The abiding image of the College of Law is one of a venerable institution at the heart of legal education and the legal establishment.

From its ivy-bedecked Georgian facades in Guildford to its modern lecture rooms in London, the five-branch college has always been where most students learn how to become solicitors.So when the top partners of a group of the leading law firms in the City recently formed a bespoke legal practice course (LPC) to cater to their refined commercial needs, which teaching institution did they turn to? It would have been a brave punter who betted against the College of Law.

A brave punter, but a richer one in the end as the City turned up the books by plumping for a triumvirate of relative upstarts -- Nottingham Law School, Oxford Institute and private training group BPP.So where did it go wrong for the college? How did it manage to slip from pole position to one where it was sheepishly carrying the wooden spoon? The college's idiosyncratic chief executive, Professor Nigel Savage, has been fighting a rearguard action ever since the City consortium was formed two months ago (see [2000] Gazette, 17 February, 5).

He maintains that the college only had a brief opportunity to pitch for the work and that the eight City firms involved -- Slaughter and May, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Linklaters & Alliance, Herbert Smith, Lovells and Norton Rose -- appeared just to be going through the motions.

'I find it odd that there were not more discussions with the major provider in the country,' says Prof Savage.It has been suggested that it all started to go w rong for the college in October 1998, when a survey by the Trainee Solicitors Group showed that the LPC cost twice as much as its predecessor, the Law Society Finals.

Not only that, but the group singled out the college for offering the most expensive course (then £6,505) and the greatest yearly increase in fees (then 7.6%) just at the time it spent £4 million upgrading its premises.

It was at this point that the top firms realised just how much they were spending on training and began to question whether they were getting value for money.

As the largest single LPC provider, the college was right in the firing line.

But according to Prof Savage, the eight firms have assured the college that cost did not affect the decision.But others have speculated that part of the reason the college got short shrift from the City -- if in fact it did -- is the 'Savage factor' itself.

Nigel Savage came to the college -- ironically from Nottingham Law School -- three and a half years ago, and he hit it like a typhoon.

In a matter of weeks he had blown away the cosy 1950s-style academic atmosphere that had built up and replaced it with his brand of robust innovation.

And there was considerable bruising and blood on the carpet along the way.Prof Savage's supporters hail him as a thrusting manager and businessman, just what modern academia requires in the 21st century.

His detractors suggest that he is frank to the point of being crass, and at the upper echelons of the City firms the latter might have swung the balance against the college.

Typically, Prof Savage himself is dismissive of such a suggestion: 'These people are in business and they are professionals.

They know me and they supported me while I was at Nottingham.

They know my management style and my personality.

And they know the sort of quality I deliver.'Indeed, it is possible to have some sympathy for the college's confusion over the City choice.

According to Prof Savage, not long after he was appointed to take over at Guildford, the college embarked on a mission to redefine its strategy.

Along the way it sought views from as many interested parties as it could, including, says Prof Savage, all eight of the City firms which subsequently set up the breakaway consortium.Be that as it may, college chiefs -- from Prof Savage to Rodger Pannone, the former Law Society President and now chairman of the college's board of governors -- maintain that the creation of a City consortium running a commercial law-specific LPC will be detrimental for students and ultimately for the legal profession as a whole.The overriding college strategy, born out of its consultation process, is to retain the one profession approach to education.

Explains Prof Savage: 'We want to identify the foundations of what make a good lawyer and offer a professional education as opposed to vocational training.

Within that we also try to acknowledge the diversity of the legal profession and to create pathways for students who are going into corporate practice.

This strategy is better for young lawyers and it is better in the long run for the City.'He recognises that the original LPC was flawed in some respects and has sympathy for some the argument put forward by the City firms.

'One of the things that was wrong with the LPC when it was devised is that there was too much emphasis on skills and you can't teach skills in a vacuum -- there has to be emphasis on the legal framework.

But these eight firms are going over the top in their desire to see more law in the course.'Mr Pannone, the senior partner of Manchester-bas ed Pannone & Partners, agrees: 'My firm has 60 partners and 300 staff.

It does commercial work, but also divorce and domestic conveyancing.

We had 1,000 applicants last year for eight training places.

Within the firm we train people in the skills required for specific narrow sectors of practice.

The City firms are even better placed than we are to do that.'But the duty at the college is to educate as many people as possible to as high a standard as possible, allowing those people to have the choice to join a firm like mine, a firm in the City or a law centre.

It is our duty to give the raw material to those firms and practices.'Mr Pannone continues by pointing out that even if the college had been successful in winning the City brief, the governors would have had difficulty in in authorising Prof Savage to offer the type of course the consortium wants.

'That isn't to say that we wouldn't have been able to provide options,' he says, 'but the view would have been that students' training would have been poorer if it was an elitist, purely City-focused course.'For Prof Savage, there would have been a more equitable policy for the City firms to have adopted.

'What I would have preferred the City firms to have done would have been to say: "We've got concerns about the LPC in general, let's use our influence and our wealth to improve the course as a whole."'By all means they could have commissioned someone like Nottingham Law School to do some research on it, and then make that knowledge available to to all the providers,' Prof Savage continues.

'There are some excellent providers up and down the country -- Northumbria has been innovative, while Central Lancashire has a first class part-time course.'Both Prof Savage and Mr Pannone recognise the risks of sounding as though they are dining on a plateful of sour grapes.

However, Prof Savage cannot resist pointing out that in his view, the consortium has 'painted itself into an educational cul-de-sac'.

He explains: 'The three providers have got themselves in a position now whereby they can't change their LPC without getting the permission of eight City firms -- that puts them in an educational straight jacket and it will stifle innovation.'But even more crucially, maintains Prof Savage, ultimately, the consortium will produce lawyers that fail to meet most important criteria -- the needs of clients.

'Clients are not concerned about the technical expertise of the lawyers.

But they are concerned that the lawyers do not understand the business context of the deals they are putting together.

That is the fundamental weakness of our system.

If you start cramming more law into these kids they will only forget after a couple of years.'But the college is launching its own 'corporate LPC'.

Is this not a post-bolted horse attempt to regain some credibility and effectively offer the same as what the eight firms are after? Prof Savage maintains that the College decided to launch its corporate LCP 'before the City consortium came up with the idea'.

He says: 'We want to turn lawyers back into being men and women of affairs, but our course will be open to everyone.'Cramming more law into the LPC, which is arguably what the City firms are attempting to do with the consortium, is purely an attempt to make up for the deficiencies of undergraduate legal education, says Prof Savage.The concern over law degrees is one area over which the college and the consortium can agree.

Peter Jones is the dean of Nottingham Law School, assuming the role when Prof Savage took off for leafy Guildford.

'Undergradu ate legal education has a case to answer,' he says, 'particularly in regard to the teaching of the law of contract -- which tends to happen in the first year of a law degree -- when students are studying an entirely different discipline at the tender age of 18 or 19, and is then never revisited during the next two years.

There is a case for advanced contract law towards the end of the degree programme.

This could be by studying the law of personal property or in some other appropriate way.'But that is about where the agreement finishes, as Mr Jones is adamant in his defence of the consortium.

'There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what is proposed,' he maintains.

'We will work together with the providers and the firms to agree a common syllabus and format.

Frankly, I expect the result of this to be pretty uncontroversial and will provide the bedrock of a course which will be suitable not only to the City firms but to a range of national and commercial firms.'It will be then for each provider to develop its own course based on these common themes.

We will work together and share ideas but there is no question of being straight-jacketed, nor do the firms want to be over-prescriptive.

Of course, the collaboration between the three chosen providers and the firms has great potential benefits for all our students; we will be sharing our know-how with the other providers and vice-versa.'Whether the college is involved in a City LPC or not -- and both Prof Savage and Mr Pannone drop strong hints that they expect 'to work with all eight firms again' -- the college is still in a fairly healthy position.

It has 4,700 full-time students, making it the largest legal profession educator in Europe.

It runs Legal Network Television and operates an overseas programme that involves providing courses in places such as South America, South Africa and India.

And it has just announced that it is to build a new law school from the ground up in Birmingham.Whether all that is enough to ease the pain of the City slight remains to be seen.

But undoubtedly, the ever-buoyant Prof Savage will keep bobbing upwards.