News that Oxford Brookes University is discontinuing its legal practice course (LPC) because a drop in applications means it is no longer viable has sent a shock wave through the legal education market, as we await publication of the much-anticipated Legal Education and Training Review (LETR).

The delay in the review – now promised for May – has put some initiatives, such as the five-year qualifying degree being piloted by Northumbria School of Law and BPP’s qualifying apprenticeship for solicitors, on hold. But it has not stopped law firms of all sizes working with providers on designing and teaching everything from high-street modules to fully bespoke LPCs, to ensure students are as prepared as possible for the academic, technical and commercial demands of a modern practice. Oxford Brookes blamed its decision on a drop in applications of more than 50% over the last five years, with demand expected to continue falling – a situation which, the university said, was mirrored across the sector.

Solicitors Regulation Authority figures give an indication of the change in the LPC market. The number of full-time places on offer dropped from 11,370 in 2009/10 to 9,600 in 2012/13. Actual student numbers are far lower. Full-time enrolments in 2012/13 only just topped 6,000, with some courses attracting fewer than 20 students despite having places for more than 100. The Oxford Brookes move was a ‘real shock’ and devastating for its students, says Helen Hudson, LPC programme leader at Nottingham Law School (NLS). But, she says, the LPC is an expensive course to run, so if numbers continue to fall it is possible that more smaller providers may drop out, which would reduce student choice.

NLS has seen numbers drop in line with market trends, but Hudson says it remains committed to offering the LPC and hopes numbers this year will be similar to the 2012/13 intake of 160 full-time and 120 part-time students. The decline in numbers, attributed to student concerns over cost (which can be upwards of £13,000) and lack of training contracts, has led to falling enrolment figures across the board. However, Hudson says those students now applying are more committed, and NLS is seeing a better conversion rate to legal jobs.

The University of Law (UoL) (formerly the College of Law (CoL)), the biggest LPC provider with 3,000 students on its full-time course and 1,500 part-time, saw a 4% fall in full-time enrolments in 2012/13, compared with a national figure of 11%. But Sarah Hutchinson, board member responsible for business development at the UoL, says this was matched by an increase in its share of the LPC market to more than 50%. The future of the largely classroom-based LPC has been put under the microscope during the LETR. Views have been canvassed on students qualifying as a solicitor after the LPC and whether vocational training should be more closely blended with work-based learning, though that raises the question of whether smaller firms would have the resources or desire to take on more responsibility for training. With so many LPC graduates becoming paralegals because they are unable to find a training contract, changes in demand may also play a part in any career structure proposed for more junior roles.

Whether or not the LETR recommends radical change, a review of a range of providers highlights the importance of their links with practitioners in driving forward new initiatives. The idea of a bespoke LPC was first broached in 2000 when BPP launched its City LPC with a consortium of eight City firms. That made all the law schools sit up and consider if their courses were too generic.

By 2002, the College of Law was creating routes through the LPC that enabled students to gain the broad building blocks they needed before tailoring the course to the needs of individual firms. Three of the original BPP consortium – Allen & Overy, Linklaters and Clifford Chance – broke away in 2005 and went to the college which worked with each firm to design and deliver a bespoke LPC. More than 33 law firms now have LPCs tailored – to a greater or lesser extent – to their individual needs. In 2011, the CoL joined Irwin Mitchell and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives in launching the IMU Law and Business School, where LPC students are recruited to specific practice areas with tailored electives.

Other developments include an international LPC, which the UoL has designed with CMS Cameron McKenna. The university will offer a version of this to all students from 2014. Simon Pilcher, CMS graduate recruitment partner, says this is the firm’s first bespoke LPC: ‘Everyone we recruit has to do it because so much of our practice involves cross-border work. It will bridge the gap between the academic and the practical, and build links between the firm and students – it is a much better system than sending them away to college and saying "see you in a year".’ Hill Dickinson has run an LPC Plus scheme for the last three years. Training partner Alastair Gillespie says UoL timetables the electives term so students can attend the firm’s Liverpool headquarters one day a week, where they work on core skills such as presentation, negotiation, networking and business development. ‘We have seen tremendous benefits,’ he says. ‘From the day they start as trainees, they are familiar with the staff and culture of the firm. They are so much more attuned to what we are doing and can really hit the ground running.’

While the UoL is seeing an increased demand from law firms to have input into the LPC, Hutchinson says it also recognises that only 30% of students come with training contracts. It offers 18 electives so students can tailor their LPC to their chosen pathway. ‘It is also why we have made the LPC an LLM at no extra cost from this September,’ she says. ‘Students can focus their dissertation on either a practice area or a particular sector which mirrors the way in which firms are going. And from 2014, the UoL will be offering law degrees integrated with the LPC.’

The UoL’s nearest rival in size, BPP (pictured), runs tailored programmes for 22 firms, in addition to the City consortium. Dean Peter Crisp says initial criticism of the concept of bespoke LPCs has settled down. However, he adds: ‘Most firms don’t provide funding for the LPC and don’t have the resources to be involved in developing their own programmes, so we also tailor courses to sectors to meet their needs. These include the "high street extra" module, which is particularly popular at our Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham centres. It gives students the chance to focus on relevant areas such as insolvency, immigration and family law.’

Stephenson Harwood, which recruits 16 trainees a year, has worked closely with BPP designing a bespoke elective on international trade and transactions. Training principal Neil Noble says the firm did not feel its practice areas involving international trade and shipping were being catered for academically. ‘Trainees were struggling to understand a lot of the jargon, concepts and difficult legal issues,’ he says. ‘We felt it would be a very useful grounding if they came to us with that background knowledge.’

The elective is exclusive to Stephenson Harwood this year but will be offered to other firms in future. ‘We have to be realistic,’ says Noble. ‘It represents an investment on their part and we can’t stop them using it for their benefit as well. Also, there are no trade secrets involved and it will provide good networking opportunities for our trainees.’ He understands the argument that powerful firms using their muscles to develop courses churning out City lawyers is not necessarily good for the wider profession. But he argues: ‘The legal profession is becoming increasingly specialised very early on, even at trainee level, so it is inevitable that firms will want a more tailored LPC. The flipside is the apprenticeship route. We have volunteered to help develop this as a way of widening routes into the profession. Law firms are quite conservative so it might be a tough sell initially. But once people come through it and prove themselves, firms will become more comfortable with it.’

Twelve candidates at Eversheds are piloting a new-style Combined Study Training Contract at BPP centres in London, Leeds and Birmingham. This required a waiver from the SRA because students do the professional skills course before they finish the LPC. They studied the fast-track LPC until December and then started their training contact in January on the usual trainee wage.

Lorraine Petheram, Eversheds’ resourcing adviser, says: ‘There is more administration involved in getting the timetable for the electives to fit in with the practice groups, but it isn’t a mountain. It is more like the accountancy model, and feedback from both our lawyers and the students so far has been very good.’ While Nottingham Law School does not offer bespoke LPCs, it works very closely with local firms –17 are represented on their employers’ advisory board. Associate dean Jenny Holloway says the input is invaluable.

One of those firms is niche immigration practice Paragon Law. Group CEO Thalej Vasishta has built close links with the law school and other local universities to ensure academic rigour in a constantly changing area of law. It gives the Nottingham-based practice access to a pool of potential candidates. This is important, he says, given that immigration law is a ‘niche area which gets a bad press, suffers from legal aid cuts and has a London bias’. The firm provides immigration law surgeries to international students and gives seminars on how students should market themselves to law firms. Team members contribute to the immigration module as part-time lecturers. ‘We have benefited tremendously from our relationship with NLS,’ says Vasishta. ‘It gives us access to the best candidates, to tailor-made courses and to consultancy support on business innovation. We also value the opportunity to have input into courses and, most importantly, our relationship has given us "academic credibility".’

Northumbria University’s School of Law, which merged with the university’s business school to create a combined law and business faculty, also has close links with local firms. Its LPC numbers have held up well, helped by its flexibility and by its nearest competitive provider dropping the LPC this academic year. The law school has led the way in innovative programmes, with its four-year exempting degree including the LPC celebrating its 20th anniversary last year. Students in the fourth year work in the student law office in teams of six, supervised by qualified solicitors, and take on live cases. ‘Local firms like our graduates from this degree because they have taken their baby steps here,’ says Fiona Fletcher, director of the law school’s Centre for Legal Management and Regulation.

Northumbria piloted the five-year full qualification degree, which includes the LPC and training contract, for the SRA. Some students did their training with a particular firm, others built their training contracts as they went along with placements in different practices. Its future is waiting on the LETR. Ben Hoare Bell, one of the largest legal aid practices in the region, took on one Northumbria student for his final 15-month placement and he is now with them as a qualified solicitor. The firm’s managing partner Jeff Dean says: ‘I do wonder if the students miss out on some life experience with this style of degree, but I am arguing against myself here as I think this has great potential. It certainly worked for us and the person we took on has been very good.’

The extra benefit for the firm, he says, was the rigorous external scrutiny of the training: ‘We put a lot of work into our trainees, but I have to admit we learned from the way Northumbria assessed students in the workplace, which we have fed into our training contracts.’

Close links with training providers are very important, Dean says: ‘There is so much pressure on law firm resources that there is a risk of training standards falling. But the law school’s input keeps us on the straight and narrow – it is very much a symbiotic relationship.’ The firm has teamed up with the law school to run advice sessions in its Byker office and has involved students in developing new areas of work. The law school’s roll call of links with local firms is extensive, including Dickinson Dees, which runs regular careers sessions for students and sponsors the honour roll for top students, and Ward Hadaway, which runs a bursary scheme for the best first-year exempting degree students.

Swansea Law School has recently launched a part-time LPC to help students who need to earn while they are learning. It has frozen its fees for the last four years and aims to have 50 students across both programmes. Admissions tutor and solicitor Michaela Leyshon says: ‘We are an integrated law school so we are able to respond quickly to market forces, and we are absolutely committed to offering both the GDL and LPC. Looking at the LPC market, I would be very surprised if any provider will be turning applicants away this year.’ She says Swansea Law School works very closely with local firms to ensure its students fit their needs, as most go on to practice locally.

Swansea sole practitioner Sally Goldstone has taught on the family law elective for the last three years. She found teaching an ‘eye opener. Some of the students really have no idea about what it takes to be a good solicitor, while others stand out. What I love about the law school is its very practice-orientated approach’. Part of that approach is timetabling students so they can do work placements on Fridays. Goldstone took on one of the students who proved to be ‘fantastic’, she says. ‘She used her initiative and became invaluable so I took her on as a trainee before anyone else snapped her up. What drew me to her was her sandwich degree, which meant she already had some work experience. She qualified in August and is now building up her case load.’

Alongside links with practices in England and Wales, some of the law schools are developing connections with institutions and firms abroad. A recent event looking at how legal services should be planning to grow included attracting the brightest talent from around the globe to study law and take their professional qualifications here. The UoL, which is the largest provider of professional legal education and training in Europe, has formed strategic collaborations with law schools such as the Singapore Institute of Legal Education and Beijing’s Renmin University of China Law School, and last year launched an LLB with Madrid’s IE University in both civil and common law.

NLS’s Professor Jane Ching is a visiting professor at the University of Limoges, while its dean, Professor Andrea Nollent, is a visiting professor at the University of Paris-Est. Two senior lecturers, Jeremy Robson and Helen Edwards, deliver advocacy training in Malaysia for the attorney general of Malaysia chambers, in addition to the delivery of the LLM in advocacy skills, in Nottingham, to officers employed by the attorney general of Malaysia.

Stephen Denyer, global markets partner at Allen & Overy, promotes collaboration between practitioners and universities around the world, and wants more institutions here to offer an international element. ‘I think there is a real opportunity for the UK to become more of a centre of excellence,’ he says. ‘We are a long way from having the sort of joined-up approach that exists in the US, and I hope that will be addressed by the LETR.’ Firms are also missing a trick, he says, by not having the breadth of relationships with universities that is common to sectors such as engineering. He recommends that firms identify a core group who can visit universities, and deliver lectures, workshops and roundtable discussions as a way of sharing knowledge and understanding – not as recruitment events.

For Crisp, the input of firms into the LPC has had huge benefits for the students. ‘Developing employer engagement is one of the things I am most proud of among BPP’s achievements over the past decade,’ he says.

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist