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Career changing – a personal update

Career changing – a personal update

Matthew Dow

12/03/2020

As a mature candidate, I often read advice that is targeted towards aspiring student applicants and question to what extent such guidance still applies to my situation. I also know numerous other career changers who share similar concerns about making the transition into law.

For instance, I can no longer improve my confirmed academic qualifications, nor sadly can I become president of my university’s circus society. In addition, I am not in a position to meet my favoured law firm several times a term at campus presentations or attend invite-only dinners held in the fancier parts of town.

Fortunately, LawCareers.Net (LCN) has created articles and videos tailored for career changers that offer great recommendations.  

However, I often think that it is useful to learn from somebody else’s real-world mistakes and successes. Below are my honest and personal thoughts on changing careers into the legal sector. I will attempt to identify what I have learned, the difficulties I have encountered, how the process is slightly different for mature applicants and how my approach would have changed in hindsight?

The many success stories out there

The majority of City firms say that they consider career changers for trainee positions. The average age of a qualifying solicitor now being close to 30 would also seem to suggest this statement’s truth.

I have heard accounts from graduate recruitment about current solicitors who have had previous careers that have spanned a vast range of sectors. For instance, these tales of transition have included individuals with experience in publishing, marketing, the acting profession, the military, banking, nursing and teaching.

However, for all of the above references that I have discussed with graduate recruiters at law fairs, I personally found that once you’re aged over mid-20, law firms’ examples of ‘mature candidates’ are actually rather rare.

This above absence of evidence is understandable, especially given the lower number of applicants from this mature demographic. In addition, the competition for training contracts is intense numbers-wise and there are literally hundreds of extremely talented, focused, student applicants vying for only a small handful of places. Not to mention the internal applicants who have worked as paralegals and legal assistants for several years, often effectively doing the same job as a trainee solicitor.

Yet this lack of obvious exemplars can admittedly cause quite a concern as a mature applicant. This is especially the case given the significant number of career changers regularly taking the Graduate Diploma in Law and Legal Practice Course each year.

The type of law seems to impact success rates

Anecdotally, I think that smaller high-street and mid-tier criminal and public law firms are more accepting of career changers. These firms appear more willing to embrace the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives and equivalent means routes into the legal profession.

In the City though, traditional training contracts still seem to be the preferred route to take. This process to qualify historically involves two years of rather expensive training courses. If self-funded, it can cost more than £20,000. The SQE will likely change this preferred journey to become a solicitor – although how exactly remains to be seen.

Alternatively, in order to have your training funded applicants must complete lengthy applications, competing against thousands of other applicants for limited roles. This is a far bigger barrier to entry than I had ever been used to in my previous line of work and it is worth preparing for.

Relevant experience

Taking the scenic route to law has given me the impression that the legal sector tends to pigeonhole you at times, perhaps more than other more flexible sectors.

For instance, if you have worked in healthcare all your life, firms might question why you are not applying to other law firms with greater medical negligence expertise. Elsewhere, if you have a technology background, recruiters will likely navigate you towards specialist, boutique IP firms or law firms with a large commercial technology practice area.

Of course, if you have relevant experience in the law firm’s major practice groups, this transition will be an easy sell – particularly if you have worked closely with lawyers. In fact, generally, if your experience is STEM-related, this skillset will be noticed and highly valued by the recruitment team.

However, if you desire a completely new area of work (eg, you now want to do finance or criminal work), this incongruence will be a considerable challenge.

Relevant legal experience

Recruiters will always look to see evidence of legal experience. Of course, younger applicants can obtain this work experience during university holidays. However, gaining this experience may be more difficult if you are in full-time employment and more complicated to do at weekends if you have family commitments. Nonetheless, it is important to have some legal experience on your CV to show that you are genuinely interested in a legal career.

These days, a quick and easy way to obtain free, relevant legal experience is to complete an online internship via InsideSherpa. These virtual internships provide a series of tasks to complete, which mirror the assignments that a trainee solicitor might typically perform.

The time required to achieve credit for these internships is usually between seven to 10 hours’ total work. However, please note that you can complete these modules at your own convenience and you will receive a broad task list which offers real skill development.

These internships are also officially created by leading law firms. For instance, the following law firms, chambers and universities have recently created free online internships (NB, some are US-law focused though):

  • Linklaters – commercial law;
  • Latham & Watkins – mergers and acquisitions;
  • Latham & Watkins – white collar defense and investigations;
  • White & Case – virtual work experience programme;
  • LEOCussen Centre for Law – human rights law;
  • Pinsent Masons – work experience programme;
  • Corrs Chambers Westgarth – virtual experience programme;
  • King & Wood Mallesons – introduction to law;
  • King & Wood Mallesons – commercial law;
  • Baker McKenzie – virtual experience programme;
  • MinterEllison – virtual experience programme;
  • Arnold Bloch Leiber – capital markets, corporate and  mergers and acquisitions; and
  • Monash University – virtual experience programme.

Elsewhere, Accenture, Deloitte, KPMG, Citigroup, JPMorgan and Boston Consulting Group also have online internships to help you boost your experience in those sectors and to get an insight into the potential clients of your desired firm.

But I already have experience?

Unfortunately, if your experience is not law-related you may find it gets overlooked. This is simply because the value of this experience is not as obvious to those in the legal sector as it might be to those knowledgeable in your previous field.

On the flip side, doing something completely unique to other candidates often works in your favour at an interview or internship stage if you can get there – purely as an unusual point of interest.

Transferable skills and overconfidence

A key thing to remember is that you are selling your skills to the HR departments of law firms. You may have senior management experience and have worked for some prestigious organisations in your sector; however, these brand names and jargon masterclasses on your CV will not have as much clout at law firms as they do in your current position. Therefore, it is important to stress the achievements that are relevant to the junior lawyer role that the firms are hiring for.

For example, emphasise the parts of your previous role that involved legal elements, negotiation or contracts. In addition, you could demonstrate that your project management skills mirror the skills that are required of a trainee during a condition precedent task.

Academics

Academics are far more important than you would expect at certain law firm. Historic mediocre grades almost certainly have been completely irrelevant throughout your career. However, the HR at corporate law firms will request details of your test scores by module and consider this performance metric in detail. Also, you may even need to provide an academic reference at the end of your application.

This attention towards old aspects of your CV can be a frustrating element of the job search. Therefore, to save you time, it might be useful to call the HR of the particular firm and explain your specific situation, so that they can make a note against your name.

Likewise, it may also be worthwhile to contact admin staff at your old college and ask them what references or records the institution still retains to help jog your memory. It is far better to do this bureaucracy early on in the application process than to realise that you made a mistake or that you need a last-minute reference.

Networking

Networking is an essential element of recruitment at major firms.

Top City firms will hold open days at the firm’s offices and put on dinners at university campuses. Without attending these events, it is difficult to get the specialist insight regarding a firm’s practice areas, culture and training, which is necessary to distinguish your application.

Moreover, attending these events helps recruiters to put a face to a name and enables you to easily demonstrate an interest in the firm. Both of which will help firms to differentiate applicants at the paper application stage.

The good news is that the events are sometimes held in the evenings and a couple of months’ notice is usually given for the open days. The inevitable downside of this is that you will need to take a day off work.

In addition, applications for open days can be quite competitive. At the top firms, it is not unusual for hundreds of people to apply for around 30 places on an open day! Thus, expect rejection if you do not do any research before applying for such an opportunity.

Vacation schemes

Direct training contract applications are slowly being phased out by many law firms, with several leading firms concentrating on a vacation scheme only recruitment model. This model is where the firm exclusively hires from a select group who have participated in a two to three-week internship at the firm. This internship is a considerable proportion of your annual leave and there is a risk that it could put you in a conflict of interest with your current employer if the clients are similar.

Tailored application

A competitive application to a City firm involves plenty of research and time to write. A good guide for me was around eight hours’ research, eight to 12 hours writing, plus extensive time for multiple proofreading attempts. However, this estimate does not account for the additional time spent learning from my previously rejected applications, obtaining insights from panels at events like LawCareersNetLIVE or absorbing general knowledge about the legal sector.

Also, please do not assume that just because you are more experienced, you will be accepted by graduate recruitment. You will be heavily judged on how well you know a firm – after all, firms are making a huge investment in your training and inevitably want to see evidence that you are committed to them. This personalised aspect of an application can be a great leveller when you are working full-time, whereas others are able to dedicate days to this research and know recruiters from multiple events.

Conclusion

I have loved working in the legal sector. However, in hindsight, my transition into law would have been far easier if I had possessed a greater awareness of law firms’ recruitment processes and how tailored a successful application form needs to be.

Therefore, my advice is to talk to as many lawyers as possible and take advantage of all the opportunities to network online and in-person with law firm recruiters. Finally, for expert guidance on law careers advice, read LCN as much as you possibly can!