Ben Hoare Bell paralegal Ronagh Craddock looks at the future of the Legal Practice Course.
I joined the Newcastle and North East Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) committee in October 2014 and attended my first national meeting the following January. The national meeting is a gathering in London of representatives from regional JLD committees across England and Wales.
One of our objectives at the national meeting was to agree on JLD policy for 2015. The topic of discussion was the Legal Practice Course (LPC), and in particular:
- How do individuals currently fund their LPC?
- What is the future of the LPC?
How do individuals currently fund their LPC?
The cost of the LPC is extortionate, with tuition fees currently ranging from £8,000-£15,000 per year. For many, this is funded by bank loans, although some students are successful in securing training contracts with firms that cover the cost.
A high tuition fee can only breed exclusivity. The Law Society does have a Diversity Access Scheme providing scholarships for the LPC, but funds are limited. This year there were 10 scholarships available and so, while this will chip away at the exclusive pool, we cannot rely on such schemes to ensure a diverse profession (especially when thousands of graduates undertake the LPC each year).
We considered two further options for prospective LPC students to fund their studies, both now and in the future.
Student finance is not currently available for the LPC. However, the 2014 Autumn Statement introduced income-contingent loans of up to £10,000 for postgraduate-taught master’s programmes for students under 30 from 2016.
It’s unclear whether the LPC will fall into this category, but the JLD will be responding to an upcoming consultation with a proposal that it should.
There are now six universities across the country offering exempting degrees whereby the LPC is combined with the LLB over a four-year programme, with many also including a full or partial Masters qualification. I studied the LLB (Exempting) Degree at Northumbria University. The funding structure for this course was a standard yearly tuition fee for four years, which was covered by student finance. In addition there was a yearly fee of £900 (some courses do not charge an additional fee). This is a significant improvement to the cost of the LPC in that student finance covers most of it.
Some of these exempting degrees give students the option of gaining hands-on experience in a legal clinic, providing advice and representation to members of the public under the supervision of qualified solicitors. Clinical education of this sort has fantastic reviews and is arguably a better way to prepare you for life in a law firm than the traditional LPC.
These exempting programmes promote diversity and offer an alternative to the traditional LPC, as well as saving students from having to take out large bank loans. The final responsibility for the success of these courses, however, lies with firms. They must be aware of the benefits of these alternatives and be willing to steer away from red-brick bias and employ graduates from alternative courses. Without firms on board, these innovative ideas will be pointless.
What is the Future of the LPC?
We can hope that fees will be reduced, but this is largely unregulated and set by private providers. It seems to me that the LPC providers charge so much because they can; after all, it’s compulsory for all solicitors. But perhaps the biggest question is, what is the future of the LPC?
It’s of particular concern that providers accept far more students than there are training contracts. For example, in 2013 there were 6,171 LPC graduates but only 5,097 training contracts. These statistics are much worse when you consider the backlog of LPC graduates seeking trainee positions.
The purpose of the LPC is to equip students with the skills necessary to start a training contract with confidence. The course is designed to provide a bridge between academic study and training in a law firm. The overwhelming opinion from those at the national committee meeting, and a common view among junior lawyers, is that the LPC is not fit for this purpose. One suggestion is that it could become a shorter, more concentrated course. Another is that the future is in work-based learning.
We only need to look at Northern Ireland to find a jurisdiction where individuals must have a training contract offer before starting the LPC (and indeed, the LPC is undertaken alongside the training contract).
In England and Wales further changes were recently made to the SRA training regulations which allow individuals to start their full-time training contract and take the LPC at weekends (or even after completion of the training contract).
It’s likely that, as part of the Legal Education and Training Review, the SRA will soon consult over the future of the LPC. The JLD will ensure that it’s involved in these discussions, and we would love to hear your views on whether the LPC is fit for purpose – and if not, what can be changed to ensure it is.