Focus: Career changers: The late show

Entering law off the back of a previous career takes courage and can be tough, but law firms realise that the experience a mature starter can bring to the job is nothing to sniff at

Mary Smillie says that breaking into the law as a mature student was difficult at first. Not because she lacked the academic ability or talent, but rather because she thought
many of the application forms used to recruit trainees were tailored ­specifically to “young 20-somethings fresh out of university”.

Smillie is 52. Now a Bird & Bird associate, she admits she almost gave up hope after attempting to fill in the lengthy online forms.

“It was horrific,” she recalls. “The forms didn’t seem to deal with ­anybody who’d come from a different route and I found them very ­restrictive. I’ve since spoken to other mature students who’ve found the same thing.”

Smillie’s culture

Before applying for a training ­contract Smillie had carved out a highly successful career with a ­pharmaceutical company. She ­juggled her career and studying for a law degree with the Open University at the same time.

“My previous job required me to work with lawyers on certain aspects of regulation and the whole legal side of things really interested me,” reveals Smillie. “After doing a law degree and LPC, I decided I wanted to qualify as a lawyer. Although the application forms initially put me off, I decided to apply through email so I could explain my situation more fully.”

And her tactic paid off. Following an informal interview with some partners at Bird & Bird, she was offered a training contract.

Smillie admits she did not take part in the usual summer vacation scheme or assessment day, which most trainees have to go through.

“I’m actually glad I didn’t do any of that because, looking at the summer schemers coming into the office now, who are in their teens or 20s, I know I wouldn’t have felt comfortable,” she says. “And the work they do wouldn’t have highlighted the skills I have.”

Smillie is now one and half years-qualified and working in the firm’s IP department. One thing she found particularly hard was being separated from her husband, who lives in the marital home in ­Eastbourne.

“We purchased a flat in London, which I stayed in during the week, and then I’d see him at the weekends,” she says. “That was very difficult – almost unbearable.”

But once qualified Smillie managed to negotiate that she would work from home on a Monday and Tuesday so she would get to spend more time with her husband.

Smillie believes that, although her age was a small stumbling block at the application stage, it has never been an issue at work. She insists that after making an effort by joining the ladies football team and taking the “banter and friendly teasing” on the chin, she was accepted among her trainee intake.

“There are obviously moments when you realise you’re older than everyone else, and that’s usually when you’re in general conversation about things such as Facebook, which seems to be a very important feature in youngsters’ lives,” she notes.

And while she is older than all the partners she has been supervised by, she insists that it is the amount of experience you have that earns respect.

Smillie, though, is still way above the average age for solicitors with practising certificates.

According to research by the Law Society in 2009, the average age of a male practising certificate holder at the time was 44.2 years compared with 37.9 years for females.

However, DLA Piper graduate recruitment adviser Claire Lay says she has seen an increasing number of mature candidates coming through at application stage.

“People are living longer and ­working longer than they used to, so somebody switching to law later in life will still have a good number of working years ahead of them,” Lay explains. “At the end of the day, it’s about ­job satisfaction for people now and they’re far more likely to retrain than used to be the case.”

A different spin

For 36-year-old former DJ Tom Harding, this is ­particularly true.

“Having ’professional DJ’ on your CV is one of those love or hate things for potential employers,” admits Harding, now an associate at Olswang. “Some looked at it and thought ’no’, as they’d have ­preferred someone with a more ­traditional background; but a few clearly thought ’this guy looks interesting’ and gave me an interview.”

Harding used to work as an ­international DJ, flying around the world and playing to thousands of music fans.

“My most memorable gigs would have to be headlining the 60,000-people Dance Valley Festival in ­Holland above Carl Cox, or even the time I played with Paul Oakenfold in Israel while watching the sun rise over the mountains,” he relates fondly. “And obviously playing at Space in Ibiza was my DJ dream come true.”

But despite living the glamorous lifestyle of a superstar DJ, Harding says he always planned on trying to get into law once he retired from the decks.

And things have seemed to pan out nicely for him. After studying industrial economics at Nottingham University and graduating in 1997, he went back to law school to do the GDL and LPC in 2004.

Harding was then lucky enough to scoop a training contract with Olswang and insists he has not looked back since. He even claims his time working as a DJ has given him loads of transferable skills.

“Every weekend I’d fly somewhere new and meet new promoters, so you learnt quickly the importance of ­getting on with a variety of people, which helps when speaking to clients,” he explains. “I also used to own and run record labels and a DJ management company, so I had a good knowledge of how to run a ­business.”

Tackling fresh challenges

Former Irish international rugby star David Quinlan also believes his ­experiences have made him a more rounded lawyer.

“I think having a previous career gives you a more grounded approach when dealing with client situations, as you have more life experience under your belt,” claims Quinlan.

Quinlan, who joined English rugby club Northampton Saints from ­Leinster in 2005, was advised to end his rugby career after reviewing the results of a MRI scan with a ­neurosurgeon.

The centre, who gained two caps on Ireland’s 2005 summer tour of Japan, decided to move into law because he had studied it at University College Dublin (UCD) and already had a Masters in Criminology from ­Cambridge University.

“It was an amazing experience to play for my country and I had a great time at both Leinster and Northampton, but I knew I’d eventually go into the legal profession,” he says. “It’s just a shame the rugby ended a little ­sooner than I expected.”

In September 2006 Quinlan ­started his LPC at BPP Law School’s Holborn branch and soon after ­managed to scoop a training contract with magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. He says that, although his age has never been an issue since deciding to switch careers, he has had some strange conversations with his more youthful peers.

“Once I was having a discussion with a couple of other trainees about the Olympics in 1984, when one told me she hadn’t even been born then,” he laughs. “But Freshfields has been quite sympathetic about the age of the supervisors they put me with, so I’ve never really noticed the age gap.”

Quinlan, who has just ­qualified into Freshfields’ corporate department, has been using his ­experience of the sporting industry during his secondment to the ­London ­Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Locog).

“It’s amazing what you can bring to a career in law from other professions,” he emphasises.

Sound advice

Taylor Wessing trainee Tony Woods agrees that working in a different industry before you begin to carve out your legal career can have its ­benefits.

“You go into the job having a real understanding of what it’s like to be in a business situation,” argues Woods. “You have the commercial awareness that every employer’s looking for.”

Woods worked as a PR manager for Universal Music for more than four years before deciding that a career in law was for him.

“I used to sometimes work with the in-house legal team and was ­really interested in the work they were doing around piracy and ­copyright,” he says. “You don’t realise how much law there is in everyday life – especially in the music industry.”

And so, with his interest ignited, Woods decided to make the break and do the GDL part-time at BPP’s Waterloo arm while continuing to work full-time at ­Universal.

“It was really hard work and I had to do a couple of hours’ work each night after a long day in the office and give up my weekends,” he recalls. “It was a lot of money to fork out too, but I had a goal I wanted to reach, which really kept me going.”

After finishing his GDL Woods managed to secure a training ­contract with Taylor Wessing, which meant the firm paid for his LPC fees and gave him back the money he had spent on the GDL.

School’s out forever

The prospect of giving up a regular income to retrain as a lawyer can be daunting, especially if you do not have the guarantee of a training contract at the end of it. Herbert Smith trainee Shane Mitchell was faced with this dilemma as he began to think about moving from teaching to law.

“It was a hard decision because I really loved what I was doing and I knew the work was really making a difference, but I just didn’t feel ­challenged enough and I knew the City was where I wanted to be,” admits 30-year-old Mitchell, who spent three and a half years teaching in a state sixth-form college in ­Ladbroke Grove.

His interest in law came when he started working for a children’s ­charity called The Greenhouse Schools Project, which meant he had to establish ­relationships with City firms to gain sponsorship.

“I liked the ­atmosphere and, because I’d studied at Cambridge, a lot of my friends were already ­established in the City – I just knew I wanted more, and law had always been at the back of my mind,” he says. “So I took a ­gamble and took out a credit card to pay for the GDL.”

Luckily he did not have to get bogged down in ­student debt as he ­managed to get an offer from Herbert Smith just before he had to pay for his fees.

But Mitchell admits he did have to take out various loans while studying to keep himself in the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.

“I was an adult and I’d got used to a certain lifestyle,” he admits. “I ­wasn’t prepared to go back and start living in student digs, so I used loans to help me get by. But I only did that because I knew I was soon going to start earning a good salary to pay them off.”

Turning the tables

For any mature student there are risks, but ­former university lecturer Andrew Skudder says you just know when it is time to make the move.

“I was doing a degree in Law with European Law at Oxford ­University and took part in an exchange year to Holland,” he says. “I loved it, and one of the lecturers there asked me to work for him, so I kind of just fell into teaching.

“I’d always wanted to go into law, but I ended up teaching it. I did it for seven years while studying for my PhD, but I decided I wanted to ­practise what I was preaching and try to get a training contract in the City.”

Skudder applied to Freshfields and managed to secure a training ­contract, which meant the firm ­covered the costs of his LPC.

“I didn’t have to worry about the cost of the LPC, so that was good, and of course I felt very fortunate,” he says.

But starting the course was rather more of a shock, as he struggled to be on the other side of the teacher’s desk.

“It was very strange indeed to be the one absorbing information rather than giving it,” remembers Skudder. “I almost wanted to start teaching each class myself, but I soon got used to it.”
But three years on, in Freshfields’ litigation department, Skudder has proved that you can switch careers and be incredibly successful.

“If you find yourself thinking about switching careers and stepping into the unknown – even if you’re already very successful in your current job – I’d say go for it,” he insists. “After all, you’ll always have the skills you’ve learnt, which means you can go back. It’s much worse wishing you’d had the guts to go forward.”