New Thinking on Articling From the UK

If I had any doubt that the UK was the absolute undisputed centre of legal innovation, the past 5 days I’ve spent in London have certainly laid that to rest.

Earlier this week I came across Nigel Spencer, Director of Learning and Development – EME for Reed Smith. Nigel is constantly re-thinking the trainee model (for Canadians read: articling model) and other professional development opportunities for the firm. Fortunately, he has the freedom and support of firm management to do some truly exciting things. Thanks to Maeve Jackson for the introduction!

In particular, he has a strong desire to ensure that trainees develop more than just technical legal expertise, which, while important, will only take them so far in any firm – even more importantly, this broader business knowledge is what clients are increasingly demanding from their lawyers, so it is delivering on what firm clients need. Currently in the UK, after graduation from law school, students take the one-year Legal Practice Course (LPC) – which is somewhat similar to the old bar admissions course that was run in Ontario – they then embark on a two-year traineeship at a law firm. Upon completion of training they qualify as a solicitor. Under Nigel’s direction Reed Smith worked with BPP Law & Business Schools to create a new program for trainees that incorporates the LPC with business courses from the MBA curriculum, and a client placement to apply their business learning to a client’s real-life business problem. As a result, trainees acquire an MA LPC with Business degree then begin their training. This concept springs from Nigel’s work at Simmons & Simmons (S&S) in late 2008.

Nigel was Director of Learning and Development at S&S at the time of the credit crisis and was faced with loads of trainees that had been hired two years before – but little work for them to do. While many UK firms were paying their trainees to leave or deferring the start of their training period, Nigel suggested another approach. Why not put the trainees through a full-time MBA in Legal Services program specifically developed for S&S by BPP Law/Business Schools – a program which also included a business placement component at S&S clients. The result was trainees received an MBA at no cost, along with a living stipend, together with valuable business learning and experience. S&S were able to defer the training of these students for another year, but strategically up-skill them with business knowledge while also solidifying connections with clients by offering students on placement. Clients received MBA interns with a good basis of business and legal knowledge to work on designated business projects. A classic win/win/win. More importantly from the firm’s perspective, these trainees developed business contacts with clients at an early stage of their career as well as developing some good business sense that would only help them provide better legal advice. Interestingly, in 2014, S&S will be moving toward a “slimmer” business learning model(similar to the Reed Smith approach) for the pre-trainee period but with the ability for students to get the full MBA over the 5 years immediately after completion of the MA.

Now Reed Smith is the beneficiary of Nigel’s forward-thinking mind and its trainees and lawyers will be all the better for it.

Is there room for such thinking in law firms in Canada? Can firms take a different approach to training? Or are we doomed to the perennial “same old, same old” when it comes to students and PD in Canada?


PostScript: Lawyer2B came out with an interesting piece about the need for business experience in lawyers a few days after this blog was written. You can read it here.



  1. Karen Dunn Skinner

    I just got back to the office after a very interesting breakfast with the Dean of Law at McGill. He and I discussed the UK and it’s new “apprenticeship” program. We also talked about the role of universities in preparing students to be lawyers, whether law schools or the bar should provide new lawyers with the practical skills they need to actually run a practice, and whether, even as new forms of legal education evolve, there will remain a place for academic/elite universities offering a more academic “education” rather than “training” (my distinction). McGill already offers a combined LLB/MBA, but to my knowledge, the firms aren’t involved in any way. I’m going to send him a link to your article.

  2. Karen,

    Check out the postscript I just added.