Late starters

Training to be a lawyer is not an option limited to fresh-faced youths straight from school. Grania Langdon-Down talks to five lawyers who, after years pursuing other careers, made the legal leap
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The Independent Online
A career as a solicitor or barrister requires careful thought, a great deal of commitment and a strong financial nerve to survive the high cost of training. Though the majority of new entrants into the profession come straight from school and university, a growing number are taking the plunge as mature students.

Next week, future generations of lawyers can find out more about a career within the legal profession at the Graduate Law Fair, launched by The Lawyer newspaper and sponsored by The Independent.

Here, three barristers and two solicitors who have made the leap from a variety of other professions explain how they came to the law.

Dr Janet Jenkins, 34, qualified in medicine in 1985, with the intention of practising forensic pathology. By 1992 she was a senior registrar at St Thomas's Hospital in London.

But she had become increasingly disillusioned with medicine, so in September 1992 she took her Common Professional Examination, followed by the Bar vocational Course in 1993/94. She put off her pupillage at Kieran Coonan QC's chambers at 6 Pump Court until February 1995, to have her first son, James, and has now been a tenant there for about eight months.

The set specialises in medical law. Dr Jenkins says: "I have been very well checked, so I have done a lot of personal injury and medical negligence cases for someone of my level.

"The Bar has certainly lived up to my expectations. I miss the gallows humour and teamwork of medicine, but not the internal politics. It was also hard going from a relatively good salary to nothing while I qualified, but I do feel I have made the right choice."

Ken Millett, 49, a former detective sergeant with the flying squad, spent 16 years in the Metropolitan Police before leaving in 1984. He had completed a law degree while in the force and initially taught law during the day at an A-level crammer, while acting and singing in the evenings.

Three years on, he decided to come to the Bar, and took his Bar Vocational Course in 1987/88. He did his pupillage at 1 Hare Court, where he was given a tenancy in October 1989.

"It was the best thing I ever did," he says. "I had come to hate the job in the police, the pettiness of the rules and everything involved with it.

"I now specialise in defending in criminal cases and, sometimes, in suing the police in civil actions. I do a lot of cases which involve unravelling the intricacies of police procedure. I think the police feel I am on the other side of the fence now, but I am just doing a job."

Wayne Beard, 35, who recently set up a chambers in Swansea with three other barristers, started his working life in the same city 17 years ago as a bus conductor.

After a couple of years he became a bus driver, and a shop steward with the Transport and General Workers' Union. At 25, he went to Ruskin College, Oxford, to take a two-year diploma in labour studies.

"I was mainly interested in economics, but I also took a labour law unit and passed with distinction so it seemed the path of least resistance to go for a law degree," he remembers.

He completed his degree at Balliol and went straight on to the Inns Of Court School Of Law. He started pupillage in June 1991 in Swansea, finishing it in a chambers in Cardiff. He was not offered a tenancy there, so he went to Birmingham for two years.

"I then had some family problems and returned to Swansea. I had great difficulty getting into chambers but eventually got permission from the Bar Council to practise alone.

"After a while I linked up with a number of others and started Pendragon Chambers, where I largely specialise in employment and personal injury cases.

"I love what I do. It is a wonderful profession and, being self-employed, you are in control of your own life."

Mark Dillon, 34, is just completing his year as national chairman of the Trainee Solicitors' Group. A survey for the Law Society's annual conference earlier this month found that a majority of recruiters, faced with six applicants, would plump for the 23-year-old straight out of law college as the safest bet.

But his own background shows the value of taking a wider view. He read for a law degree at Cambridge but wanted to expand his horizons, and so took a second degree in history and politics at Leeds University.

He then became a sales marketeer, which helped develop people and management skills but was not sufficiently academically testing. So in 1991 he began a year teaching history, politics, business studies and outdoor pursuits at Russell Harty's old school, Giggleswick in North Yorkshire.

The school offered to keep him on but by then he had saved enough to spend the next two years at York College of Law studying for his Common Professional Examination and Law Finals. "I then had a year working as a painter and decorator and doing para-legal work, waiting for the start of my training contract with the London commercial firm Rosling King, which I have just finished.

"While there are short-term disadvantages in being that much older when you qualify, in the long run it can only be an advantage that you have seen more of life," he says.

Robert Festenstein, 36, went to the Central London Polytechnic at 18 to do a law degree but left without completing it. He worked for a year selling industrial abrasives before getting a job in computer leasing in 1983.

For the next four years he worked in computer-related sales until, in 1987, he became a director of a small company selling laser printers.

"That year, I decided I really did not want to do this, and I really wanted to be an airline pilot. But when I checked into it, my eyesight was too poor.

"Once I had buried that idea, I re-did my law degree at Manchester Polytechnic from 1988 to 1991 and stayed there to do my Law Society Finals in 1992," he remembers.

He did his articles in a firm in Bolton. He now works for Laurence Murphy in Manchester.

"It is a fascinating profession. I am absolutely delighted I am doing it, but I could not have managed it without the financial and moral support of my wife," he says.

The Graduate Law Fair, 6 and 7 November, The Red Hall, Barbican Exhibition Centre, London EC2 8DS. For free tickets, students should contact their careers advisory service, the faculty of law or the ticket hot line (0171- 292 3724).