Profession welcomes mature students into ranks

Many people in their 50s are just getting round to thinking about retirement. But Last Cawthra Feather trainee Steve Willey has other ideas. Willey, who bagged a training contract with the Yorkshire-based firm aged 56, is looking forward to qualifying as a solicitor specialising in employment law in March 2011.

Before securing his training contract Willey managed to carve out a more interesting CV than most. After dropping out of an English degree he joined a management trainee scheme at a major supermarket. He then worked in a bank, then for its trade union, which sponsored him to study law part-time at the University of Kent.

“As a mature student you take studying more responsibly,” he says. “The only downside is that, as I was studying part-time, I couldn’t get fully involved with the non-academic side of student life.”

After gaining a first-class honours, Willey volunteered at the Citizens Advice Bureau before being taken on as a paid employee. He later joined an employment consultancy where he worked until 2006.

Willey applied to work at Last Cawthra in 2007 and, after starting his LPC, the firm offered him a training contract. Willey is completing the LPC at the same time as his training contract, which is no mean feat.

“The hardest thing is the sheer physical and mental effort of combining a full-time job with study. At 8.30pm, when you’ve been away from home for over 14 hours, it’s extremely tough to get your head around a complex legal matter,” he admits.

But Willey is determined to complete his training contract even though his fellow trainees, who are on the traditional path and joined Last Cawthra after finishing the LPC, will qualify several months ahead of him.

“I hope people like me will be much more common in the legal profession,” says Willey. “Society’s concept of age has changed – 50 is the new 30.”

Willey is part of a growing band of 50-somethings who are embracing law as a second or indeed third career. As The Lawyer reported earlier this month (8 June), one of the City’s oldest trainees, Mary Smillie, qualified with City law firm Bird & Bird aged 50. And proving that age is an advantage in the workplace, the lawyer completed her training contract ahead of schedule thanks to the experience she had gained in her former life as technical director of pharmaceutical company Teva.

Smillie, who has qualified into the firm’s IP practice, says: “I’m 50 but I still have a good number of years to give. A lot of my younger colleagues are dreaming of partnership, but I’m not thinking about that because I really enjoy the job I do.”

The story of Smillie’s success in a challenging market for trainees triggered a flurry of supportive comments on from fellow mature trainees and law students. One reader, Sophia, wrote: “Congratulations Mary and all the very best in your new role! I thought myself quite an oddity when I qualified aged 42 in September. It’s great to see my little club expanding. Maybe other firms will take note of your achievement and broaden their thinking a little.”

And it is not just the LPC that is attracting applicants in their 50s. Top vascular surgeon Anthony Douglas-Hamilton is preparing to be called to the bar after competing the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) aged 69.

Douglas-Hamilton claims he was well equipped to handle the research and accuracy elements of the BVC, even though technological advances caused him problems to begin with.

“One thing I’d never come to terms with is computers, as I’d always had a secretary type my letters. I had to start from the beginning and learn how to use things like legal search engines. It was quite a steep learning curve,” he admits.

Aspiring lawyers face endless hurdles in entering the profession, but as Willey, Smillie and Douglas-Hamilton prove, age need not be one of them.