Michelle Stewart awarded Certificate of Achievement during Adult Learners’ Week

Michelle Stewart left school with GCSEs and her first job was packing knives on a factory conveyor belt. Having studied with CILEx Law School over the past six years, she is now a Graduate Member of CILEx and a fee earner for Thompsons Solicitors working on six-figure compensation claims for asbestos-related disease. She was nominated by CILEx Law School for an Adult Learners’ Week Certificate of Achievement which was awarded to her on Monday 15 June 2015 at the firm’s premises in Newcastle by Andrew Venn, partner at Thompsons and National Co-ordinator for Asbestos Case Management.

Michelle tells her story: “I left school aged 16 in 1989. I had gained a handful of GCSEs, together with typing and word-processing qualifications. I come from a very working class background, and no-one in my family had gone to college or university, (if at all to school on a regular basis!), therefore further education was not an option I considered.

My first job was packing knives on a conveyor belt in the factory where my mum worked. After a few months I got the chance to put my typing and word-processing skills into practice as a YTS at Allied Dunbar Assurance. I then moved to a law firm in Sheffield, first as a post office junior, then as a typist, a departmental secretary and finally a personal secretary to a solicitor. In 2008, after working for Thompsons, Solicitors as a secretary for a number of years, I decided that studying for the CILEx Level 3 qualification would give me the chance to move into a paralegal role, but as I had been out of education for such a long time, and had only studied to GCSE level, I decided to start at Level 2, to see how this went.”

Michelle enrolled on her first course, the City & Guilds/CILEx Level 2 Certificate in Legal Studies, with CILEX Law School  in October 2008. This course is an introductory paralegal course aimed at support staff and legal secretaries in law firms who are looking to gain some understanding of the context of the correspondence, documents and procedures that they are involved with in their work.

Michelle did well in her Level 2 qualification and decided to take her legal studies further. She embarked on the training route to become a Chartered Legal Executive. The first stage of the qualification is the ten-unit CILEx Level 3 Professional Diploma in Law and Practice.

Kathryn Kirby, Courses Manager at CILEx Law School, said: “I first met Michelle at the intensive CILEx Level 3 induction day in Birmingham. I had spoken to her on many occasions during her Level 2 studies and was now meeting a much more confident person than had started her studies a year earlier. As the courses are by distance learning, the teaching is delivered by printed materials, webcasts and online activities. Michelle took full advantage of all the resources, and fitted her study exercises around her domestic and work commitments. She sat her first exam in January 2010 after only three months study and gained a distinction! I saw Michelle when she attended her revision sessions and took a keen interested in her progress. When the exam results came out she always sent me an email sharing her excitement at her results.”

Michelle completed her first five units, leading to the CILEx Level 3 Certificate in Law and Practice, quickly, and then went on to complete the five remaining Level 3 courses for the CILEx Professional Diploma in Law and Practice. She enrolled on two courses in February 2011 and passed the exams in June 2011, and then on a further three courses in September 2011. She again completed the courses quickly, and gained excellent results. Many people start the Chartered Legal Executive qualification, but not everyone stays the course, at least not with the relentless pace that Michelle had set herself.

Michelle said: “At the beginning of my studies I had a two-year-old son and a new baby. Why I decided this was a good time to start studying I’ll never know, but the distance learning courses through CILEx Law School allowed me to fit studying around my family and working life. Over the years, when assignment deadlines or exam dates were imminent, I put my children into after school club, or asked my mother-in-law to look after them so that I could put in extra hours. At a weekend my husband would take our boys out swimming or for walks so that I could be left to study. On one occasion my husband took our boys away on holiday to allow me to study for an upcoming exam. I had to become a master juggler as my husband worked away from home often. I would have to go to work, carry out the day-to-day duties at home and then start studying after I had put my boys to bed.

“Although I felt that I was missing out on precious family time, my husband and children also became one of the reasons for doing what I was doing – this was for us. I declined invitations to birthday parties and nights out as I didn’t want anything to jeopardise what I was working so hard to achieve. Two years into my studies a post for a litigation assistant on the asbestos team became available. I saw this as an ideal opportunity to put my qualifications into practice and take the next step in my career. My job was to assist other fee earners on their cases.”

The second stage of training to become a Chartered Legal Executive is set at Level 6, equivalent to the final year of a degree. The Level 6 Professional Higher Diploma in Law and Practice qualification requires study of three law, a legal practice, and two professional skills subjects. At CILEx Law School we recommend a combined total of 750 study hours to achieve this qualification. Michelle achieved passes in all six subjects over a period of 23 months, between July 2012 and June 2014. Achieving this qualification in less than two years means that Michelle was submitting more than one heavy degree-level assignment a month.  Michelle passed every exam first time and gained many distinctions too, and is now a Graduate Member of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. Becoming a Chartered Legal Executive requires a period of three years of qualifying employment, one of which must take place after all exams have been passed. Michelle is well on her way to completing this.

Michelle’s responsibility at work grew alongside her studies. She was soon allocated cases of her own, involving investigating and advising clients on their legal rights in making a claim for compensation for their, or a family member’s, asbestos related disease. She also manages claims for clients that have been exposed to other harmful substances through no fault of their own.

She says: “Most of my clients are either terminally ill or recently bereaved, and I have to show a huge amount of empathy and understanding. I have become experienced in taking complex statements on liability, often for claimants with multiple employers. I have to consider whether the exposure to asbestos would have been in breach of duty, complex issues of apportionment, causation, quantum and limitation. I also advise on entitlement to state benefits and assist with applications.”

Kathryn added: “The area of work that Michelle has chosen to specialise in is indicative of her character. She wants to use the knowledge and skills she has acquired to help others and works in compensation claims in cases where her clients have suffered from the effects of working with asbestos and other harmful substances. In achieving her qualifications she is in a position to change the lives of her clients. When Michelle first left school after her GCSEs she went to work packing knives on a factory conveyor belt. To be on the brink of becoming a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives from that background is a fantastic achievement. The fact that she has done this in the shortest possible time whilst working and raising her two young sons is what makes this achievement all the more impressive. Her determination to improve her family’s prospects has been a driving force and she is a very worthy recipient of the Adult Learners’ Week Certificate of Achievement. It has been a pleasure to have shared Michelle’s journey with her.”

The photo shows Michelle being awarded the Certificate of Achievement by Andrew Venn. Michelle has worked with Andrew since 2002, initially as his secretary, and now as a fee earner on the asbestos team at Thompsons in Newcastle.