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Tailored to suit

21 January 13

Flexible learning is now available at every level of legal education and training, as this overview indicates

by Peter Nicholson

Flexible learning has become very much a buzz-term in recent times, and the concept is now well accepted within the legal education and training sector. Driven both by advances in technology that make remote access to teaching and instruction as simple and effective in many instances as real face-to-face contact, and by the myriad permutations of modern lifestyles that make people increasingly look for something tailored to their own needs, new initiatives are regularly appearing at every level of legal qualifications.

LLB students, for example, can now source part time degree courses for basic or graduate entry, or an online distance learning degree course, as well as taking the standard or accelerated degree courses. The Diploma in Professional Legal Practice is available as a part time option at at least four universities (Strathclyde, Edinburgh, Dundee and Robert Gordon), and given the Scottish Government’s refusal to lift the £3,400 cap on student loans relating to the course, many see this as a way for students to take the course while also supporting themselves through some kind of paid work.

To give an illustration, the Edinburgh Centre for Professional Legal Studies (ECPLS) at the University of Edinburgh offers a full time and a part time Diploma in Professional Legal Practice. The part time course is taken over two years, with classes in the evening and by podcast. Students can pay their fees over two years also. Students can therefore fit their studies around work commitments and their personal life.

Second-year Diploma student Andrew Jackson, soon to start a traineeship with an Edinburgh law firm, decided to switch to a career in the law after having tackled a number of legal issues at work (mainly to do with charity law) and having “very, very unexpectedly discovered that I found the law both decipherable and fascinating”. Unable to afford to go back to full time education, he found that ECPLS provided the choice to do the Diploma part time while he remained in full time work. “I have found the Edinburgh Diploma to be very well taught but also very demanding,” he comments.

Into the office

Different ways of planning the in-office traineeship are also being promoted, in order, it is hoped, to increase the number of training places available as firms face pressures on budgets. Since last year the Law Society of Scotland has been actively encouraging legal practices, and organisations with in-house teams, to think in terms of flexible traineeships. As described at Journal, August 2012, 36, these may consist of:

  • shared traineeships – when a trainee works at more than one firm or organisation over the course of the traineeship;
  • part-time traineeships – when a trainee works on a part-time basis, the length of the traineeship reflecting the part-time hours;
  • secondments or extended secondments – a trainee may have the opportunity to go on secondment more than once during the training period.

While potential training organisations are encouraged to reach their own agreements if they are interested in the first of these options, for example if they would like to take on a trainee but think they would have difficulty in providing the range or quality of work by themselves, the Society will keep a note of interested organisations. If enough are received, it would be possible to help pair them up in order to provide full trainee contracts. Flexible arrangements have to be approved by the Society to ensure that training requirements are met, but as the article on p 32 of this issue on in-house work experience indicates, having a trainee on board can benefit the organisation as well as the trainee.

Paralegals and others

Firms employing paralegals may be aware that paralegals too have a good choice of courses for adding to their qualifications, including the Registered Paralegal certificate now available via the Society. The Scottish Paralegal Association website has a page (www.scottish-paralegal.org.uk/training-cpd/qualify-as-a-paralegal.aspx) of links covering various training options, many of them available by part time and/or distance learning.

Incidentally, businesses with no more than 100 employees should be aware of the ability to apply for assistance in meeting training costs, through Skills Development Scotland. Under the Flexible Training Opportunities scheme, grant funding is available for up to 10 employees per business, to refund up to 50% of each episode of employee training up to a maximum of a £500 refund per episode.

Eligible types and levels of training include qualifications or individual units of qualifications, masterclasses, industry recognised qualifications, supervisory and management training, and workshops. For more information see www.skillsdevelopmentscotland.co.uk/flexible-training.aspx

Individuals earning not more than £22,000 a year (and who do not have a degree or above) can also apply for an Individual Learning Account, which provides up to £200 towards the costs of learning or training. See link from the web page above or call the helpline on 0808 100 1090.

CPD opens up

For practitioners, the flexible learning options are, if anything, more numerous. Meeting the revised CPD requirement, for example, has been made easier by the relaxing of the rules relating to online training, which is now recognised as a valid component of the 20 hours required as an annual minimum, provided it can be verified, for example via a certificate or email confirming that the programme has been completed (see Journal, May 2011, 16). The proliferation of courses offered in this way by the Society’s Update department – see p 2 of this issue for the current list, now numbering 20 different topics with more in the pipeline – is an indication of the growing popularity of this method of learning.

The same Journal article emphasised the flexibility also of the type of event that might count towards a solicitor’s CPD, provided a case can be made that it fits within the annual plan that each individual should now be using to help them identify their development needs. Attending a lecture, coaching within your own firm, instruction on a new computer program for the office, or preparation of tutorial materials are all examples of actions that solicitors may claim have benefited them in terms of business or professional development.

Postgraduate study

At a more advanced level, postgraduate courses such as the LLM have for many years now been available through part time study, often with the degree being taken over a period that can be adapted to suit the individual. Here again distance learning in selected courses is now available at a number of institutions.

Edinburgh Law School’s online provision, for example, comprises six LLM programmes, in fields including IP law, IT law and medical law – and now also international commercial law. These Masters programmes can be studied over a period of up to three years.

The Law School also offers short courses by online distance learning, enabling professionals to develop their legal knowledge and meet CPD requirements. Some courses are credit-bearing, giving students a flexible route onto the online degree programmes – either the university’s new PG Certificate programme, or one of its LLMs.

Third-year distance learning student (LLM Medical Law & Ethics), Terry Simpson says: “The flexibility built into the course is extremely important in overcoming the challenge of working in clinics during the day and studying in limited spare time.... I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience gained from the course and only wonder why I didn’t do it before.”

With available LLM courses in Scotland ranging from advanced academic study to the practical application of legal rules and developing professional expertise, the opportunities are there to add to one’s skills in an increasingly competitive environment.

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Jim Smith

Sunday February 3, 2013, 00:15

The Diploma, whether full time or part time, is the biggest waste of time and money. Simply a cash bonanza for the universities and everyone knows it. What is taught could be taught during the traineeship or at a push in a summer intensive course before traineeships begin. 6k down the hole - and I have a traineeship. Imagine not having one and having to shell out - wait, that's the position of 3 in 4 of Diploma students.