Meet your flexible friend

What can you do if you aren't getting promoted at work because you didn't pass all your Law Society exams in the past?

This is exactly the situation faced by 38-year-old John Wilkinson, who works for west Yorkshire firm Foy & Co handling family law work and personal litigation.

He earns good fees for the practice, but he is still without full solicitor status as he missed out on passing all of his exams for the old Law Society Part II exams.

Until three years ago, that meant he would have to take time out to study full-time for the old “Part Twos” – now the reformed LPC. Wilkinson didn't feel he could take that option, despite his firm's encouragement to qualify fully.

Now he is into the first of two years of a part-time LPC at the University of Huddersfield. The arrangement means he can handle the same caseload for the firm while being released weekly to attend Thursday afternoon and evening study at the university, and spend weekends and other evenings getting up to scratch with course work.

Studying an LPC part-time, while holding down a full-time job, may not strike younger students as the ideal way to jump through that essential hoop for full qualification.

But Wilkinson says it was the only way to conclude unfinished business. A full-time LPC was “not an option”, he says.

Wilkinson's story is typical of many mature students who are attracted by the flexibility of a growing number of part-time LPCs across the country.

Most courses attract a high proportion of people already involved in the legal profession as legal executives or court clerks. Many rely on the backing of their employers for day release while keeping their job open, and look forward to promotion up the ladder when they've finished the course.

But other mature students seeking a career change don't enjoy their employers' backing, according to Fiona Geddes, course leader on the part-time LPC at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

This category of aspiring lawyers, many with family commitments, are wary of abandoning their work and take on the financial commitment of completing a full-time LPC. That burden is daunting because of the shortage of training contracts for the hordes of qualified students emerging from LPCs each year.

Concern about future job prospects has led to a general decline in applications to start full-time LPCs this autumn. And some colleges offering part-time LPCs also report a dip in demand since six pioneering colleges kicked of the first two-year courses in 1993.

Yet confidence in colleges is high about the long-term demand for part-time LPCs.

“The numbers of applications for our part-time courses have gone down slightly since the first year,” says Geddes. “I think many people were waiting for the first opportunity to do a part-time LPC.”

Now that initial rush is over, there remains a healthy underlying demand for part-time courses, she says.

This story is repeated by Peter Breakey, course leader of the part-time LPC at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle. “There seems to be an on-going demand from groups such as legal executives and court clerks,” he says.

But the course appeals to a number of other students because of the financial advantages of flexible study.

Manchester Metropolitan University's part-time LPC was launched in September 1994. According to its acting course leader, Mandy Gill, the part-time option has helped prevent students from dropping out of studying. If full-time students run into financial or personal difficulties, they can switch to part-time.

The University of Huddersfield joined the ranks of 16 colleges now offering part-time courses last September. Admissions tutor for the course Dave Sagar agrees that most students coming straight up through full- time education will continue to prefer the full-time option.

But funding problems mean that part-time courses may appeal to students just emerging from universities – particularly those from poorer backgrounds.

“Fees for the LPC can be £5,000 which, with the cost of living, can add up to £10,000 to complete a full-time course,” says Sagar. “It's easy to see how we could be getting back to the days when only students with wealthy parents could enter the profession.”

We are not quite back to the bad old days yet. And Paulene Collins, chief training officer at the Law Society, says she believes the part-time courses help “to keep as wide an access into the profession as possible”.

But while a part-time course may make it easier for people to arrange their finances, family life or job around an LPC, Collins and the course leaders stress that the part-time LPC is no less daunting a test for students. The part-time option, they insist, is no easy option.