“My first day at law school as a mature student was the scariest moment of my life,” says Clara Jennings. “I have always been a confident and outgoing person, but I felt like I was stepping into the unknown. I feared I would be one of the oldest in the class and that people were going to judge me.”
The 34-year-old single mum of four had spent her entire adult life in full-time employment, working as a hairdresser first in Ireland and then in her home city of Birmingham. She had always been interested in the legal profession but never felt she had the opportunity to pursue that passion – until her employer fired her while she was pregnant with her youngest child in 2015.
An employment tribunal followed and she won, with judges unanimously agreeing that she had been unfairly dismissed. The experience, though traumatic, gave her a thirst for the law. In 2018 she finally took the plunge, quit her full-time job and enrolled to study an LLB in law at Arden University.
Jennings was terrified at returning to education for the first time since leaving school at 18, and it has been a constant struggle to balance her studies with family life and a job. The course design, which involves a mixture of online distance learning and traditional face-to-face classes at a campus in Birmingham city centre, has helped her fit the degree around other commitments. But she admits the greatest challenge has been mental rather than physical.
“When you are younger, you don’t have all the doubts that come with the responsibilities of being a parent,” she says. “I am constantly questioning myself – am I doing the right thing for my family? But I am halfway through a degree now and I know I am going to achieve something.”
Time is a limited resource for many mature students, who may have extra responsibilities such as childcare and, because they are less likely to be eligible for student financial support, a job. The problem is particularly acute at law school and the legal profession in general, which is notorious for its intense working culture. A year-long study of the resilience and mental health experiences of undergraduate students at Leeds University found that, unlike most other students, law students have little free time to pursue activities unrelated to the profession.
Clare James left a career as a vet to study an LLB in law at Leeds University, aged 36. She says she had to allocate 40 hours a week to study, on top of holding down a part-time job. The 41-year-old, who went on to complete a master’s degree and is now studying for a PhD, says the workload was a shock at first. She quickly learned that students can never read everything; there comes a point when you have to stop. “It was about learning a degree of efficiency in law work,” she says. “But I always found it interesting.”
Mature students can struggle with this aspect of the course more than their younger peers, says Nick Taylor, director of student education at the University of Leeds’ school of law. He says: “They are probably used to doing a job where you complete a project and then that’s it, you move on. But you never really complete law.
“It takes a little bit of time to get used to the rhythms of the degree and mature students sometimes try to do too much – they will take the reading list and think they have to do the whole thing. But what you actually want them to learn is the art of picking out what they think is necessary.
“So mature students put themselves under pressure. They compare themselves to 18-year-olds and think they have something to prove.”
However, this combination of a drive to achieve and prior professional experience can give mature law students an edge. Arden’s law programme team leader, Angela Burns, says the first thing legal employers are looking for is a commitment to the subject and there is nothing that shows a greater commitment than changing career to become a lawyer.
She adds that younger graduates are often criticised by employers for lacking commercial awareness. This shouldn’t be a problem with those entering the legal profession with prior work experience.
“[Mature students] often come to the profession with another skill or knowledge area,” Burns says. “Many already have degrees and have a niche interest that they can they go into within law. For example, if you have a chemistry degree, you could look at patent law. Or a former nurse may go into medical negligence. There are lots of different areas and you expertise opens up opportunities at niche firms.”