Law: Transforming knowledge into know-how: The Law Society's finals are to be replaced with a one-year training scheme that will emphasize practical skills, writes Sharon Wallach

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The Independent Online
FROM September next year, educational institutions will be operating a curriculum with a new emphasis on practical skills that is likely to change the profile of the solicitor of the future.

The legal practice course (LPC) will replace the Law Society finals as part of a training scheme approved by the Law Society's council in May 1990. In April 1991 the council established the LPC board, whose tasks include approving applications to run the course.

Initially, the one-year full-time (and possibly a two-year part-time) course will be offered by the College of Law and seven new universities (formerly polytechnics). Three other institutions are awaiting validation.

The new training regime includes a professional skills course to be completed by trainees. In addition, all solicitors will have to undertake continuing education.

The aim of the scheme, according to a progress report on its implementation published by the Law Society last October, is 'to ensure that those entering the profession are competent to deal with clients' changing needs'. The intention is to give trainee solicitors embarking on articles 'the necessary knowledge and skills to undertake appropriate tasks under proper supervision during the contract'.

The LPC differs from the old finals course in several ways. Each teaching institution will be responsible for its own assessment arrangements; there will no longer be a single national examination. The number of compulsory subjects is reduced from seven to four and students will be able to choose two optional topics. The four core subjects are business law and practice, civil and criminal litigation, conveyancing, and wills, probate and administration - all combining substantive law, procedure and practical skills work. The optional topics will be in selected private client and corporate client work.

Certain aspects - professional conduct, investment business, European Community law and revenue law - are considered to be of such importance that they will be assessed throughout all the compulsory areas.

The practical skills element, covering legal research, drafting, interviewing, negotiation and advocacy, acts in part as the foundation for the four-week professional skills course (PSC) which trainees will have to undertake during articles. Apart from further instruction in advocacy, professional conduct and investment business, the PSC will also concentrate on 'personal work management' and accounts.

Not unexpectedly, the profession has mixed views on the new training arrangements. 'At the college, we welcome the freedom to teach and assess using more imaginative methods,' says Michael Petley, the assistant director of the LPC at the College of Law. 'But the profession says: 'Can we trust all the institutions? Will there be consistent standards?' '

The Law Society says yes: all the validated course providers will continue to have to meet the LPC board's standards, regardless of variations in teaching and assessment methods.

The college carried out an extensive consultation exercise among solicitors before finalising the details of its course. 'Some firms welcome the greater emphasis on practical skills, which they say are transferable and long-lasting, whereas knowledge of the law, as it changes, can be transient,' says Mr Petley. 'Others are less enthusiastic, saying that a knowledge of core law is vital; that firms have their own 'skills cultures' and prefer home-grown training. We are aiming to reconcile both camps.'

The reaction to the options system is also divided. 'It recognises that people destined to work at Clifford Chance (the big City firm) are not going to do any divorce law. On the other hand, even the City firms say that they would not want to encourage over-early specialisation,' Mr Petley says.

An advantage to students of the new arrangements is that they will be able to choose options appropriate for a particular type of firm. A disadvantage, say some solicitors, is that trainees will not all be starting from the same point.

One issue on which most solicitors are agreed is funding. 'It is a major worry,' Mr Petley says. 'Local authority grants are drying up. The LPC is more expensive than the old finals course, largely because skills training is highly labour-intensive. The PSC is also costly and may make the smaller firms decide not to take trainees at all.'

The trend away from the small firms is accelerated by the large number of students opting for the City firms that will sponsor them through training.

A part-time LPC, permitted by the new training regulations, would enable people to work and study at the same time. The College of Law is examining the possibility of running a two-year part-time course. 'Our current policy is to try to offer it,' Mr Petley says. 'But it will depend on the market and on logistics. Some firms we consulted said a part-time course would be all right for the odd case, but . . . it would mean that the trainee, who could not do fee-earning work, would be less useful for longer.

'What we would like to see is a mandatory grant for the LPC, but in the present political climate, this seems unlikely.'

The spectre of a return to the bad old days of articled clerks paying for the privilege of being trained may be raising its head.

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