The education and training lawyers receive is one of the most emotive subject matters facing the profession. Every lawyer, it seems, holds the strongest of views on the brilliance or inadequacy of the legal education that precedes entry. Aspiring lawyers unable to gain a training place or pupillage add their voices to the debate that rages over the alleged oversupply of lawyers. And they are in august company.
As the Gazette reported in November last year, Lord Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court, has strong opinions on education and training. Referencing the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), Neuberger warned regulators to hold back from radical change. He warned that ‘too much emphasis on consumer interests could undermine the rule of law’.
Exposure to controversy comes with running a law college – but the one-time College of Law has attracted the sort of criticism reserved for ‘first mover’ on a host of issues: expanding dramatically, taking private equity investment, and focusing significant efforts on international expansion.
Small surprise then that Professor Nigel Savage is no shrinking violet. And when it comes to lauding the achievements of the University of Law (UoL), formerly the College of Law, he likes to get on the front foot. Within five minutes of beginning the interview, the chief executive had described the UoL’s autumn 2012 launch of its undergraduate degree as ‘the most successful launch of a new LLB in the last 10 years’. There were 540 applications, from China, the US, Canada and elsewhere for the 200 places available.
Later Savage finds time to mention the £350,000 a year that the UoL makes available to fund bursaries and ‘to supplement the £200m war chest for pro bono and other activities’ that it controls following its sale to private equity firm Montagu. He argues that its status as the for-profit UoL ‘will help to bring diversity and increased student choice to the higher education spectrum’.According to this narrative, it is all roses in the world of legal education, particularly in the ever-expanding part of it that is the UoL.
But on another reading, Savage’s words could simply be bombast to distract from the uncomfortable truth that legal educationalists are producing too many law and Legal Practice Course (LPC) graduates for a jobs market that is already over full. Are, critics argue, young people being duped into taking on huge debts in the mistaken belief that they will quickly find a well-paid and fulfilling job for life? Is the UoL profiteering on the backs of aspiring lawyers?
Savage emphatically rejects the accusation. ‘Our students,’ he says, ‘have access to the services of 24 career advisers, which is far more than even the big universities can offer. We also have long-standing and close relationships with many law firms. The upshot is 98% of our intake goes on to find a role in legal services, of which 84% become lawyers. So let’s not succumb to doom and gloom. The number of training contracts across the UK was up 11% in 2011. That’s progress. The trend until that year was ever downwards.’ There is, he insists, potential for continued growth in the legal services market, with all the opportunities that growth brings. ‘There is also growth in the railways, but we don’t need more wheel-tappers and shunters. We do need more lawyers,’ Savage says. ‘Our success owes nothing to profiteering on the backs of aspiring lawyers. We have leveraged our success on the back of oiling the wheels of international commerce.’
The UoL does indeed have a high international profile. It has 500 students in 35 countries reading online for an LLM. Most law firm partners in Singapore and Hong Kong studied law with what was then the College of Law. UoL is also collaborating with the Singapore Institute of Legal Education with a view to establishing a permanent presence in the state, and is working towards forming similar relationships elsewhere. ‘Backed by Montagu’s funds, we can continue our expansion, but move faster, invest faster and make faster acquisitions,’ Savage argues.
He has talked about innovation at the UoL, but says law firms have not been similarly innovative. They have allowed the ‘New York Bar to run rings around us’, threatening the ‘primacy of England and Wales law for international transactions. And it is not just law firms that are at risk. It’s UK plc, too’. Law firms, he adds, have known about alternative business structures for years, but did nothing while ‘the new boys on the block’, such as the Co-op, were openly appointing paralegals and LPC graduates to provide a competitive service based on the new business model.
This is beginning to change, Savage says, as law firms turn to legal executives to reduce salary costs. There is also a growing acceptance of the apprenticeship route into law. ‘There’s nothing new in legal education,’ he says. ‘Apprenticeships are the 21st century version of the old five-year articles route. It’s time for a sea change in lawyers’ attitudes. They must stop obsessing about the finer points of the law, but concentrate on delivering affordable solutions to clients.’
The Law Society and bar have also been slow to take on board that the world of legal services has changed forever, he claims. He hopes that the ongoing LETR, a joint project of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards, will counter the threat to the profession by making English law more accessible to overseas lawyers. However, he adds, the LETR was already ‘five years too late’.
Does he hold out hope for the LETR? ‘Publication has already been delayed twice, which suggests that no daring innovation has been recommended to cut through the current complexities around legal education,’ he says. ‘The legal services market failed to respond effectively to the Legal Services Act and the world has now moved on.’
BORN Southwell, Nottinghamshire
UNIVERSITY Strathclyde and Sheffield polytechnics
JOBS following a doctorate and several consultancy jobs, became chief executive of the former College of Law, now the for-profit University of Law, in 1996
KNOWN FOR being an outspoken leader in higher education
Asked to explain how the for-profit UoL could possibly ‘bring diversity and increased student choice’ for undergraduates, his answer is surprisingly straightforward. He explains that fees for a three-year law degree normally amounted to £27,000, which is to say £9,000 a year. ‘The UoL doesn’t do research, which is where some of a student’s fees would usually go,’ he says. ‘It focuses entirely on the high-level teaching of legal services, which allows us to charge £9,000 a year for a two-year course or £6,000 a year for a three-year course. In both cases that totals £18,000, a third less than a conventional degree. That makes us attractive to students who don’t have the "bank of mum and dad" behind them.’
What concrete progress can he point to following the Montagu sale? ‘Give us a chance!’ he answers. ‘The initial sale may have gone through in spring 2012, but the transaction didn’t complete until 1 December 2012, and the Christmas and New Year holidays have intervened since then. But what I must stress is we haven’t sold the family silver. I have been asked why we chose this business model. The simple answer is that we all, law firms and educationalists alike, need to move with the times and adopt the model that suits the times. Just 50 yards from where we are sitting [in the Law Society], there is a successful national firm that is now owned by a listed Australian firm. That’s progress and that’s thinking ahead.’
He also rejects the suggestion that Montagu’s overriding interest was to make profits at the expense of ethics-led practice. While ‘Montagu lacks experience in education,’ he acknowledges, ‘that is a good thing. What Montagu bought is the UoL team. Nobody knows more about legal education. We will retain our brand and values. We will not be pushed around.’
The Gazette has heard of redundancies among qualified lawyer staff following on the heels of the Montagu sale. ‘That’s news to me,’ he says. ‘We are actually recruiting more staff at Moorgate (London), Bristol and Manchester.’ Savage is, in his own words, ‘long in the tooth in this business’. He has been the chief executive of the College of Law and then the UoL since 1996, and has known every Law Society president since 1990. ‘My role has changed beyond recognition over the years, which is good,’ he says. ‘Institutions, like dinosaurs, that fail to evolve become extinct. We are here for the long term.’