How to be a law unto yourself

Part-time study can be a better bet than the daily grind of legal courses, suggests Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

Like estate agents and tax inspectors, lawyers rarely command public affection. Yet we turn to lawyers at times of personal crisis and upheaval, be it death, divorce or moving house. And, despite their low public standing, there is no shortage of would-be solicitors and barristers hoping to join the profession, undeterred by the years of hard slog and intensive study. This is never more the case than for those who study for their law qualifications on a part-time basis. It's an increasingly popular option and one that's widening access to the legal profession. According to Jayne Jeffcott, a tutor with the College of Law in Birmingham, which also has branches in Guildford, London, Chester and York, her part-time and distance-learners have included representatives from all backgrounds and careers.

Like estate agents and tax inspectors, lawyers rarely command public affection. Yet we turn to lawyers at times of personal crisis and upheaval, be it death, divorce or moving house. And, despite their low public standing, there is no shortage of would-be solicitors and barristers hoping to join the profession, undeterred by the years of hard slog and intensive study. This is never more the case than for those who study for their law qualifications on a part-time basis. It's an increasingly popular option and one that's widening access to the legal profession. According to Jayne Jeffcott, a tutor with the College of Law in Birmingham, which also has branches in Guildford, London, Chester and York, her part-time and distance-learners have included representatives from all backgrounds and careers.

"It's often people who have had a successful career yet have always wanted to be a lawyer, and they hit their mid-thirties and decide it's now or never," says Jeffcott. "This approach means they can continue working while they study."

The economics can be convincing: students can earn as they learn and the fees are more manageable. The University of Huddersfield's part-time two-year legal practice course, the professional stage of training for people who wish to qualify as solicitors, will set you back about £3,000 a year against the £6,000 price tag on the full-time one-year programme. And it's not just the LPC that can be taken part-time. Staffordshire University offers a wide range of part-time study programmes, ranging from the undergraduate law degree (the LLB) to master's and MPhil options. Other institutions, among them the College of Law, offer students a part-time Bar Vocational Course.

This isn't something people should sign up for on a whim, however. The College of Law's two-year distance learning course amounts to 20 study-hours a week, exactly half the full-time requirement. That's quite a workload when you add it to the demands of a full-time job, family and social life.

"It's not an easy course, though," cautions Jeffcott. "You cannot take it on if you're not sure about it because it is inevitable that things will get on top of you from time to time. In addition it can be hard to motivate yourself to study unless you are really committed."

Penny Booth, the principal lecturer at Staffordshire University, knows from experience the commitment required, having gained her LLB over the course of two evenings a week for five years, while caring for two small children and holding down a full-time job as a teacher. She went on to gain a masters in law on a part-time study programme and credits her family and work colleagues for their support while she pursued her ambitions.

"It's important not to underestimate the commitment required," she says. "You have to keep at it consistently to get through the workload." Yet despite the many competing demands on part-timers, many do thrive on the challenge. Dave Sagar of the University of Huddersfield's law department, which provides part-time and distance-learning options, believes it can actually work to the student's advantage. "It's sometimes better to study that way because the full-time course is so intensive and relentless, whereas the part-timers have a week between each session to absorb and digest what they have learned," says Sagar.

"People cope with it very well. Many of the people on our part-time courses actually do better than the full-timers, perhaps because they tend to be mature and tend to take it more seriously."

Even so, drop-out rates on part-time law courses are high, with some estimates reckoning that between one third and a half of part-timers fall by the wayside as the realities of juggling an intensive law programme with family and work commitments hit home.

And for those planning to become solicitors and barristers, there's a further hurdle: securing the training contract or pupillage required to become fully qualified.

Yet not everyone who studies law part-time wants to practice. As Penny Booth of Staffordshire University points out, it's a worthwhile intellectual pursuit in its own right. "A law degree is a good training for loads of other careers," she says. "It changes your thinking processes, and it makes you very analytical, capable of dealing with and distilling large amounts of information, and these are qualities that employers really value."

www.college-of-law.co.uk

www.staffs.ac.uk

www.hud.ac.uk

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