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Part-Time Law Programs a Study in Focus, Efficiency

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page K01

Terri Natoli knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

But with four young children to raise -- and a full-time job she enjoyed -- it didn't make sense to head back to school full time.

So she went part time, earning her law degree from George Mason University in four years instead of the usual three, graduating first among the part-time students in her class and picking up several awards. She also gave birth to her fifth child. Her husband accompanied her when she went to Roanoke for the bar exam, and she nursed the baby during breaks. (Yes, she passed the bar -- on the first try.)

Now, few are gifted with Natoli's focus and efficiency, but plenty of people share her success at making it through law school part time.

Many law schools offer part-time programs, including some of the best schools in the country. Catholic University's law school is especially popular with part-time students, with about a third choosing the evening option. Thomas Haederle, a spokesman for the school, said its evening students are motivated and disciplined -- and the school feels obligated to accommodate them.

Those who studied law this way say there is one big advantage: saving money.

Many part-time law graduates said they could not have afforded to quit their jobs in order to go to school full time. Many had children to support, as well as substantial student loans to pay back from undergrad years. Going part time, often subsidized through tuition assistance from their employer, was the only way to fulfill their dream.

Of course, going part time also has drawbacks.

One common concern is that a part-time program is less rigorous than the traditional full-time option. The schools that offer such programs say that is not the case -- and their graduates back them up. The core classes are the same, and often so are the teachers.

Another concern is that potential employers might not take the degree seriously.

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