Law - student stories
Jane Heybroek, Barrister
How did you choose Law?
I wanted to improve my qualifications generally, but was unsure in what field. I started with the Foundation in Social Sciences, then, during my first year of study, the OU announced they were commencing courses which would result in a qualifying law degree. I had wanted to become a Barrister as a teenager, but I was a very unruly teenager and ended up not finishing my A Levels because I wanted to leave home and get a job.
What did you enjoy about your degree?
I really enjoyed the first two years of my degree. It was encouraging to be achieving high results but once I began on the law programme I found the work a great deal harder. Also the goal-posts seemed to move from time to time. No more substitution of average marks to bring up the final overall grade! I found it a tad disconcerting to see my average results for TMAs and exams drop compared to previous years. But there was also a tremendous feeling of being a pioneer – I was among only 105 people who qualified in the first graduation, and the feeling of achievement I attained from that was immense. I was awarded an LLB Hons. 2:2
What were the high and low points of your time as a student?
The main high point for me was an ever-increasing sense of self-worth and accomplishment as the years went by. I noticed that, almost in spite of myself, I was becoming more of an intellectual, able to engage more meaningfully in debate, able to express myself with more clarity and ease than I ever had before.
Being among the first to graduate, as well as the OU graduation ceremony, we were invited to attend a graduates dinner, attended by Cherie Blair, who is the Patron of the OU Law Programme. Each of us was presented with a commemorative plaque, and I was chosen from the crowd to talk to Mrs Blair about the course.
Of course, the down side of OU study is the total lack of social life. I was working full time, studying part time and being a mum and a wife, all at once. Stuck indoors doing a TMA when everyone else is off to a barbecue can be depressing.
What did you do after your OU Law degree?
Once I qualified, I was accepted on the College of Law (now the University of Law) Bar Vocational Course (now the Bar Professional Training Course). I really enjoyed my year there, and I passed with a Very High Competent grade, coming out 16th overall in my year, which was a delightful shock to me on the day the results were published. I had somehow thought that, with my OU degree, I couldn't hope to measure up to my Oxbridge fellow-students, and I was pleased to discover that my perception was entirely wrong.
I was called to the Bar in 2003, but wasn't starting my pupillage until September 2004. So I contacted a friend who worked in the Pro Bono Legal Advice Centre at the College of Law (now the University of Law) and asked if there was anything I could help out with. Eventually, I was offered a part time job there, and was still able to continue doing pro bono cases myself. I have been invited back to participate in training exercises and, recently, on a Practitioners Day, where I ‘sat’ as a ‘District Judge’ giving feedback to students on their advocacy exercises.
How would you describe a typical day?
My areas of practice are Crime (Prosecution and Defence), Family Law and Immigration. Every day is different. And every day I wake up looking forward to going to work – which is more than most people can say about their work. I often joke that even if I won the lottery I would still work as a Barrister (although perhaps I would be a bit fussier about the kind of briefs I accepted!).
What are the best and worst parts of the job?
The Bar is a fascinating career for anyone with a passion for the law. You need to be the kind of person who enjoys being constantly taxed and challenged, but who also has the patience to sit around in corridors for hours waiting to have your case called on. It is very rarely the same-old same-old. The downside is that, as an independent Barrister, you are self-employed and have all the headaches that accompany that status. VAT returns, tax returns, no guarantee of work, no paid holidays or sick leave. But the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. There is nothing like the feeling of sitting down after you have made your submissions knowing that you have done a good job, and you have been able to have a positive effect on someone's life as a result of your knowledge and skills.
What advice can you offer to current OU students thinking about a career in law?
A career at the Bar requires dedication. If you want to go into this profession for the money, you will be sadly disappointed for the first few years because, like any profession, qualification is only the first step on a long ladder. You need to be accepted for pupillage, then once you have completed your pupillage, you need to find a Chambers that is prepared to take you on as a tenant. From there, you have to build up your reputation with solicitors and accept the fact that you will get all the little bits of work that no-one else in Chambers wants until you gradually start getting bigger and better briefs. It is a long slog, but a very rewarding one. And many of the major banks offer specialised Professional Development Loans uniquely tailored for Barristers new to the profession.
What things might make an application from an OU student stand out to an employer?
Don't do as I did and assume that, just because you qualified with the OU, that this makes your law degree somehow inferior to ‘proper’ universities. Nothing could be further from the truth. The OU is a highly respected institution and, generally, prospective Chambers see the independence, tenacity, commitment and determination that it takes to qualify through distance learning as highly positive assets. The majority of OU students are either in other careers, or parents (or both). What you are doing is amazing compared to your average student. Be proud of your achievement!