Before starting your glorious career as a solicitor, you'll need to jump through the unavoidable hoop that is the LPC. Just don't let all of those flexible and alluring study options distract from the underlying truth that the LPC is intense, costly and not a guaranteed pass to a training contract.
The nuts and bolts of the LPC
It’s important to remember that the LPC is not an academic course – it’s vocational. Treat it like the first year of your professional life. The LPC requires good time management, organisation and preparation, and even though some providers have open-book exams, it's far from advisable to be sitting at your desk with an exam paper in front of you searching furiously through the textbooks at your side. Keep on top of things as the course progresses, and perhaps even think about sharing the revision workload with classmates.
It's not as stimulating as an undergraduate degree, but then again, it's not supposed to be; it’s meant to get you ready to start a training contract. With classes on semicolons and split infinitives, it can feel like you’re back at school, but you’ll pick up plenty of tricks and tips along the way, including:
- How to conduct an interview (usually a strong handshake accompanied by the offer of a beverage);
How to minimise tax exposure – it’s about avoidance, not evasion;
- When litigation documents must be served on the other side – you'll curse the day ank holidays were invented;
- Why it's never a good idea to dabble with clients' money; and
- How to make sure your client isn't a money-launderer.
Virtually all the law schools that run the LPC have a raft of interesting extracurricular opportunities on offer. For example, pro bono work is easy enough to come by and can range from getting involved in the school's legal clinic to undertaking projects with external organisations.
The numbers game
So, good news: the number of training contracts available has been on the up in recent years. In 2014/15 the number of traineeships registered grew by 9% and it jumped again in 2015/16 by 5% to 5,728. That's the highest number since the financial crisis, so we can all breath a sigh of relief that entry to the profession is not being squeezed as much as in the post-recession years. However, you have to remember that the LPC is literally valid for ever, so once you complete it you’ll also be competing for traineeships with law school grads from at least the last five years. And that means literally thousands of people. For example, 6,148 individuals successfully passed the LPC in 2009/10, but firms offered up just 4,874 juicy trainee roles that year.
So here is the cold truth: the number of available training contracts isn't huge and there are far too many aspiring lawyers for everyone to get one. As the SRA points out: "The number of employers able to offer [training] may be dictated by economic factors, and can be significantly lower than the number of LPC graduates.'' The good news – if you can call it that – is that the number of LPC enrolments isn't exactly astronomical anymore. Law schools are very proactive when it comes to delivering careers advice to their LPC students, but it is really up to you as an individual to take a long, hard objective look at your prospects of securing a training contract after the course.
It's a competitive market, and some providers are doing better than others. In the last few years, Oxford Brookes, Aberystwyth, the University of Hertfordshire and Plymouth have all shuttered their LPCs, citing a decline in the number of applications. On the other hand, the likes of BPP and the University of Law continue to post strong application rates, and have opened new centres up and down the country in recent times, and both now boast full university status. More schools outside the major city centres are to be welcomed, as they allow students the less-expensive option of studying from home and they generally cost less than their city counterparts.
However, having BPP or ULaw open up in your city can be detrimental, as Anglia Ruskin found out when BPP set up camp in Cambridge: the former was forced to scrap its part-time course due to lack of student interest. Will we see much more expansion from the two legal education powerhouses? A source at ULaw told us in 2012 that "we now have a centre in every region, so I'm comfortable in saying that we wouldn't want to expand any further." On the other hand, both BPP and ULaw are keeping their ears to the ground in relation to international expansion. ULaw has already tapped into the Singapore market and only looks set to further its international ambitions after becoming part of Global University Systems in 2015; while BPP is also looking at potential overseas opportunities through its role within the US education company, Apollo.
Money on my mind
Wherever you choose to do it, the LPC is an expensive affair. Unless you’ve been hooked up by a generous commercial law firm that’s sponsoring you, it’s time to dig deep. While some providers have frozen their fees, most have inevitably risen and will continue to do so year by year; around £10,000 is par for the course at most providers but at the top end you could be shelling out over £15,000. And that's before you factor in living expenses. For a comprehensive comparison of course fees look at the LPC providers table. For advice on how to fund your trip to law school, see our feature on How to fund law school.
Law schools are a business. While some, like Nottingham Trent, take an "ethical approach" by asking for a 2:1 in most cases, others sell the LPC to prospective solicitors for around £10k and welcome in as many people as they can without compromising on quality. A 2:2 degree will pretty much guarantee you a place on a course, but finding a firm that will want to train you afterwards is an entirely different proposition. When faced with a 2:2 candidate, firms usually expect a pretty good reason for the grade (ie valid extenuating circumstances), some outstanding features on your CV or, if you're a more 'mature' candidate, a strong first career under your belt.
Hasta la vista, LPC
Though the LPC has long been a crucial step on the epic journey to becoming a solicitor, it hasn’t been immune from criticism, particularly due to the variation between institutions that offer it. With that in mind, in 2015 the SRA proposed plans to gradually ease in a replacement for the LPC, in the form of a one-size-fits-all, centrally managed Solicitors Qualification Examination (SQE). This all important exam, which in theory would be open to all, could serve to bring an end to the long-standing importance of the LPC. If this huge change were to take place, it’s important to note that it won’t be for a while yet; after a public consultation on the introduction of the SQE, negative feedback prompted the SRA to delay any ruling on it to 2017. In any case, the new examination would not be made available until at least 2018, and phasing out the LPC would be even longer-term, with the current system proposed as remaining viable until at least 2025. For the meantime, the LPC remains the entry point for any would-be solicitor.
Make the right choice
When and how
Timetables can vary wildly between providers, and while some have taken advantage of the fact they're allowed to condense teaching into three or even two days, either mornings or afternoons, others still require attendance four days a week alongside a sizeable chunk of self-study. Term dates and even the length of the whole course can vary substantially. Students can opt to spend anywhere between seven months and five years studying for the qualification. Think realistically about what timetable structure will fit most easily into your life. Also think about whether or not you will need a job during the course because, while all providers are reluctant to acknowledge that students will be able to fit in a part-time job, they are increasingly aware that this may be unavoidable, so the majority offer the choice of studying part-time.
The vast majority of providers examine their students using open-book exams and written assessments. A notable minority have stuck with the closed-book approach. Although it's easy to feel drawn to the open-book approach, the timeframes are such that you have very little time to trawl through books in the exams.
For every provider at which students must search plaintively for a quiet study corner, there is another where they can spread out in blessed peace in their own office. Take the LPC at one university and you’ll belong to a proper law faculty surrounded by chilled-out undergrads and deep-thinking postgrads; elsewhere, leather sofas and acres of plate glass might make you think you’ve strayed into the offices of a City firm. IT is massively important on the LPC, so consider whether the institution offers endless vistas of the latest flat screens or a few dusty computers in a basement.
A large institution may appeal to students keen to chug anonymously through the system. Conversely, the intimacy of fewer students and easily accessible tutors may tip the scales in favour of a smaller provider. Some places are known to attract corporate types destined to be City high-flyers; others cultivate the talents of those headed for regional practice. Still, others purport to attract a broad a mix of students, so the commercially minded can mingle with future high-street practitioners.
Money and location
Fees vary and so do the providers’ policies on the inclusion of the cost of textbooks and Law Society membership, etc. Even if you have sponsorship, living expenses still need to be taken into account. The cost of living in London can be an especially nasty shock – according to the National Union of Students, the average yearly living costs for students in the capital is a whopping £13,388. Plenty of students find that tight finances restrict their choice of provider. Although it might seem reprehensible to some, living with the parents will obviously save you a packet. If you're desperate to strike out on your own (or you haven’t lived with The Olds for some time), then it’s worth considering what you like or don’t like about your university or GDL provider and whether you want to prolong your undergraduate experience or escape it. When weighing up providers in large cities, find out whether the campus is in the city centre or out on a ring road.
A current trend among providers is the offer of a top-up LLM, with students using their LPC credits to count towards a Master's of Law. Students at ULaw can top up their LPC with an LLM in Legal Practice or an MSc in Law, Governance, Risk and Compliance. We should add that we're not aware of law firms placing any particular extra value on such qualifications per se, though the extra writing and research skills you gain may be valuable and some firms have made their firm-specific LPC and Master's-level programme. A handful of providers also have degree-awarding powers, which means you can turn your GDL and LPC into an LLB.
Social mix and social life
Hip, student-infested cities such as Nottingham and Bristol are always a lot of fun, but the bright lights of the capital may be irresistible. Experience tells us that compared to those in other cities, many students in London tend to slink off the moment classes end rather than socialise into the evening.
The Central Applications Board administers all applications for full-time LPCs. The application timetable has been overhauled in response to the fact that several course providers have introduced January and February start dates. LPC admissions will now be processed on a rolling basis with the application form available from early October. Beginning early November applications are sent to law schools week by week and the course providers may make offers to students immediately.
Obviously the later the application the less secure a place, but it should be remembered that almost every school will have more validated places than enrolled students on both its full-time and part-time courses. Some of the most popular institutions must be placed first on the LawCabs application form – see our LPC providers table – but students can apply for up to three. Check also whether your university, GDL provider or future law firm has any agreement or relationship with a provider. Applications for part-time courses should be made directly to the individual provider.