News focus: College of Law chief explains post-buyout plans
The College of Law (CoL) is set to expand in the UK and overseas with ‘brand and values intact’ following its £200m sale to a private equity firm, chief executive Nigel Savage has told the Gazette.
Savage condemned the current wide-ranging review of legal education and training as ‘five years too late’ and said it was time that law schools became ‘more like medical schools, with students learning hands-on skills from day one’.
He warned that the UK will soon lose its position as ‘world leader in legal services’ unless it adapts quickly to 21st-century market conditions and ensures that English law remains the ‘global law’ of international transactions.
In his first substantive interview since Montagu Private Equity bought the CoL in April, Savage said the deal would be ‘no slash and burn, and then a quick sale’. He said: ‘Montagu is taking the long view. It only buys successful, well-managed businesses that can deliver revenue growth. We have a proven record of doing precisely that.’
The CoL already has eight centres around England and Wales, plus ‘hubs’ in South America and south-east Asia. It also offers an online law masters degree, in collaboration with the International Bar Association, in 35 countries. ‘Backed by Montagu’s funds, we can continue our expansion, but move faster, invest faster and make faster acquisitions,’ said Savage. ‘Montagu has bought our brand and values, and knows that it makes good business sense to keep them intact.’
Legal education has been slow to respond to the rapidly changing legal services market, he added. ‘The solicitor’s job is not to obsess about the law, but to deliver solutions to clients. There is a great opportunity for the CoL to move towards practice-focused degrees, with more emphasis on client care, ethics, arbitration and mediation. Students should not learn law in a vacuum, but in the context of advising individuals and corporations.’
Savage said it is for this reason that law firms are increasingly ‘buying into workplace law schools’, with recruits joining the firm after school and working via CILEX (Chartered Institute of Legal Executives) qualifications to a degree and online LPC. He said: ‘Most new ideas are a rehash of old ideas and this is no different. It’s very familiar to those older lawyers who went the five-year route through articles.’ He described the training contract as a ‘Victorian notion’ that was a barrier to ‘an accessible legal market’.
Savage said law firms have known about alternative business structures for years, but did nothing while businesses such as the the Co-op were quietly appointing paralegals and legal practice course (LPC) graduates to provide a competitive service based on the new business model. He said: ‘The Law Society and Bar were slow to take on board that the world of legal services has changed for ever.’
The current Legal Education and Training Review, a joint project of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards, is ‘five years too late’ in responding to changes that have already come about, he added.
The CoL chief rejected criticisms from the Junior Lawyers Division and others that the College of Law is making money on the back of LPC students who have no realistic prospect of securing a training contract and entering the profession. He said: ‘Let’s not succumb to doom and gloom. The number of training contracts was up 11% last year, and some 82% of our LPC graduates go on to become qualified lawyers.’
There is the potential for continued growth in the legal services market, with all the opportunities that growth brings, he insisted. ‘There is also growth in the railways, but we don’t need more wheel-tappers and shunters. We do need more lawyers,’ he said.
Savage is concerned the UK could lose its global leadership in legal services. He said: ‘The New York bar is already more accessible than our own and there is a real risk that the US will erode the predominance of UK law. The Chinese – or Australians, for that matter – could well come up with a “global law” to supplant our leadership in global transactional deals. We must do more, and urgently, to protect and promote UK law.’
For the moment, however, British higher education is still respected throughout the world, Savage said, pointing to 540 applications from China, the US, Canada and elsewhere for the 200 places available on the CoL’s new undergraduate law degree course, starting in September.
He said: ‘Our critics have drawn attention to Montagu’s lack of experience in education. We say that it is a good thing, because what Montagu bought is the CoL team. Nobody knows more about legal education. We will retain our brand and values. We will not be pushed.’
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