As student costs rise part-time law courses are booming, but is the profession ready to shake off its bias against the option?
A lethal cocktail of rising course fees, rent and other living costs, garnished with a powerful dose of undergraduate debt is likely to give most aspiring lawyers a 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 could appeal even to teetotalers, and one route that has taken off is the part-time postgraduate legal course.
The advantage of going part-time is the flexibility it offers, with participating law schools proposing courses over two years and some offering evening and weekend classes or distance learning.
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 qualities such as commitment and drive.
The courses are also often easier on the pocket. That is not to say that fees are lower, but being spread across two years can be more palatable. And in most cases it is possible to combine study with paid work.
Part-time courses have attracted criticism in recent years, but some academics claim their image is distorted by bias within the legal sector.
Dr Andrew Francis of Keele University, for example, claims that part-time students feel like “second-class” citizens. This bold statement is included in Dr Francis’ research, published in the Journal of Law and Society (June 2009), conducted in partnership with fellow academic Iain McDonald. The research concludes that a cohort of students on part-time courses feel “discriminated against” or “second-class”. It also suggests that part-time courses can inhibit students’ chances of success.
One City firm graduate recruitment partner claims that success depends on whether a student is simply lacking a training contract – and thus funding – or moving career. But this looks rather narrowly at the motives for going part-time, automatically rejecting those who have failed to win training contracts through no fault of their own.
“Some people don’t have the careers guidance that others do,” says Herbert Smith head of resourcing Peter Chater. “This is possibly an issue, particularly for those who go to state schools.”
He says partners would be interested to know why students chose the part-time route and also whether they can prove they have the ability to not let their jobs interfere with their studies.
Part-time BPTC student Adam Fellows admits the course can be “draining”, and adds: “The work-study balance isn’t easy, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of putting off college work after a long day of paid work.”
For those opting to change career it is clear that the part-time route can be attractive as it allows students to bring a wealth of experience to the job while demonstrating their commitment to moving into law by forking out tens of thousands to train.
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.
“I’m coming to the end of my career in medicine in the RAF,” he says. “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’s ambition and experience reflect the qualities that firms apparently admire, but what about the courses themselves?
Francis’ research, which covers 5.1 per cent of part-time law students, indicates that some 32 per cent consider leaving their courses, citing a “poor quality student experience” as the main reason.
“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,” states the research.
But Pugsley disagrees, saying i-tutorials fit neatly into his day, and that any gaps in reading are made up for in weekend workshops and discussions.
With banks cutting back on postgraduate loans, a 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. 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. Perhaps, as Francis concludes, “more needs to be done than simply providing the route”.
A longer version of this article previously appeared in the summer 2011 edition of Lawyer 2B