A motivator who has shaken up 'crusty old dinners' and more

February 4, 2005

Janet Paraskeva is not a name usually mentioned in higher education circles. But vice-chancellors would do well to sit up and take note, writes Claire Sanders.

Later this month the Law Society, of which she is chief executive, will discuss radical changes to legal education. These changes could hit vice-chancellors where it hurts most - their coffers.

As universities carry out extensive assessments on the impact of top-up fees, many will cling to law courses to pull in students and funds. But Ms Paraskeva could snatch these from their grasp.

She is not unsympathetic. "I am aware of the financial problems universities face. But my concern is for the student," she said.

In particular, her concern is to ensure that a legal education is open to all. Ms Paraskeva has an unconventional background and could be said to embody diversity. She is of Greek Cypriot origin, took an Open University degree while raising four children, and is currently in a gay relationship.

"I have been given opportunities to prove myself," she said.

"That is what these changes will do for students."

Debt - and the fact that it deters poor students - is a key concern. A 2003 report from the UK Centre for Legal Education, at Warwick University, says law students face debts of up to £40,000 when they complete their studies. "Not all students are comfortable with debt," she said. "We must not deter those who would otherwise make excellent solicitors."

December's Clementi report on regulating legal services, which proposed a far-reaching shake-up, required the Law Society to ensure there were no artificial or anti-competitive barriers to entry.

The proposals from the long-running training framework review group address that. They take prescription out of legal education. They no longer require students to complete specific courses. Instead, they must pass what the group says will be a demanding outcomes-based assessment at the point of qualification.

Many heads of law schools fear that the Law Society is sacrificing quality for diversity, but Ms Paraskeva sees this as the society catching up with developments in distance learning and accreditation of prior learning that have become commonplace elsewhere.

It would, she said, allow students to "earn and learn". "This will improve standards," she insisted. "If students can prove they can meet certain standards, that is what matters - not how or where they acquired those skills."

She does not believe the system will undermine the current route to qualification, but will allow a more diverse range of approaches.

The fact that the proposals have proved controversial is unlikely to deter Ms Paraskeva. She is admired for turning the Law Society from an organisation riven by disputes into one capable of absorbing the Clementi proposals. She is widely considered "very intelligent" and "determined".

Her resolve was tested early on in life when she was denied the chance of a degree. Her father, who spoke poor English, accepted her teacher's judgement that she was not university material.

Her A levels more than qualified her to take a degree, but Ms Paraskeva was pushed towards teacher training. "I enjoyed teaching and I think I was a good teacher," she said. "But I always felt the lack of a degree."

She later completed a degree in social science through the Open University.

"I did this while bringing up four children so it was not easy, but I thoroughly enjoyed it," she said.

One of her children enrolled on a Legal Practice Course in 2000, just as she became chief executive of the Law Society, so she has experience of the cost of a legal education.

She also has personal experience of controversy. She was director for England of the National Lottery Charities Board before joining the Law Society. She made Daily Mail headlines by giving money to gay and lesbian groups. "It was controversial but an important thing to do," she said.

Has she encountered discrimination because she is gay? "Who hasn't?" she responded. But she says that her Law Society colleagues have been very supportive.

"Going to black-tie dinners with my partner has been a bit difficult, but colleagues have really looked after us," she said. Even one of her critics said: "She has shaken up these crusty old dinners - no bad thing."

She is clearly excited about the changes taking place in law. "I had a meeting with top city firms where we talked about diversifying their intake," she said.

"I think many of these firms are much maligned. They do want change, they do want a multi-racial workforce that reflects their client base and they do want to find ways of flexibly working that will allow women to stay in the profession and rise to the top. It is just hard to change overnight."

Her critics argue that this is what she is doing with legal education - trying to change things overnight and taking away the tried and trusted before the new has been properly tested. But, she said: "We will not move forward before everything has been clearly set out and hammered into place."

I GRADUATED FROM ... the Open University

MY FIRST JOB WAS ... as a science teacher at Shenley Court Comprehensive

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS ... finding enough hours in the day

WHAT I HATE MOST... is cruelty

IN TEN YEARS I... hope I am still alive and well

MY FAVOURITE JOKE IS ... I don't know, I can never remember the punch line

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