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Meet the law school empowering future lawyers through ‘collaborative learning’

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By Sophie Dillon on

Head of Department James Catchpole discusses The City Law School’s unique approach to SQE training ahead of LegalEdCon 2024 next week

The City Law School’s Head of Department James Catchpole

“Our offering is different from your typical commercial provider: we’re much more student focused,” says James Catchpole, The City Law School’s Head of Department for Postgraduate and Professional Programmes. Speaking to Catchpole at the City’s flashy new Northampton Square home in London, Legal Cheek Careers is keen to find out more about this law school’s approach to legal training, and how it differentiates itself in a competitive market.

“The students come first at The City Law School,” Catchpole tells us. “We centre our offering around them; it comes in the form of strong pastoral care and skills development to prepare them to hit the ground running in the wider legal world.”

Catchpole, a qualified solicitor, has been a feature of the London legal education scene now for over two decades. “I originally qualified into IT law, data protection and privacy. I enjoyed what I did, but I wasn’t really settled into what I was doing, and I knew that I wanted to do more,” he says. “Through my role, I was running client training sessions, and giving lectures on IT and data privacy. Soon after, I was offered the opportunity to go to the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa to set up the first LLM on International IT and Telecommunications law in Africa.” On return to the UK, Catchpole made the decision to say goodbye to legal practice, and he hasn’t looked back since. “I originally joined The City Law School teaching the Legal Practice Course (LPC) which I thoroughly enjoyed: I worked with an incredible team, we had such fun whilst working incredibly hard,” he explains.

A law school with deep roots in London’s legal education scene, The City Law School evolved from the Inns of Court School of Law (ICSL) which itself dates back to the nineteenth century. The ICSL was, in its time, the original and sole provider of bar training in the United Kingdom, and the only excellent graded LPC in the City. But Catchpole does advise that legal education is a very different beast than the one he well knew when he was looking at qualifying as a solicitor. “The university education landscape has changed considerably since I was a student,” he says, being in one of the first ever cohorts to take the LPC. “Students have gone from being ‘learners to partners’,” he says. “In essence, students have become much more attuned to their needs and aspirations; this is driving both them and us to thoroughly equip them for the next stage of their careers.”

Find out more about studying for the SQE at The City Law School

In this vein, The City Law School has been able to build upon its experience as a legal education provider and adapt to these changing winds by bringing a new qualification course to the market. Its Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) preparation course, the Solicitors’ Practice Programme (SPP) was brought to the market in September 2023. We ask Catchpole how delivery of the programme is going. “It’s going great; the team have worked exceptionally hard to get the course up and running. We’re one of the few providers in London offering an SQE preparatory course and have pulled out of the LPC, which was the right way to go,” he tells us.

One of the unique selling points of the SPP lies in its focus on the student and their learning experience. “I don’t think you can just say — ‘we’re going to prep you for an exam’. You’ve got to prepare the student for a lot more and particularly for entering the working world,” says Catchpole who will be speaking at LegalEdCon 2024 later this month. At The City Law School, this manifests itself through three core features. Firstly, small group teaching is the cornerstone of the SPP. Priding itself on being acquainted and available to each and every student, the small group teaching method allows its course leaders to be proactive in supporting students throughout their time at the law school, Catchpole explains.

James Catchpole will be speaking at LegalEdCon 2024 on 16 May

“This means that our experienced tutors really get to know the students, which does make a difference. In this sense, course leaders can spot the students who need extra support much earlier and assist them exactly when it is needed. It makes for a much more supportive and collaborative learning environment,” Catchpole tells us.

Supporting this collaborative learning environment is The City Law School’s cutting-edge campus situated in the heart of London. The City Law School’s fresh hub at Northampton Square is all exposed brick and glass panelling, flooding the communal study spaces with light. Complete with all the mod cons, the new space boasts a 160-seat lecture theatre, a purpose build court room together with a witness’ room, a dedicated library, modern study spaces, a restaurant and central atrium with a glazed roof. Showing Legal Cheek Careers around the modern venue, Catchpole notes the importance of physical study spaces and the return of face-to-face teaching following the pandemic.

“Pastoral care is one of the things we’re very strong on too,” Catchpole emphasises. “We provide the ‘full university package’, meaning that our courses are designed with our students in mind, and our offering is that we genuinely care about our students.” Catchpole is quick to emphasise the importance of pastoral care when it comes to tackling SQE preparation, citing the latest “very, very unfortunate marking debacle”.

“There is a lot in the press about the mental stress and mental health impacts of these exams. As a provider, we’re focused on preparing our students for that and the realities of practice,” he says.

Catchpole is quick to emphasise just how important well-rounded support is for students at this time, against the backdrop of marking errors and consistent press coverage of the rocky SQE roll-out, which has made it even trickier for law students to navigate SQE studies.

During the first term, the focus is on SQE1, followed by SQE2 in the second term for students enrolled in the SPP. Additionally, students receive an extra module in their second term aimed at preparing them for legal practice. “This module looks at equipping our aspiring solicitors for practice,” Catchpole tells us. “So, students will have all the SQE2 skills practice in this term, such as writing, advocacy and oral skills, but also a dedicated module on practice preparation. This includes everything from soft skills to legal technology and AI, business law, practice management, commercial awareness, and negotiation.”

In a changing world and a changing legal market, Catchpole says, “We want to make sure our students succeed.” The support that The City Law School provides their students is of fundamental importance, he continues, because of the prevalence of first-generation university students at the law school who are often seeking additional support not offered elsewhere. “The Solicitors’ Practice Programme is not just a SQE preparatory course,” he says. “Considering our hands on approach and the genuine interest our staff take in our students; it’s much more than that, it is has everything they need to succeed.”

Find out more about studying for the SQE at The City Law School

James Catchpole will be speaking at LegalEdCon 2024, Legal Cheek’s annual future of legal education and training conference, which takes place in-person on Thursday 16 May at Kings Place, London. Final release tickets for the Conference can be purchased here.

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