Class half full
31 May 2011 | By Laura Manning
As student costs rise, part-time law courses are seeing a boom. But is the profession ready to shake off its bias and welcome the new route?
A lethal cocktail of rising course fees, rent and other living costs - garnished with an already powerful mix of undergraduate debt - is likely to give most aspiring lawyers a very bad hangover.
But it may not be necessary to stockpile the aspirin just yet. There are a number of ways to chase a career in law that may appeal even to teetotalers. Indeed, with social mobility rising up law firms’ diversity agendas, alternative routes into law have gained momentum in recent months, with the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX), for example, boasting of its growing successes.
Part-time postgraduate legal courses have also taken off, with a growing number of institutions offering more flexible modes of study.
Going part-time has both pros and cons and the decision should not be taken lightly, especially for ambitious students pushing to get into the biggest and most reputable law firms.
The clear advantage of going part-time is, of course, the flexibility it offers, with participating law schools proposing courses across two years and some offering evening and weekend classes or distance learning via an online database.
Part-time courses require students to perform a juggling act between study, work and play, but also give would-be lawyers the opportunity to show potential employers attractive qualities such as a good level of commitment and drive.
The courses are also often easier on the pocket. That is not to say that the fees are lower, but being spread across two years is arguably more palatable. And in most cases, it is possible to combine your studies with paid work.
Adam Fellows, a part-time Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) student who also works part-time in the legal sector, says: “The right job can provide a wealth of experience and, of course, transferable skills common to any job.”
Part-time courses have attracted severe criticism and doubt in recent years, and some academics claim they are distorted by a huge cultural bias within the legal sector.
The question resurfaced in February this year, when doubts over the viability of legal education started flooding the legal sector following a seminar at the Inner Temple entitled ’The Future of Legal Education’, stimulating heated debate on legal social media sites.
As the twitterati and bloggers began tapping away at their keyboards, a good deal of the focus was on a speech by Dr Andrew Francis of Keele University that was somewhat controversial. He claimed that part-time students feel like “second class” citizens.
This bold statement materialised from Francis’ research, published in the Journal of Law and Society (June 2009), and conducted in partnership with fellow academic Iain McDonald. This looked into the shortcomings of part-time legal education and concluded that a cohort of students on part-time legal courses felt “discriminated against” or “second class’”.
One student in the study said: “Sometimes we feel that the full-time course is dragging the part-time course along with it. It needs to be seen as a separate entity and treated as such.”
The research describes the role of part-time legal education as a “paradox” because, despite representing an opportunity to broaden access to legal practice for non-traditional entrants, “the nature of the route inhibits their chances of success and entrenches their difference in the eyes of the profession”.
One City law firm graduate recruitment partner challenges that perception, claiming it depends on whether the student is simply lacking the necessary funding and training contract rather than moving to change their career.
“Although I have tremendous amounts of sympathy for these people I wonder whether they have already failed to get a training contract,” he says. “Therefore, I wonder how many of them are actually slightly kidding themselves that they are putting themselves in a better position [by enrolling part-time] to
get a job.”
He adds that because it is not difficult for a law firm to identify the very good candidates, “the reality is, while there will be a few [of these] people who will slip through the net and go part-time, there won’t be many”.
But this looks rather narrowly at students’ motives for opting to go part-time, as the decision does not necessarily point to those who have been rejected by law firms but rather to those who failed to apply through no fault of their own.
“Some people simply don’t have the careers guidance that others do,” challenges Herbert Smith’s head of resourcing Peter Chater. “This is possibly another issue, particularly for those who go to state schools and are not given sufficient direction.”
Chater says that going part-time is “hand on heart, absolutely fine”, adding that in an application “it would not make a blind bit of difference”.
He does, however, concede that partners would be interested to know why students have chosen the part-time route and also whether they can prove they have the ability to not let their jobs interfere with their academic studies.
Part-time student Fellows admits the course can be “very draining”, and adds: “The work-study balance isn’t an easy one to maintain and it’s easy to fall into the trap of putting off college work after a long day of paid work. Even after nearly two years of part-time study I’ve still not perfected it.
“There’s the great temptation to put your feet up as soon as you’re home and relax, but you really have to avoid that and keep going. I can only admire my colleagues who have family responsibilities as well.”
So students need to have not only a good back-story as to why they have chosen this route but also a way to demonstrate their commitment to the career path.
For those who are opting to change careers, it is clear that the part-time route can be attractive as it allows the students to bring a wealth of unique experience to the job while demonstrating their commitment to moving to law by forking out tens of thousands to enrol on the Graduate Diploma in Law, Legal Practice Course (LPC) or BPTC part-time.
In just this position, Wilfred Pugsley, a 57-year-old consultant cardiothoracic surgeon who currently practises with Royal Air Force Medical Services, is studying for his LPC part-time at the College of Law, balancing a 48-hour working week with an additional 15 to 20 hours of study.
When asked why he decided to make this career move, he says: “I have the feeling I’m coming to the end of my career in medicine in the RAF. I mean, there’s a limit to how many helicopters I can jump out of. But instead of going into retirement I decided to do this course.”
Pugsley has a longstanding interest in law, especially in relation to clinical negligence and medical ethics. His ambition and experience reflect the qualities that firms apparently admire, and his level of commitment is certainly something to be admired.
But what about the courses themselves? Francis’ research, which represents 5.1 per cent of all part-time law students, indicates that 32 per cent of respondents consider leaving their courses, citing “poor quality student experience” as the biggest reason.
Francis’ research states: “Access to information, staff and facilities is frequently difficult and, critically, students do not feel there is sufficient institutional recognition of the conflicting demands they struggle to manage.”
But Pugsley disagrees, saying that i-tutorials fit neatly into his day, and that any gaps in reading are made up for in the weekend workshops and discussions.
BPP Law School’s deputy director of part-time LPC programmes Jo-Anne Pugh argues: “Part-time students get the same quality teaching and learning experience. In terms of the course itself they are getting an identical product.”
Pugh believes that the profession’s perception of part-time students is changing, with smaller and medium-sized firms often recommending that students complete courses part-time as this allows the LPC to “come to life”.
But when pressed on whether these students have a chance of a career at one of the City giants, she admits that, in her experience, those who enrol on part-time courses do not set their sights on magic circle law firms.
“I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to go part-time if you want a career at a top international firm, but it’s unusual for a student to end up at a firm like that,” Pugh concedes. “But I wouldn’t want to say they didn’t have a chance.”
Pugsley, who hopes to join a firm specialising in medical-related legal work, admits he is unlikely to be in the running for a job at a high-powered commercial law firm.
“It’s not that I can’t put in the hours but one’s got to be realistic,” he says. “They’ll say, ’here’s a 27-year-old with first class degree in law and then here’s old Pugsley who is just coming out of the RAF’. Who are they going to take?”
With banks cutting back on postgraduate loans, a healthy jump in students enrolling on part-time courses seems inevitable, but students need to be aware that going part-time is no walk in the park. It requires students to work a lot harder and often make big sacrifices.
As usual, doing your research will prepare you for the potentially bumpy road ahead. Talking to people who have done the course will ultimately give you the best impression, not only of the standard of the course itself but also whether the balance between work, study and personal commitments is feasible.
Also, Pugh says that part-time students need to think about where they fit into the legal profession and focus on honing their CVs and skills to give them the best chance of success.
The part-time option may provide a good few with a viable alternative route into law, but with the profession still riddled with bias it is clear that the option is certainly not fit for all purposes. Perhaps, as Francis concludes: “More needs to be done than simply providing the route.”