Law: And on Sundays I'm a lawyer

Changing career is no longer a tricky step. But who would give up their evenings and weekends to re-train as a solicitor? By Grania Langdon- Down
Legal education is going the way of shopping - late nights and open on Sundays - to attract those "customers" wanting to work and study, particularly those planning a career change. But with the media full of damning headlines about the profession, what motivates someone to become a solicitor?

Who wants to be accused of being out of touch, hypocritical and worst of all, a BMW driver (Home Secretary Jack Straw on Civil Liberties' lawyers), or of getting fat on Legal Aid fees and "squealing" when the reforms start to bite (Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine), or of being incapable of dealing with complaints (the Legal Services Ombudsman)?

Marcus Weaver, a 34-year-old optician, has just started his Legal Practice Course (LPC) through a new two-year block learning course, which involves an intensive weekend of workshops once a month, backed by home study packs, being run at the York and Chester branches of the College of Law. He says such criticisms are not exclusive to solicitors.

"The public seems to think that if you are paying for a product, you get value for money, but if you are paying for a service it is somehow different - some people seem to think it should be for free."

He has no doubts that law is the career for him, after going as far as he could as a dispensing optician in Hessle, near Hull in East Yorkshire. "If I could go back in time, law would have been my career choice from the start. But school was a bit of a disaster for me - all I wanted to do was leave and earn some money, which I did with just four O-levels. I spent about seven years as a commercial artist before realising how limited my opportunities were."

He scoured career options for someone without A-levels and decided on optometry, taking maths and human biology GCSEs to meet the entry qualifications. In 1993, two years after qualifying, Weaver took advantage of Hull University's offer of open access to take a part-time law degree. However, the difficulty of combining work, study and family meant he had abandoned the idea of completing his legal qualification until he heard about the block learning option.

Changing career is not cheap - Weaver funded himself through university and is having to find pounds 6,200 for the course. "My family has had to make sacrifices for me to do this and I just hope it pays off."

For police superintendent Fraser Sampson, critical comments are an occupational hazard. "Most people only come into contact with the police or lawyers in adverse circumstances and so question whether they are a necessary evil. Others are eternally grateful for the legal help they get."

Sampson, 37, the head of National Police Training examination and assessment in Harrogate, has managed to fit in some legal swotting throughout his police career - studying for his law degree in quiet moments, even if that was in the back of a transit van at a football ground.

With his law degree under his belt, Sampson was seconded to the Home Office as a legal researcher, before returning to main-stream policing with Transport Police in Leeds and then onto Harrogate. However, he kept on studying, doing a Masters degree in employment law and an MBA. But he had to put his ambition to complete his LPC on hold for nine years because he could not find a course that would fit his work schedule - until he discovered the block learning scheme.

However, he has yet to decide whether his future lies in the police or with a law firm.

Lindsey Woods, 37, works from home as a freelance conference organiser. Her main client is the Employment Lawyers' Association, and it was through organising their conferences that she realised she wanted to be on their side of the fence.

She is unmoved by the flack thrown at solicitors. "When people hear what I am doing, their first comment is often: `they're well paid'. But it's no king's ransom in high street firms. Anyway, my primary motive is not a big, fat salary, but interest in the subject. The lawyers I work with are fired up by their work."

She found combining work and young children with studying part-time required a big sacrifice from the whole family. "With the block learning model, you have an intensive weekend once a month and then fit in the work when it suits you."

She plans to apply for a training contract. "But I'm not in a tearing rush because I have my own business. It is a huge step to go back to the bottom rung, so I want to make sure it is the right place. It is also a big investment. I will have paid out about pounds 8,000 by the end. But we have two incomes and, frankly, people spend that amount on a car or a new kitchen and this will have been far more valuable."

Carol Wilcock, the director of the York branch of the College of Law, said the block learning course was an exciting development for the college. "The days when you do a course between nine and five every weekday are gone." The 42 places on the York course and the 58 on the Chester course were filled without any marketing. Students travel from far afield. Some are already in legally related jobs, others hope to change career. The block learning method means no disruption to careers, families or mortgages.

"More students are getting into debt in their undergraduate days and need to work as they move through postgraduate studies. It will be interesting to see if there will be more regionalisation in training - our students on non-funded postgraduate courses are going to be more tied to places where they can live at home," said Wilcock.

She also wondered what education would be like in 10 years. "The chances are people will make use of information resources from home, only coming in [to college] for quality time with tutors. So the block learning course could be an embryonic form for the future."

For information on the block learning course, call the freephone number: 0800-328 0153