The Judge Rules: Bye-bye LPC and training contract, hello unified bar exam

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By Judge John Hack on

Kaplan’s demise triggers speculation that a streamlined qualification process will arrive sooner than many anticipated


At first glance, Kaplan Law School’s decision earlier this week to jack in its Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) looks like a pretty grim development for what was the UK’s third biggest provider of post-graduate legal profession training.

And it would be a fair assumption that Peter Crisp and David Johnston — the bosses at BPP Law School and the University of Law, respectively — will be rubbing their hands in expectation of filling most of the gap left in the market by Kaplan’s sudden departure.

Johnston could certainly do with a boost. In the chief executive slot for less than four weeks, the one-time punk rocker has had to negotiate some tricky issues since being handed the keys to the executive lavatories.

There was confusion over the extension of the university’s money-back guarantee to GDL students, its Birmingham branch ditched the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) just six weeks before its scheduled start, and the London office of heavy-hitting New York firm White & Case switched its trainee LPC provision deal to BPP.

Of course, it has not been all wrist-slitting news for Johnston. Only a few days before last week’s announcement, ULaw bagged the LPC deal for another set of Manhattanites, Shearman & Sterling, and for City mid-tier practice Trowers & Hamlins, both of which had been with Kaplan.

But the schadenfreude-inspired backslapping and champagne popping at BPP and ULaw may be relatively short lived.

Straws in the wind suggest that the entire structure of legal education could be headed for the mincing machine. Senior commentators told Legal Cheek this week that solicitor profession regulators are keen to jettison the existing LPC and training contract regime in favour of a much more streamlined qualification process.

It is argued that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is contemplating a brave new world where more or less the only unified regulatory hurdle required for qualification would be an American state-style bar exam.

The run-up to getting to a position in front of that hurdle could be varied, ranging from a traditional law degree (next stop bar exam), to non-law degree plus conversion course and then bar exam, to six-year apprenticeship scheme that would obviate any university study at all before bidding to leap the bar exam hurdle.

There are also suggestions that the SRA will try to get the Legal Services Board on side to convince bar regulators that this system should apply to all initial legal qualifications, with wannabe barristers topping up through enhanced advocacy training after passing that first exam.

Such a regime would create a market for crammer courses to get aspiring lawyers over the first hurdle. And that is where Kaplan might make a come-back.

It did not escape the notice of legal education-watchers that only the day before Kaplan announced it was killing off its GDL and LPC, officials trumpeted a deal with the SRA to provide the qualified lawyers transfer test.

That relatively unknown exam is applied to foreign lawyers and UK barristers wanting to re-qualify as solicitors in England and Wales. It could be seen as a precursor to a general bar exam, with Kaplan bidding to offer it along with a crammer course. Another outfit that will be keeping an eye on this potential model is Barbri, which already offers crammer courses for English lawyers looking to pass the New York bar exam.

Of course, BPP and ULaw could re-style their business models to get into the cramming game as well. But it will be a vastly different and potentially even more cut-throat market than the elaborate LPC regime of today.