Part-time routes to a career in law: postgraduate courses and combined study training contracts

There are many reasons why full-time study followed by training might not be right for you, two of the most common being finances and caring commitments. Don’t worry though; there are part-time opportunities throughout the academic and training process.

The full-time route through university to qualifying as a solicitor doesn't suit everyone, but there are part-time study options available. It is also possible to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and a training contract or other “period of recognised training” with a law firm simultaneously. The majority of people take the full-time path after leaving university, but if full-time study is not an option because of financial needs, caring responsibilities or any other reason, there are part-time study options and combined study/training programmes that you can pursue. In addition, the greater freedom being afforded to firms in how they provide training and fulfil the qualification requirements to become a solicitor has opened up new possibilities that in some cases bypass the need for a traditional training contract altogether.

Prospective barristers should note that the part-time study options explored below are equally open to them, but once you qualify, the self-employed nature of a career at the Bar means that the terms 'full time' and 'part time' are not as clearly applicable as in the salaried solicitors' profession. The Bar Standards Board states that pupil barristers may take on part-time work during pupillage on the permission of their pupil supervisors and provided that it does not interfere with their training. Once qualified, a barrister may theoretically take on as much or little work as she or he feels able to, but the reality for most people is that to pay the bills and do well, this is essentially a full-time (and then some) career.

Part-time study

If you are planning on qualifying as a solicitor and have a degree other than law, you will need to complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) - an intensive postgraduate conversion course which teaches all the essential foundations of law that you would learn through a law degree (and which recruiters view as equivalent and in no way inferior to a law degree). The course takes one year to complete full time, but can be studied part time or through distance learning over two years. Most institutions which teach the GDL also provide a part-time study option; you can use LawCareers.Net's (LCN) Course Search to filter results by part time and full time, as well as by location and other key criteria to find the right programme for you. Make sure to do some research as you consider which course provider to choose - in addition to the fees, you should also think about the level and quality of support you can expect from its career service and its links with the profession.

Once you either have a law degree or have completed the GDL, you must progress onto the vocational stage of training, which is the Legal Practice Course (LPC) if you want to become a solicitor or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) if you want to become a barrister. Both are the final stage before on-the-job training at a law firm or barristers' chambers.

Like the GDL, there is a wealth of part-time options available for the LPC - the course usually takes around two years to complete by this route. Teaching is mostly a mix of face-to-face tuition and home study, with classes scheduled on weekday evenings and/or on Saturdays to work around students' other commitments. The same is true for the BPTC, with weekend classes supplementing home study. Again, use LCN's course search to find the course in the right location and with the right fees and class timetable for you.

Training and working part-time

In the same way as any employee is theoretically entitled to work part time, candidates are permitted to complete a training contract part time. To be eligible to train part time, candidates must have completed the LPC and must work at least two-and-a-half days a week, with training taking between two-and-a-half to four years depending on how many days a week the candidate works. In reality, opportunities to train part-time are much rarer than the full-time training contracts that most firms provide as standard, although they are not unheard of. One factor to remember is that most trainees earn a very decent salary, so students who need to work part time during their studies will not need to do so once they commence training.

Combined training and part-time study

It is also possible to complete a training contract while simultaneously studying the part-time GDL, the last two years of a part-time law degree or the part-time LPC. However, although this model is called 'part time', the only part-time aspect of it is the study component - the trainee is still required to undertake full-time paid work at a law firm (the kind of arrangement you could expect would be working four days a week and studying the other day). This is a great option for candidates put off by the prospect of the debt they would take on by funding themselves through the full-time LPC, or whose financial need to be in work might otherwise prohibit them from the taking the course at all.

Freeths is one of the firms to have such a programme and we spoke to HR director Carole Wigley to learn more. “One of the things that we were responding to with the part-time study programme is the fact that we don't automatically sponsor people through the GDL and LPC on our straight training contract route - this is because we took the decision some years ago that we would rather have more trainees,” explains Carole. “If we funded each one through law school, we would not be able to offer as many training contracts. We offer our future trainees who are going through the full-time route an interest-free loan to fund their LPC studies, but we also decided that the high tuition fees that people have to pay to go through university and subsequently law school required another response - and that is where the training contract with part-time study programme comes in. Trainees who join the firm through this programme are working for us and contributing to the firm while they are studying, so we pay their LPC fees for them outright. The programme is aimed at appealing to people who might otherwise be put off by the high cost of higher and postgraduate education. It is also of interest to returners to work or people from less advantaged backgrounds.”

While a traditional full-time training contract usually lasts two years, combined part-time study and training may take three to four years to complete, with four years being the upper limit of the timeframe where the candidate trains while studying the last two years of a law degree and the LPC. This combined approach has been in use for a few years now. “In 2014 we had between 60 and 70 applications to the training contract with part-time study programme, from which we interviewed 25 candidates,” says Carole. “Five applicants progressed to our selection day and we then made two training contract offers, one of which was accepted. In 2015 we had even more applications than the previous year. We're generally pleased with the number of applications that we are getting, although clearly we would welcome more.”

Paralegal and support work (ie, legal work carried out by non-qualified staff) is also increasingly seen as an entry point to being granted a training position. Freeths actually has a formal process in this respect, as Carole outlines: “We also run a legal assistant foundation programme, where people can come and work for us in a support role for nine months and if they are of trainee standard, we will sponsor them through the part-time study programme. Both this programme and the training contract with part-time study are designed to be attractive to people who cannot afford to go to law school straight from university without already having secured a training contract.

Increasing flexibility

And this is not the only way that paralegals can progress on to becoming solicitors. The Solicitors' Regulation Authority (SRA) has also made qualifying as a solicitor much more flexible, with the formal training contract no longer being the only way to qualify. Legal apprenticeships have been introduced for school leavers as an alternative to university, while it is now possible for LPC students and graduates who have gained the requisite experience and 'training' (as defined by the SRA, hence the inverted commas) through working in a law firm(s) as a paralegal to qualify without completing a training contract. This is because the SRA has gotten rid of the old 'training contract' terminology and replaced its qualification requirement with the more flexible 'period of recognised training' - although most firms still say 'training contract' and operate the same trainee recruitment processes, which is why we have also used the term in this article. The equivalent means route has been described as a shortcut, but actually it is as rigorous as the old training model - just less rigidly formalised. LPC graduates may apply to become solicitors to the SRA at the cost of £600, providing evidence that their work experience meets the regulator's definition of what constitutes a period of recognised training, including demonstrating both contentious and non-contentious experience. The first successful applicants were granted newly-qualified (NQ) solicitor status in 2015 and over 100 more have done so since.

An important issue to be aware of is the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) which is set to be introduced in 2020. Once the ‘super exam’ is introduced, all prospective solicitors will have to pass it in order to qualify, regardless of the route they take. In the 2020s it is likely that the GDL and LPC will cease being taught altogether, with new courses set to spring up to prepare candidates for the SQE. Not least among the SQE’s implications is that firms may have to provide much more ‘basic’ training to their trainees to make up for what the LPC used to provide, but all these questions are for the future. For now, the existing routes to becoming a solicitor are set to remain open for the next few years and perhaps beyond – it is likely that there will be a transition period where the old route remains open after 2020. Students and graduates pursuing the part-time routes into the profession set out above do not need to worry about the carpet being pulled out from under them when they are in the middle of the process.  

The routes to the different careers available in the legal profession are becoming a lot more flexible - and this is particularly the case if you are planning on qualifying as a solicitor. Be warned that competition for vacancies remains high, so whichever study and training route you pursue, it will be important to do well and demonstrate good ability and experience, but it should be more possible than ever before to find an arrangement that suits your circumstances.

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