In the latest in our series looking at graduates of non-traditional universities who have gained City training contracts, we meet James England, who studied Law with Business at Portsmouth University and is due to start at Mayer Brown in March 2018.

What’s your background? Why did you choose Portsmouth for your degree?

I studied Law with Business at university and graduated in 2014. Prior to securing a training contract with Mayer Brown, I spent 18 months working as a management consultant in technology based sectors, then completed the LPC. Outside of work, I play a lot of sport and like to travel (when time permits!).

I underperformed at A Level, which limited my choice of university. At that time, Portsmouth had just opened a new business school, and was moving up the UK ranking tables for law.

How did you enjoy your time at university? Do you have any regrets over your choice? What were the best and worst bits?

I really enjoyed university and have no regrets over choosing Portsmouth. I received close access to lecturers, a strong support network, and structured guidance throughout my degree. The sports and social scene was good too.

Worst: some fairly low moments in my final year wrestling thick textbooks.

Best: It’s a cliché, but the close friends I made will always stand among the highlights – some wild parties on Margate Road also come to mind.

When did you first aspire to work at a top commercial firm? How did your ambitions evolve?

I spent the summer before my final undergraduate year on placement in the commercial department of a national law firm. It was a great experience and from this point, I was confident I wanted to qualify as a solicitor.

As I developed professionally, both the specific practice areas which interest me, together with the type of law firm I want to build a career at, became clear.

Did you feel at a disadvantage compared to other candidates when making applications or going to interviews because of the university you attended? Did you encounter any difficulties that you could attribute to your university background?

I struggled to secure interviews during my degree; it was challenging to overcome the weaker areas in my profile (GCSEs/A-Levels). However, after graduating with a first class degree, working closely with senior management teams of global corporations in my postgraduate employment, and completing the LPC with distinction, I felt confident in my application.

I never felt disadvantaged attending assessment centres/interviews, because in person, all applicants are on an even playing field. I did get a real grilling in a couple of interviews (everyone does). But these revolved around my early academics, rather than university. Ultimately, I believed myself to be a strong candidate, and was proud to have attended the University of Portsmouth.

When did you first come across Mayer Brown? What was your early interaction with the firm and how did you pitch yourself to them in your application?

I was invited to attend an open day at Mayer Brown upon reaching the 2016 Aspiring Solicitors UK Commercial Awareness Competition final. I subsequently completed a vacation scheme with the firm.

I placed emphasis on my commercial experience and ability to build and maintain positive working relationships; from consultancy projects I had led, to founding and running a profitable limited company. I then tried to draw parallels between how my strengths and values are aligned with those of Mayer Brown.

What advice do you have for students with ambitions to work at a big commercial firm, who aren’t at one of the traditional ‘prestigious’ universities?

Grades matter. Strong academics are a prerequisite for any big commercial law firm. Set out to achieve the best grades possible throughout your degree.

Be organised. Having a coherent strategy to navigate the vacation scheme application process is important. Start early by compiling detailed research on selected firms, noting key dates/deadlines, preparing for interviews etc.

Network. Apply to Open Days/events/law fairs. These are accessible opportunities to get under the hood of a law firm, make a positive impression, and determine whether that firm is a good fit for you. Remember it’s a two way process!

Quality is key. A well drafted application will stand out (regardless of university). Aim to demonstrate a clear understanding of how Target firm operates as a business, the challenges it faces, the opportunities…

Sell yourself. Applications/interviews are platforms to showcase why ‘you’ are the right candidate for Target firm. Show personality and convey what it is about you which will add value and return profit over multiple business cycles.

Stay committed. Securing a training contract is an arduous process, but worth it. Keep motivated and don’t give up!