For Jo Dance, school was no fun – she suffered from extenuating circumstances and couldn’t wait to get away from educational establishments.
So, at 18, she packed her bags and left her hometown of Edinburgh in search of a new life in London.
“I didn’t get the best grades at school,” she said. “I went to college for a little while – I enrolled on art and languages courses, but it didn’t work out. I’d always read a lot of books, right from primary school age and knew I wanted to study a challenging subject. I had thought on and off for years about studying law – I knew I could cope with the volume of reading. But because I had such a hard time at school, it had put me off.”
After a year of working in the capital in admin roles and bars, she decided to head to Australia on a working holiday, and ended up staying for several years.
“I thought maybe I’d study, but the university options overseas looked so expensive, plus I was getting a little homesick. I came home and met with a university admissions officer, and realised my school grades weren’t acceptable to study law at the main universities in Scotland.”
Jo began working in an office job, but received the news she was to be made redundant a few years later – something which she now says was “a blessing in disguise”.
She said: “I was looking for temporary work and received a call from an agent telling me there was a law firm – CMS – looking for a legal secretary to work there on a temporary placement.”
Jo got the job and was asked to stay on a permanent basis.
“By this point, in 2012, I’d discovered the OU,” said Jo. “I was in my mid 20s and had financial independence. I didn’t want to start doing costly entry courses, plus I needed to find a balance between earning and study.
The OU’s open entry policy was so important to me, and so was the flexibility that meant I could continue working full-time.
“I told my employers I was thinking of joining the OU and they were supportive. They didn’t mind that I’d be studying English law as opposed to Scottish law, so off I went to enrol.”
Jo also considered at the time that the English LLB offered by the OU would provide her with more options once she had graduated.
Jo juggled full-time working with her studies, but at the beginning, didn’t find it too tricky. She said: “My work was manageable in the first year or so. I would give up my evenings and weekends to study – my friends and family had to be very understanding. I’d get up early and study before work and during my lunchbreaks. It suited me – I got my head down and got on with it.”
As Jo climbed the ladder at work, juggling her career and studies became more challenging.
“When I was working as a paralegal, I went part-time for a few months, working four days a week. This was during my second to last year when I was essentially doing a part-time degree full-time, on top of working. Going part-time at work made a huge difference.”
Despite the challenges, Jo loved learning.
“I enjoyed my degree,” she said. “I thought the content and materials were very good and the lecturers were brilliant – they all had a legal background. I really liked the books too. Of course some topics were tricky, but that’s because of the law itself.”
My goal was that I wanted to qualify as a lawyer. I didn’t actually know if I was going to get the training contract that I needed in order to qualify, but I was inspired by the goal. I wanted to get a 1:1 so I decided to reach for the sky and get the best degree I could.
“I completed my degree in 2017, and I got my 1:1.”
After finishing her OU degree, Jo completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC) through online distance learning and began a training contract at CMS, where she was working.
She said: “People don’t normally do this their LPC and training contract at the same time – that was hard!”
Three years ago, after completing her training contract and the LLM i-LPC with the University of Law, Jo qualified as a lawyer. She is still working for CMS in Edinburgh, where she is now an Associate.
“OU study benefitted me massively. I wouldn’t be here in the job that I really, really wanted, if it wasn’t for the OU!” she said. “I am so thankful that it’s there for people who didn’t enjoy school or who left school not knowing what to do next. Alternative routes are most definitely an option.
My top tip if you’re embarking on an OU qualification would be to go in with your eyes open, stay organised and take each day as it comes. Have the confidence to jump in with both feet because some risks are definitely worth taking.
“Of course there were points I felt like giving up – everyone gets those! You just have to pick yourself back up. A good night’s sleep solves a lot – so does a day off, some exercise, and seeking encouragement from those around you.
“But essentially, the OU has given me a really good degree that is going to open up – and has already opened up – so many doors for me. I was lucky that I was already in a law firm when I began studying, but it still took a lot of hard work and convincing to get to where I am today."
“As far as the future’s concerned, I plan to go with the flow and see what the next few years bring in terms of opportunities. For anyone thinking they can’t do it, I’m proof that they can!”