Now everyone can become a lawyer

Professionals keen to tack a legal qualification on to their CVs have given distance learning a kick start
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The Independent Online

We are becoming an increasingly litigious society. Where once we looked to the traditions of our constitution or the might of our trade unions to resolve our disputes, these days we turn to the law. Increasingly every aspect of daily life is becoming enshrined in law.

We are becoming an increasingly litigious society. Where once we looked to the traditions of our constitution or the might of our trade unions to resolve our disputes, these days we turn to the law. Increasingly every aspect of daily life is becoming enshrined in law.

As trade union power has declined, the number of applications to employment tribunals has gone up. In the last decade they have increased from 40,000 to 120,000 a year. Similarly, health service costs are spiralling due to the vast increase in compensation claims and payouts. If in doubt we turn to a lawyer and, therefore, knowledge of the law is becoming a boon to a wide range of professionals.

Law training and law courses are changing as a result. In particular the growth in distance learning LLB Bachelor of Law degrees as well as LLM Master of Law courses, is due to the fact that increasing numbers of professionals wish to add a law string to their bow.

Nottingham Law School, part of Nottingham Trent University, along with many other law schools, offers a full-time LLB degree, but in recent years it has also introduced a four-year sandwich as well as a distance-learning degree.

These developments have been driven by the fact that although 12-13,000 students graduate in law every year, there are only 4,500-5,000 training contracts. Students undertaking the sandwich course spend their first two years in the law school, but the third year is spent gaining experience in a solicitor's practice before returning for their final year in college. The year out, according to Philip Huxley, course leader for Nottingham Law School's distance learning LLB, gives graduates a competitive edge. He said: "These students tend to come out with good degrees and are popular with employers."

Colin Bourn, director of the International Centre for Management, Law and Industrial Relations at Leicester University said both undergraduate courses, as well as the Law Society and the Bar's professional qualifying courses, were becoming more practically oriented as well as seeking to put law in the context of society as a whole. He said: "Qualifying courses tend to include things like the drafting of documents, case preparation and cross-examination to a greater extent. There was very little of that when I was studying."

However, Mr Huxley also believes that distance learning law courses are the way forward. As many as 1,200 students are following a distance learning LLB from London University's external relations department in any one year and over 400 are registered at the Nottingham Law School. Nottingham is working hard to develop a course that will give maximum support to students by way of residential weekends and tailor-made materials.

The course, which has been running since 1990, now attracts students whose median age is 34. Mr Huxley said: "These are often people looking for a career change, or another string to their bow. We have surgeons, nurses, police and prison officers, social workers, accountants, looking to widen their expertise."

Leicester University on the other hand is concentrating on developing postgraduate distance learning degrees, two-year Master of Law LLM courses in such subjects as Law and Employment Relations and Social Welfare Law. These are meeting the increasing need for lawyers to specialise in a particular area. Mr Bourn said: "If you take my own specialism in employment law - this has been in a ferment of change in the last 20 years, more recently with the introduction of such things as the minimum wage, working time directive and employee rights in takeovers. Many lawyers tend to go on one day courses to get hold of bits of all this, but people have had to run hard just to keep up. The aim of these LLMs is to join all the bits up to give a secure foundation."

Mr Bourn said it was becoming increasingly difficult for the small generalist solicitor's practice to keep up. He said: "The scope for the generalist to operate is diminishing with the emergence of all these specialisms. Also, changes to legal aid have put greater pressure on small firms. To obtain a franchise from the Legal Aid Board they have to meet exacting efficiency criteria, so the pressure is on to gain further specialising qualifications." Such qualifications demand firm commitment and a huge investment in time and money (around £6,000 in total fees), though employers contribute in two thirds of cases.

However, there are graduates going into other professions who wish to give themselves skills in law from the outset. The London School of Economics, for example, with its international student body, is particularly proud of its interdisciplinary Masters programme, which has developed over the last five years. The departments of Law, Government, Economics and Geography have combined to produce Masters in subjects such as Regulation, Law and Accounting and Labour Law.

Hugh Collins, the LSE's professor of English law, said that legal knowledge was becoming increasingly advantageous to other professionals. Labour law, a joint Masters degree which looks at law and industrial relations, came out of the recognition that a professional working in either law or business would benefit by building up knowledge of both. He said: "Managing in business these days involves a lot of personnel relations and that is a busy area of the law, knowledge of which can only be to the good."