November 25, 2011 4:28 pm

Executive education: Partners in law

Long gone are the days when law schools were places of pure academic learning. There is an increasing realisation that a full legal education means preparing those students who have signalled an interest in commercial law for what life is like in billion-dollar firms.

“We take young people through the qualification process, turning them from being students in the academic context to people who can function at the level of a corporate law firm,” says Professor Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, whose 8,000 students study at campuses in London, Bristol and Manchester, among other locations.

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The College of Law, like other law schools including BPP and Kaplan, has for several years partnered firms that promise to sponsor students through their year-long Legal Practice Course (LPC), which can cost over £12,000 ($19,000) and which is necessary to become a solicitor in the UK. In return, the school teaches the prospective trainees a customised LPC that includes modules tailored to the firms’ practices, such as their methods of drafting merger documents.

This tailored course is in addition to the training contract at firms that young lawyers undertake once they finish their studies, and that has traditionally been viewed as the vocational part of a solicitor’s qualifications.

In the case of the College of Law, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters – all members of London’s “magic circle” of elite international firms – have chosen to put their future trainees through the bespoke course. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, also a member of the magic circle, and Slaughter and May, the UK’s most profitable firm, partner with BPP.

Across the Atlantic, US firms are beginning to partner with law schools, too. Harvard Law School has developed an eight-day course with Milbank, the Manhattan-headquartered firm, whereby all associates at the firm are sent to Harvard to learn about leadership and management, as well as primers in business and finance law. The process is two-way: Harvard Law School hopes to learn from Milbank associates what was missing in their legal education in an effort to tweak its own curriculum.

Milbank cites statistics from the After the JD Project – a Harvard Law School study of the career outcomes of new lawyers – which found that 74 per cent of graduates in firms with more than 250 staff said they wished they had received more business training in law school.

That elusive business training is drawing more senior lawyers to Harvard, which offers a week-long leadership course for new partners or those being tipped for management. “I honestly found it the single best piece of training I’ve ever done,” says Stephen Lloyd, who attended the $12,000 course after being promoted to head the corporate team at Ashurst. “It teaches you what motivates people, and how to manage difficult people and difficult situations.”

In the UK, the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School offers leadership and strategy courses, which have proved popular with firms.

One such firm is DAC Beachcroft, created this month from the merger of Beachcroft and Davies Arnold Cooper. Partners from both legacy firms attended a meeting at Saïd to work out how to make their union a happy one, says Simon Hodson, the combined firm’s senior partner. “It has helped create a platform for the way we will speak about the new firm going forward as well as assisting in understanding our shared values.”

Beachcroft had previously used Saïd to impart more commercial nous to its lawyers, teaching them about strategic thinking that they could then take to their clients, Mr Hodson says. This collaboration turned into an official client relationship programme, tailor-made for the firm.

Firms partnering with schools of either business or law is a trend that is set to continue, according to Hugh Verrier, chairman of White & Case, another US-headquartered firm. “It will ultimately create a change in the way law is taught at university,” he says.

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His firm has devised a ­programme with Jindal Global Law School, a private law school in India. Students at the school are offered internships at White & Case, and partners from the firm may go out in the future to teach certain modules, Mr Verrier says.

“By virtue of it being private it has a different curriculum; it helps lawyers fit into a global firm,” he says, adding that the programme is very much an acknowledgement by White & Case of the importance of India to the global economy.

India is missing one part of the jigsaw in terms of law firms’ international presence. Foreign law firms are not allowed to open there and so firms’ work on lucrative Indian deals must be done remotely. Hiring Indian graduates – who are English-speaking and familiar with a common-law system similar to that in the UK – is one strategy that firms are undertaking to be able to appeal to Indian clients and also in preparation should the Indian market liberalise.

It is this army of new lawyers in India and beyond, that may yet shape legal education in the west. For Prof Savage at the College of Law, it is imperative that UK law schools compete at the same level as American ones in order to safeguard the UK’s importance as one of the world’s pre-eminent legal centres.

“Young lawyers today who may be qualified in their domestic jurisdiction aspire to become ‘global lawyers’ and they know that in order to do that it helps to qualify as English or US lawyers,” Prof Savage says. “They will shop around for the best jobs and for the more accessible of the two global qualifications.”

For now, he argues that the US system wins because of its accessibility, and unlike the UK, there is no requirement of a training contract in order to become an attorney. Scrapping a training contract and making law school more vocational may seem revolutionary, but an overhaul of the way law is taught may be necessary in order to appeal to the new world order.

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