Applicant blog competition winner: Starting A Law Degree The Other Side of 35

Blog co-authors, Sarah Tohill and Victoria Phillips, are joining the University of Sussex’s Law LLB in September 2020 as (very) mature students.

In a slightly overgrown corner of Ovingdean’s disarmingly pretty St Wulfran’s churchyard, a sun-mottled headstone gives nothing away about the near-seismic importance of one of its tenants: Britain’s first practising female barrister, Helena Normanton.

In 1922, Normanton’s historical call to the bar was the start of a ground-breaking career. What’s more, her pioneering career didn’t begin until she was 40. A staggering coup for a woman of the time that’s still palpably gutsy today, Normanton’s hand was to a large extent forced. In spite of ambitions to qualify in and practice law as a younger woman, it wasn’t until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 came into force that she could finally realise her intentions.

We stand by the grave for a while, reflecting on the magnitude of the person we’ve come to pay our respects to. This is by no means a pilgrimage, but, she grew up in Brighton, and was one of the first donors to the Sussex University Appeal in 1956. Coming to law perceptibly late in life didn’t stop Normanton, and it certainly didn’t compromise everything she achieved. It’s hard not to feel suffused with a sense of encouragement, of ‘can do’, impossible not to feel thoroughly buoyed up and inspired by this woman’s story.

We begin our journey in law as undergraduates at Sussex this autumn. And while we’ve had a far easier road to navigate than Normanton, we have something in common with her. That is, we’ve had careers already, and we’re older students; 36 and 38 years old respectively.

Why law? Why now?


I trained as a nurse, gradually easing myself out of the profession when my music career took off. I spent years touring and performing, and more recently, run a busy vocal teaching studio and lead choirs in Brighton. I love it, but I felt like something was missing and craved a challenge. I had my epiphany scrolling through course titles on the University of Sussex website. The moment my eyes landed on the word ‘law’ I instantly knew this was it. I could practically see the lightbulb above my head switch on.

It feels strange returning to higher education at 36, having gone for the first time exactly half my life ago. I’m married with three stepchildren (two of whom are also at university) and a business to run – so life is full on. Naturally I wonder, am I too old to be starting all over again? Growing up in a small, rural working class town near the Welsh border, the first of my family to go to university, my 18-year-old-self would never have imagined myself as a lawyer. Now older – and at least 3% wiser – and as a true advocate for social mobility, I’m incredibly excited to enter this brave new world.


The short answer? I should’ve done this years ago.

In fact, I was halfway through an English Lit degree in 2002 when my tutor suggested I transition over to the law programme. This was the first time I’d ever considered law and was taken totally off-guard. I honestly thought I was about to be expelled, so ominous was this summons to ‘chat about my future’; but here I was, being offered a red pill of sorts. It would mean starting again, reframing how I viewed myself, and tacking on another year to my undergrad career. Ludicrously at the time, that extra year felt like too long, and unaffordable. Besides: I wanted to be a journalist.

And I was, for a bit. Yet, ever since that conversation with my tutors 20 years ago, the idea to pursue law has continued to rattle around my head like a ball bearing.

I can’t tell you exactly why 2020 became the year I applied to Sussex’s law programme. It just felt like finally the right time. Certainly, what the last 20 years have made me realise is that life is short, and that changing careers, retraining, is attainable. So here I am, at the age of 38, ready to become a fresher again – and I can’t wait.

Visiting her final resting place, 60 years after her death and almost 100 since she became the first practicing female barrister in the UK, we wonder what Normanton would have thought about our decisions to return to study, to start out on a whole new career path? We can’t be sure, but we like to think she’d tell us, “Go for it!”


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