to enter the final year of their law degree have a wider range of options than their predecessors and will need to look carefully at the various prospectuses before making their choice.

Unfortunately, they will not receive much help in their decision-making from the Law Society. Despite conducting a thorough monitoring exercise of all the LPCs over the past academic year, the society has decided not to release detailed results and comparisons. Its report -

due out in October - will instead look at the course in general rather than at the efforts of individual participating institutions.

'It would not be fair for the Law Society to suggest preferences,' says the society's head of education, Nick Saunders. 'What students have to bear in mind is that it is early days and that different courses are right for different students. Some place more emphasis on the commercial side, some on legal aid work. Some are at universities, others at colleges of law. There are a whole host of factors that have to be taken into account.'

The society would not divulge which courses received its commendation this year. The Independent understands, however, that there were only two: the Nottingham Law School at Nottingham Trent University and the University of the West of England in Bristol. Despite the close connection between the Law Society and the College of Law - a number of senior officers at the society, including the president and the vice-

president, are governors of the college - none of the college's four centres received a commendation.

A quick trawl among students who have just completed the first LPC reveals varying levels of satisfaction. There was, however, almost universal praise for the innovatory practical skills element of the course. This consists of work on research, drafting, interviewing, advocacy and negotiating. Liz Hay, about to take up a traineeship (formerly known as articles) in Cambridge after completing

her LPC at Nottingham Trent, believes the skills element was probably the most valuable aspect of the course.

'I would have wallowed around in articles without it,' she asserts. 'It gave me the tools to use for good tactics. For example, the writing and drafting work explained how to phrase things clearly in plain English that non-

lawyers would understand. Without it, I would not have

had a clue. The whole course was very practical and down to earth, whereas the degree course involved a lot of theorising about the law. This has made me much more relaxed and confident about my articles. It has been a good bridge between university and work.'

Robert Hunter, who studied at Kings College and the College of Law in London, is less certain about the value of

the course, including the skills element. 'I think most of the skills are things law students would have acquired during the course of their job applications and interviews,' he says. 'It might have been more useful if the skills had been integrated into the rest of the course. In articles much time is taken up researching points of law. But on the course, research was handled as a separate subject with no

attempt during the rest of the year to encourage us to use the methods we had learned. The teaching was entirely different from university, where you would look up cases and from this develop an understanding of the law.

'There was too much emphasis on what was and was not in the exams and subjects mentioned in the prospectus which were not in the exam hardly got any time. I suppose I found the teaching rather patronising and mechanical.'

Teaching styles and methods were criticised by a number of students. Katie Rimer, who went from St Catherine's Oxford to the College of Law in Guildford, found classes of 60 too large. 'You could get away with doing nothing,' she says. 'We did have smaller groups and they were much better.'

Katie senses uncertainty and confusion among students and teaching staff. The same tutors who had made the common professional examination the previous year 'fantastic' seemed to be floundering with the new LPC. 'I would have preferred a more formal structure of lectures rather than the large groups, where we seemed to

spend a lot of time doing nothing. I think the tutors were still trying to find their feet.'

Angela Kirkham, about to join Saunders Sobell, a firm of solicitors in Holborn, central London, after taking her LPC at the College of Law, believes some restructuring of the course is necessary. 'During the third term, when we took our options, some students found themselves travelling into the centre of London for just one hour of lectures in a day. Some courses had so much material you could not possibly absorb it all, and on others, the tutors were struggling to fill the lecture time.'

Angela would like to see the LPC run on a day-release basis during articles. Other students felt it could be telescoped into a nine-to-five day over six months. One suggested larger firms might like to operate the course in-house using their own staff.

The Law Society declares itself satisfied with the first year of the LPC. 'We are very happy with the way things have gone,' says Nick Saunders. 'Where appropriate, we have made suggestions to the course providers as to how things can be improved, and no doubt these will be taken on board for next year.'

(Photograph omitted)