Project Millennial: following the careers of five young lawyers

The legal profession is entering an exciting new phase. In the next few decades changes to training, technology and the way lawyers are regulated will transform the landscape.

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Starting out (left to right): Zoe Bradshaw, Rebecca Mitchell, James Tobias, Louisa Jacobs, Leah Glover

It will be a challenging enough time for those whose practice is already established but what will it be like for those who have only just qualified? How will their careers take shape?

We decided to find out. We have gathered together five junior solicitors from different backgrounds and firms. And in a first for The Lawyer, we plan to follow them for the rest of their working life to see how their careers develop and their ambitions change.

If we are lucky our five chosen juniors will go on to have fascinating and varied careers in practice, becoming partners, department heads or in-house counsel – or even taking up jobs in as-yet undefined legal roles (if we are unlucky, they will all have left the law within two years complaining of burnout).

In this first feature we are meeting our select five and getting to know a little bit about their aspirations, plus what they think of the current state of the profession.

For more from the class of 2016, watch our video introduction to them and hear what they have to say in our podcast.

Why did you want to be a lawyer and what was your path to the law?

Zoe Bradshaw: My undergraduate degree was business studies and in my placement year I ended up working in a law office, which was most unexpected. I loved it, and decided that law was what I wanted to do. I moved up to Oxford Brookes and did the GDL, and then applied for a paralegal role at Seddons. I spent two happy years in the property team, then felt ready to apply for a training contract. So I’ve been at Seddons for four years now, and qualified for two months.

Rebecca Mitchell: I went to Newcastle and studied history – specifically Labour Party politics, so not directly linked to law. Career-wise, I wanted something that challenged me academically and was also varied in the type of work you do. With law, no two cases are the same because, even if they seem in principle to be identical, there is always one differentiating factor: the clients.

I applied to quite a few firms inside and outside of London, and opted for BP Collins in Gerrards Cross because that’s where I grew up.

Leah Glover: I wanted to be a lawyer from an early age. My parents and teachers picked up on how assertive – and argumentative – I was even as a child. So they suggested quite early that being a lawyer was something I might be interested in, and watching legal dramas on TV I thought – yes, this is something I could do. So in Year 7 I started to work really hard. I studied law at Nottingham and got my training contract at DWF.

“I didn’t go into the legal profession thinking ‘I’m going into this because I want a great work-life balance’”

James Tobias: I did History at Nottingham University. As a lot of history graduates find out, people say you’ll either become a teacher or a lawyer. I didn’t like history quite as much as I thought I did, so I looked at some other career options.

I felt the varied workload you might get as a City lawyer, as well as the mentally stimulating aspect of the job, would suit me, so I trained at Reed Smith.

Louisa Jacobs: I’m a bit different in that I came to law quite late. I initially got a biochemistry degree and worked for various medical research charities in the grant funding sector.

Then, when I was 29, I decided to change my career. I wanted something more challenging and stimulating, something with a good career path – so I applied for training contracts and ended up at Bristows.

The SRA has just proposed a centralised final exam that everyone would take on qualification. Do you think that’s a good idea? Does law school work at the moment?

Tobias: I think it works, on the whole. There needs to be better access for people, and I absolutely agree that there should be more options as to how people can qualify as a solicitor, without necessarily going through the rigid process we’ve had to do.

From my point of view, I did the conversion course and a lot of people said that it would be a really difficult year. Actually, I quite enjoyed it. Moving on to the Legal Practice Course I felt a little more like I was jumping through hoops – but I wouldn’t want to enter practice without having some of those skills at least. There’s definitely a place for the LPC: whether it’s the only mandatory option is more debatable.

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Jacobs: I tend to agree. When you’re doing the GDL and LPC, it’s amazing the number of people who tell you that you can forget it all because you won’t use it when you start your training contract. Actually, I found it quite useful as a trainee and I use the things I learned a lot more than people said I would.

Mitchell: James said the LPC was a hoop-jumping exercise but I found the LPC more useful than the GDL. During my training contract I referred to my LPC notes quite a lot.

Tobias: That’s a fair point. There is a lot of practical use – I guess I enjoyed the GDL more from an academic perspective.

Bradshaw: I was the other way around. I found the GDL so crammed: you were having to memorise so much information. What I enjoyed about the LPC was learning the skills we’re all using now in practice.

Glover: One thing about the LPC as it stands is that you’re out of work for a period. Some people do it over 12 months; I did it over six. I did the accelerated course because for me it was better financially to be out of work for six months instead of a year. That’s one thing to consider: if there’s an option where people can be working and earning, and take an exam at the end, it will really reduce the financial burden for people trying to get qualified. Everyone here probably still has debts from law school. If you can learn the skills on the job and can take an exam at the end which means you’re at the same level as everyone else, why not? Let’s make it easier for everybody and get rid of that financial burden.

Tobias: That route requires a lot more from law firms and employers, who have to take time to do that ‘hands-on’ training you might need. In a way, I think a lot of firms quite enjoy the fact that they get their trainees having done the LPC: they know they’re going to be able to do certain things. If you don’t have that knowledge when you’re going into the workplace, from a firm’s perspective it might be harder – but I agree that in terms of access to the profession it can only be a good thing.

Glover: It might be better for smaller firms because they’ve been paying to put trainees through the LPC. If it reduced the burden on them and encouraged them to take on more people it might reduce the bottleneck we’ve got at the moment.

Mitchell: The lead-up to qualification was quite stressful. Having that added pressure of an exam to determine whether you qualify or not might be taking things too far. Before you qualify you’re trying to persuade your employer to keep you, you’re doing your CV, you’re doing applications, you’re doing interviews and then you’ve got your regular work as well. To have an exam on top -potentially puts a lot of pressure on people.

Glover: Another note of caution is that as a trainee you already have a lot of exams, and certain people might not be good at that but they’re going to be fantastic lawyers nonetheless.

The accepted wisdom is that Generation Y are far more interested in things such as work-life balance. Do you think that’s true? Do you see any differences in attitude between your peer group and the generation above? 

Tobias: You’re always going to find similarities and differences between individuals. And then there’s the long-running stereotype that lawyers are all a similar type of person, and there is certainly some truth in that idea. But whether the latest generation is different from its predecessors? Well, I didn’t go into the legal profession thinking ‘I’m going into this because I want a great work-life balance’, I went in expecting to have to work quite hard. So if work-life balance was my priority, I probably wouldn’t be here.

As for the partners and more senior members of the team, they obviously progressed in their careers at a different time, both in terms of the economy and how legal services were used by clients, so their experience is different from ours and their career progression is different from how ours will probably be. At the same time, there are similarities in how we view work and life.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Glover: I’d like to be a partner. I’d like to play a part in making big decisions and leading a team. I’ve got two trainees in our team who I spend most of my time looking after and I enjoy it, being a bit bossy. I’d like to play an even bigger role in deciding where the team’s going. In the firm too, I’m involved in our sports and social group and we’ve got a young professionals’ networking group that I’m part of. I like being involved in the wider firm and trying to influence things. For me, partnership is a way to do that.

Bradshaw: Short term, I’ve been put forward for my STEP exam which is a specialist private client qualification. I thought my days of exams were over, but now I’ve got two more years of them.

Longer term, I’d like to work my way up to partnership. As Leah said, I’d like to be part of the firm and help run it. I’d like to stay with Seddons because I’m happy and I’ve grown up there, so if I was still there in 10 years, I’d be very happy.

Mitchell: I’m going to push for partner, and I’m going to aim for 10 years. It’s been done before at my firm, so I’m optimistic. I’m interested in how law firms are run and how that’s changing. They’re becoming more of a business and I’d like to be involved in the decisions of the firm I work for. For me it seems natural that you’d want to be a partner.

Tobias: It’s interesting – until you qualify, your career path is predetermined. I woke up on my first day as an NQ and thought – ‘Wow, now what am I doing?’ Six months down the line and now I’m thinking, ‘Am I moving seat now?’ No, I’m still here.

You think about what’s to come. I enjoy what I’m doing, I enjoy where I am. As long as that’s the case my aim is to continue progressing and make partner eventually – as soon as I can.

But at the same time, particularly in the media industry where I am, there are a lot of opportunities, both legal and commercial. In-house legal teams are growing hugely and there are significant in-house teams at a lot of media companies. At this stage I couldn’t say I definitely want to go down that road, but I also couldn’t say that I don’t want to do it. So for me, I’m continuing to go on that road to partnership for as long as I’m happy and interested.

Jacobs: I’ve had quite an interesting path to law anyway. I’m certainly really enjoying working in private practice, and I certainly want to stay at my firm over the next five to 10 years and get a grounding as an associate.

When I think about my career, I think not necessarily of the position I want to hold but what I want to be a specialist in – so I want to specialise in IP in the life sciences and tech sector. That’s my focus for the next five years. Where that ultimately leads me? I’m keeping my options open. I wouldn’t just focus on becoming a partner.

Glover: Like James, I’ve done an in-house secondment. I think when you see it from the other side… A lot of the pressures of law firms – the client pressures, the billing pressures, the targets – that’s all taken away and you just focus on the technical legal side of things. I can definitely see why that would appeal, especially in a few years, when you think ‘I can’t take this stress any more’.

Everyone around this table is academically interested in the law, and if you want to focus on that without any of those added law firm pressures, in-house is a great place to do it. Let’s see what happens…

Generation Y attitudes

Most of our five selected juniors have partnership on their mind for the future, but are they the norm?

In 2015 Lawyer 2B surveyed more than 1,500 students thinking about a career in law to ask about their ambitions.

Despite all the talk of Generation Y wanting ‘different things’ from their careers, 42 per cent said they hoped to work their way up the legal career ladder and become a partner one day (see chart below).

A further 21 per cent of students said they would like to go in-house, while 20 per cent said they had not yet considered their longer term career.

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Listen to the full podcast for more from our millennials, and watch out for more features with them as their careers develop.