Examining the Law Syllabus: The Core

By P. B. H. Birks; Society of Public Teachers of Law (London, England) | Go to book overview

20. The College of Law and the Legal Practice Course
RAY DEANMAJOR changes in any field of activity are inevitably unsettling and, to many of those affected by them, unwelcome. The proposal by the Law Society to replace the Solicitors' Final Examination with the new Legal Practice Course has, however, provided teaching institutions with a golden opportunity to construct a system which produces the right end result. With this in mind, The College of Law welcomes the opportunity of establishing liaison with degree-awarding institutions and the profession in order to achieve a structured programme of professional legal education.The College is probably unique among those institutions considering providing a Legal Practice Course in that it does not prepare students for a law degree. It does, however, provide tuition for the Common Professional Examination which gives it some insight into the requirements of the academic stage of a solicitor's training. In many ways the College is the 'meat in the sandwich' between the academic stage of training on the one hand and the needs of the solicitors' profession on the other.It is the holding of this delicate balance between the two ends of the spectrum which is the major challenge facing any institution thinking of running its own Legal Practice Course. Any LPC must build on the teaching which has taken place at degree level and must also take account of the profession's needs. The course must therefore respond to the needs of the market place: it must be customer-orientated and must also concern itself with student perceptions of what a legal career involves.So what are the profession's views about the LPC proposals? The College's research has shown that there are three main areas of concern:
1. There is a widespread feeling, particularly among commercial firms, that skills training is best done 'on the job' and that the additional expense involved in employing staff to teach skills on a vocational course is not justifiable.
2. All types of firm are worried that their trainees will have less knowledge of substantive law than at present because of the requirement to devote at least 25 per cent of the LPC to skills. Although the system of offering optional subjects will help to make the LPC more relevant to particular types of firm, there is a fear that there will be a 'knowledge backlash' if this worry is not addressed.
3. The fact that the cost of the LPC will be significantly greater than the current Finals course because of higher staffing levels, better facilities, improved library provision, etc. has not been well received. It is perhaps unfortunate that the changes are taking effect at a time of recession. As far as the College is concerned, it is having to commit itself to massive investment in expanding its teaching accommodation and increasing its staffing levels; even with economies of scale, its fees will inevitably be higher than at present.

The College's strategy in attempting to meet some of these concerns continues to be based on a policy of employing only professionally qualified staff for its teaching activities. The College currently has 170 professionally qualified staff, most of whom regard themselves as solicitors (or barristers) first and academics second. The College maintains very strong links with practice through its programme of continuing education courses for and with practising solicitors. Every lecturer is required to spend a minimum period in a solicitor's office each year, and some regularly do locum work, undertake advocacy and sit as deputy District Judges.

While this policy is important in persuading the profession that the College's LPC will have the right objectives as far as they are concerned it is also significant in giving the course credibility from a student's point of view. To counter the old adage that 'those who can, do; those who can't, teach', it is essential that anyone involved with the delivery of the LPC is able to demonstrate an awareness of current practice, particularly in the area of skills.

Fundamental to a successful LPC will be the approach which is taken to the teaching of skills. It is important to appreciate that, unlike other jurisdictions where skills-based courses are run, the average age of LPC students will be relatively low. Although there will always be a number of mature students and a fair sprinkling of former CPE students with differing backgrounds, there should not be too great an expectation of worldliness or of 'life skills' in LPC students as a whole. It will therefore be appropriate to introduce the concept of legal skills at a relatively low level. It will also be important to deal with them in context: experience elsewhere has shown that discussing skills in a vacuum does not find favour with students--they prefer skills to be related to specific tasks.

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