3 June 2013
The Lawyer 2B Careers Day provided Year 12 students with everything they need to know to break into the legal profession
Many people have the luxury of working out what they want to do for the rest of their lives when they graduate from university. Some take longer. They may have a hazy idea of jobs they would not mind doing, they might even have done a week or so of work experience here and there, but they will not have had to make any tough decisions.
If you want to be a lawyer, though, the picture is different. Even if you decide to keep your options open by doing a non-law degree at university, you need to start accruing experience with every opportunity that comes your way. So how can you make the most of your time in sixth-form?
With any career choice the first thing to do is determine whether you will enjoy the job. This may sound obvious but there is a big difference between an outsider’s perception of what a lawyer’s day-to-day work involves and what it actually consists of. This is particularly true of barristers, whose profession tends to fall prey to TV producers’ poetic licence.
Another tip to bear in mind is not to be swayed by the potential financial rewards of the career. You need to enjoy the job in its own right, not only because you will be spending a lot of time doing it, but also because you will not be very good at it if all you think about is your pay cheque at the end of the month. It is also a myth that a legal career guarantees a rosy bank balance - yes, City lawyers can earn a lot, as can some barristers, but most lawyers do not reap such rewards.
Got what it takes?
So how do you work out if you might enjoy a legal career?
School careers adviser and former magic circle lawyer Sue Highmore says: “Lawyers’ raison d’etre is to solve other people’s problems - it’s an industry where you are commissioned and paid to take a lot of trouble and sort it out,” she says. “If you don’t like doing that, if you are going to find it irritating and frustrating then there is no point being a lawyer.
“You don’t get a lot of appreciation for sorting things out. That’s what you are paid for. If you do it right they’re happy but they’re not going to shower you with praise, you have to innately want to solve problems.”
If that sounds exciting there are a few other things you need to be good at. First is the ability to command an incredible amount of factual detail. You need to sift through piles of emails, papers and lots of conversations while analysing what you come across and identifying the important details. After that, you need to apply the legal knowledge carefully learnt in lectures and seminars and use it to get the best possible outcome for your client.
Second, you need to be a great communicator. This does not mean that you need to be outgoing and chatty. It means you need to be able to communicate intelligently with a variety of people. You need to be persuasive and able to adapt your message to your audience or client. You have to adapt what you say, how much detail you share with the client and what decisions you take on behalf of the client.
So you like the sound of it and you think you might do a good job of it. But how do you find out more?
“Do not assume that sitting for two weeks in the room of some partner at a City firm is going to teach you anything about being a lawyer. It won’t,” says Highmore. “All you will see is somebody like me three years ago sitting at a desk and writing on bits of paper, which you can’t see and you don’t understand. You will get little research projects which don’t matter much to them, there are not many face-to-face client meetings anymore and you will not see lawyers negotiating with each other across a desk.”
Instead, she advises, go to a firm at local level, where you can see how the firm functions, observe daily working life and see how much difference lawyers can make to people’s lives.
Where to go?
The subject of university is tricky. The golden rule is you need a high 2:1 or 1st. There is also a perception that only Oxbridge or the Russell Group universities will do. While this is sometimes true for the top tier employers, not every firm or chambers is so picky. Mid-tier universities are perfectly acceptable as long as you get a high 2:1.
“There’s a benchmark below which you don’t want to go,” Highmore warns. “I wouldn’t think a law degree from the bottom third of universities would stand you in good stead but, I don’t think the average employer cares where you come from as long as you have got good grades at degree level and on the Legal Practice Course (LPC).”
Highmore has a final word of advice for students torn between studying law at university and another subject. “It is possible to become a very good lawyer with an intellectually rewarding and stimulating job even though you did no law at all until you left university,” she says.
“There is absolutely no reason that you can’t select a degree subject that you positively enjoy and is more versatile. Law is a versatile degree in its own right but it is perhaps not as enjoyable for those who are not totally committed to studying it.
“If you know enough about law and you know you suit it and you know you love it, then by all means study it as you will do much more of it and you will do it in more depth.”
Tips to consider
Talk to an undergraduate law student, a GDL student or an LPC student. They can tell you how hard you will have to work and what prospects look like higher up the legal education chain.
Non-legal work experience is still valuable. It cannot compete with legal experience but it demonstrates that you know how to marshall detail, problem solve, think logically and communicate well. It will also go some way to developing the all-important commercial awareness that lawyers are so keen students have.
If you are set on becoming a lawyer, are prepared to work hard and want to save money, then consider a two-year law degree offered by some private providers.
Visit a magistrates’ court, a crown court and a county court. See the differences between them and how the judges behave. Go to the Old Bailey and watch top barristers at work.
Breaking into law: Lawyer 2B’s Year 12 event
Nearly 150 London state school sixth-form students attended Lawyer 2B’s sixth annual two-day careers event in the City of London in March. Hosted at BPP’s business school in the shadow of City landmark the Gherkin, the day aimed to arm Year 12 students with knowledge of the legal world and the tools to carve out a legal career.
Of the students who attended, 30 per cent have a family member who is a lawyer and 38 per cent a parent who went to university.
Trainees and graduate recruitment managers from Baker & McKenzie, Bircham Dyson Bell, Forsters, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May, as well as BPP academic staff and pupil barristers Suzanne Staunton from Old Square Chambers and Joshua Normanton from 5 Paper Buildings, spoke about how to begin a successful legal career.
Baker & McKenzie trainees Peter Moules and Christine Kumar talked about how lawyers negotiate contracts and gave students an exercise on the potential purchase of an ethical sportswear brand by a luxury fashion house. Bircham Dyson Bell trainees Monika Weglarz and Diana Jackson asked students about their perception of the City and discussed how the financial news might be interpreted in a legal context.
Freshfields trainee recruitment manager Jessica Booker talked to students about City law in practice while Linklaters graduate marketing adviser Sharon Jacobs took students through the steps to qualification as a solicitor.
The day ended with a question and answer session with a panel of law firm and bar representatives. Questions ranged from whether trainees and pupils had any regrets about embarking on a legal career to the intricacies of negotiating and the diversity of the profession.
Booker told students: “Diversity is one of the key things on every commercial law firm’s agenda. They are doing everything they can to rectify the fact that the legal profession does not currently look very diverse. Truthfully, seven or eight years ago, I don’t know whether I could say that. Now I can.”
A Lawyer 2B survey of students who attended the event found that 56 per cent believe that the legal sector still favours those with a privileged upbringing while 39 per cent believe that gender and ethnicity are still significant barriers to entry to the profession.
Where are they now?
Alexander Barnes, Bexley Grammar School
Alexander Barnes attended Lawyer 2B’s Year 12 Careers Day in 2012. He is currently taking his A2 exams. He plans to study history at the University of Exeter from September. After this, he wants to convert to law via the GDL and then complete the LPC.
“Law has always been one of my interests. I enjoy debating and being involved in current affairs and questions of morals and I love to express my opinion. There’s not a set date I decided to go into law, but the idea was proposed to me before my GCSEs and has stuck.
“Attending the Lawyer 2B event allowed me to begin establishing a network of contacts. I was helped especially by Slaughter and May, which had two trainees at the event. I emailed one of them afterwards and he gave me advice on the best route into law.
“The best thing I’ve done since the careers day is focus on the ‘now’. Yes, my ultimate goal is to become a lawyer, but the best you can do is all you can do. Law is a tough profession and to make it you need to be among the best of the best - you need to work as hard as you can, and give 110 per cent, 100 per cent of the time.
“If you want to be a lawyer, and people are telling you that you won’t make it, show them who’s boss - if you forget about your social life over exam periods and really focus on doing the best you can, it’ll totally be worth the sacrifice. The worst thing you can do is get caught up in your dream of being a lawyer and enter your exams thinking, ‘It doesn’t matter how I do, I’ve got what it takes’, because without the grades, you won’t get anywhere very quickly.”
You do not have to go to university to become a lawyer. Firms including Browne Jacobson, Co-operative Legal Services, DWF, Gordons, Irwin Mitchell, Kennedys, Minster Law, Pinsent Masons and Plexus Law now offer legal apprenticeships.
The majority harness the knowledge and expertise of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) to deliver the academic side of the training.
This combined route can act as a substitute for A-levels, a degree and the professional training course requirement, giving school-leavers the opportunity to dive headfirst into a legal career while learning the theoretical elements simultaneously.
Lawyer 2B interviewed Year 12 students about their interest in law and the challenges they may face.
Watch the video from the day online at Lawyer2b.com.
Eric Shango, Barnet & Southgate College
“I’ve been interested in a career in law since a very young age and I feel like I need to pursue it, it’s something that I really want to do. Right now I’m looking for work experience. It doesn’t always come straight away but I have some friends in law firms and chambers so hopefully by this summer I should have something organised. The biggest barrier has to be the competition, you have so many people wanting to be solicitors and barristers, all vying for a place.”
Amarpreet Kaur Tamber, Plumstead Manor School
“I love law. From lesson one it has been amazing. My teacher is a really great influence on me. I’ve always wanted a subject that is academic. And I feel strongly about justice.
“What I really like about law is arguing and debating. I am currently on a Pathways to Law course that is run by University College London and London School of Economics and they find us work experience in top law firms, and gave me a mini-pupillage. They do lots of stuff - debating workshops, writing workshops, they invite you into lectures, it’s great.”
Caleb Kirton, Barnet & Southgate College
“Ever since I was a kid a career as a lawyer has been regarded as very respectable. I’m trying to do as many extra-curricular activities as possible, such as going to court, attending events such as these to speak to trainees, solicitors and barristers, following cases in the news and trying to get work experience at legal firms, to boost my CV.
“I think getting a training contract or pupillage will be extremely hard. That might be my biggest challenge and going to events like this should help me to prepare.”
Dorys Obama, Plumstead Manor School
“The world is very unjust and I want people to know that they have an opportunity. Some people don’t know about the law and I want to be able to help them. I’m going to ask for voluntary work at a crown court, and from there hopefully I’ll be able to meet people who will help me to move up and up.”
Zaynab Rahman, The Charter School
“I find law extremely interesting - the different elements it has, how it leads into so many other things. I’m trying to get work experience and am looking at the grades I need to get to go to one of the good universities. The competition is quite a big barrier - how so many people want to go into a career in law and how diverse and complex the path is.”
Jonathan Rukundo, The Charter School
“I’m interested in a career in law as I think I have the skills to be a solicitor. I debate well and, to be honest, it pays well. I’ve done well in my GCSEs but now I need to nail my A-level grades and get into a good university. I’ve done work experience at SJ Berwin for a week and all my mentors there told me the hours are long.”