Law: From a distance, it reads well

Become a lawyer without leaving the house.

WHAT DO the chief executive of the General Medical Council, an air stewardess who flew on Concorde's first flight to New York, a North London hospital staff nurse and an electrical fitter on London Underground all have in common?

They are all distance learning students and members of the largest legal education undergraduate class in the world. The first introductory Open University/College of Law course, which started in February, ends this month.

There are more than 800 students on the course worldwide, including a chief officer on a ship off the Ascension Islands and a surgeon on HMS Belize. Dr Gary Slapper, director of the OU's Law Programme, predicts that at least one of the course's students will be the first OU legal graduate to become a judge.

The Law Programme consists of four courses covering the seven legal subjects required by the Law Society for solicitors and the General Council of the Bar for barristers. The first course, Understanding Law, will start again in February 1999, as will the second, on Law, the Individual and the State. It is envisaged that all four courses will be running by 2001.

But taking the course does not necessarily lead to becoming a lawyer. Finlay Scott, the 51-year-old chief executive of the General Medical Council, says: "I have no intention of becoming a practising lawyer, but the GMC - which exists to protect patients - works in a statutory context and I deal frequently with lawyers. The OU course is helping me to understand better how lawyers approach the wide range of issues that we handle, and the increasing importance of European law."

For Susan Green, an air stewardess, the aim is to gain a law degree and then work for the United Nations, helping the disadvantaged. Her interest was sparked by meeting a senior US attorney on a Concorde flight where she was one of the cabin crew. When she told him of her interest in becoming a lawyer, his advice was: "Do it. You mustn't grow old regretting that something was never done."

Six months later, on another flight, she told him that she had taken his advice, and transferred from the Concorde Euro-Fleet to long-haul world-wide 747s so that she could find more time for her studies. The 48-hour stopovers give her a chance to study.

Winston Falconer, an electrical engineer, was once told by a careers adviser that he was not bright enough to become a lawyer. He now finds that this course fits in with his night shifts on the London Underground.

And Angy Ezeigwe, a midwife at North Middlesex Hospital, says her interest in law began as a child in Nigeria, when she was taken to see her father, a Nigerian states lawyer, appearing in court.

"The new degree has opened the opportunity to study law at university," says Dr Slapper. "The level of interest in students is generally high, and it looks as if most students will continue on to the next part of the course."

Jane Chapman is director of undergraduate law courses at the College of Law

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