People often say the Leaving Cert is the hardest exam you will ever sit. I would have agreed until recently. In May I sat six exams over two weeks, three hours each, using a pen and paper. It was worse than the Leaving Cert. Although I studied way more than for any other exam, my memory was appalling and my writing was excruciating. It started with Criminal and ended in Tort. I had just completed my first year at The Honorable Society of King’s Inns.
Why put myself through this?
In the last two years it came as a surprise to discover I was virtually unemployable, having worked since I left school. In 1992 I became self-employed so I could rear my children and work my own hours. I got a degree in English and History of Art and two Masters Degrees while my children grew; it was a juggle. My planning consultancy steadily grew, I loved my work. When it slowed to a trickle in 2010 I honed so many CV styles for tenders and jobs that I began to hate the sight of my name. I was losing my identity.
One recruitment consultant described my CV as over-powering, and that was a negative. When achievements hold you back, there has to be another way. Oh. Yes. Learn something new, the law. Bound to be a career in that. Maybe even a book.
I googled ‘how to be a barrister’. The first site that came up was King’s Inns. I filled in the form, wrote some class of an essay and paid an application fee.
Somebody told me afterwards there were much cheaper courses. Of course there are, but there is a catch. The two-year Legal Studies diploma in King’s Inns is accepted as the equivalent of a law degree, and allows you to sit the entrance exam for the barrister-at-law degree. A primary degree is a pre-requisite.
People said I was mad, ‘there’s no work for barristers, they’re leaving the country and the law library is very nepotistic’. I don’t even have friends in the legal profession, never mind family. The outlook wasn’t great.
Months later a registration letter arrived and Last September I drove through the big gates on Constitution Hill. It was a sunny evening, trees were still in leaf and the building rose benevolently before me. From that moment I was determined to get through whatever lay ahead. The family nickel plate would have to be sold.
We were given manuals on each subject. This couldn’t be easier, I thought. About fifty of us enrolled; a balance of men and women in their twenties to sixties. Most have a day job; some are on sabbatical. There are engineers, guards accountants, self-employed, retired and unemployed.
Class started the following Monday, four or five nights each week and Saturday morning too. For weeks I was in shock that I’d signed away two to three years of my life after years of being tied to my children’s school timetables. Our lecturers make the material interesting and my attitude was simple: I’m older, wiser and understand the point of study; I’d just knuckle down, sit the exams and move on.
What a laugh. The power of recall clearly slides into decay once you’re in your forties. When you start forgetting the name of the dishwasher, how can you expect to sit exams in tort or constitutional law? I asked a lecturer if I was mad thinking I could enter the legal profession at my age. His response: ‘the law isn’t ageist’ and cited Catherine McGuinness who qualified in her forties. While that’s consoling, she is only one.
The Inns is like a small school, it is a very personal experience. Our class has probably been the smallest so far. Reports that young barristers cannot get work, may impact on the numbers signing up, but I can see many other possibilities about having their diploma in Legal Studies, other than practicing at the bar. As one Supreme Court judge said to me, in America, the route is humanities first then law school. Pure law might be narrowing the opportunities for young graduates.
Hopefully Alan Shatter’s Legal Services Regulation Bill will positively change the landscape and increase opportunities.
While you sacrifice quite a lot of social life (let’s say all) during this course, you develop a different one. We are well acquainted with the pub on the corner of Henrietta Street. We’ve had great nights out. And I can confirm that it is anything but elitist. But it demands hard work.
I’ve learned an incredible amount in a relatively short time and loved every minute. I don’t know if I’ll be saying that tomorrow evening.
Exam results are Friday 13th