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Application rejections, illness, CV gaps: advice from aspiring lawyers going through the process

updated on 27 October 2020

Pursuing a career in law is hard. It’s as simple as that. It can feel like you’re the only person not securing vacation schemes or training contracts as your peers post their new roles at firms all over LinkedIn and Instagram – and you can’t work out where it is that you’re going wrong. It’s an easy mindset to fall into but it’s vital to take a step back, reassess, breathe and go again. We spoke to several aspiring lawyers whose routes into law were either put on hold, made difficult because of their background or disrupted as a result of the pandemic. This feature aims to show you that you’re not the only one having a bumpy ride into the legal world.

Routes into the profession

Whether becoming a lawyer is something you’ve had your heart set on since you were younger, a career that appealed to you at university or something you simply fell into, it’s important to remember that although there are mainstream routes into the legal profession, there are alternative options available that could suit your circumstances.

While it might seem like all aspiring lawyers study law at A level and then university, before they complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and secure a training contract at their dream firm, this is not the case. No two journeys into the profession are the same. That said, there are a few things that you must do depending on the initial route you have chosen. You can find more information on legal career paths in our Beginner’s Guide to a Career in Law 2021.

To become a lawyer, you don’t need to have gone to university and studied law. You might study a non-law degree or go straight from A levels to a solicitor apprenticeship. Alternatively, on finishing your GCSEs you can either do your CILEx Level 3 Certificate and progress from there or do an intermediate apprenticeship, followed by a paralegal apprenticeship, which could lead straight into paralegal work or to a chartered legal executive apprenticeship. Most budding lawyers will encounter hurdles on their route into the profession – this is normal.

Indiya’s route

Indiya Kainth is currently working as a paralegal and applying for training contracts. She applied to study law at the University of Birmingham via its Access to Birmingham (A2B) Scheme in 2013: “It’s a scheme that supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds and lowers the entry requirements, making university a much more accessible option,” she explains.

It wasn’t until she had begun her A levels that the idea of becoming a lawyer presented itself to Indiya: “My sixth-form history teacher suggested law in passing – this was based on the debates we used to do in lessons. I think he saw something in me because I could dissect information and use it to benefit my argument.”

She completed her LPC in 2018. On the surface, this looks like a fairly straightforward route into the profession but throughout her studies Indiya was suffering from symptoms of a rare autoimmune disease: “The earliest I can remember experiencing symptoms was when I was about 14 years old, but it wasn’t diagnosed as early as this because of its rarity.”

Indiya was eventually diagnosed with Takayasu disease and started treatment immediately in 2018. “The treatment comes with lots of adverse side effects – for example, I suffered with insomnia, swelling of the face, hands and feet, anxiety, depression, and became quite socially isolated”, she explained.

Forced to take nine months out from her job as a paralegal, Indiya also had to put her search for a training contract on hold. With a nine-month gap in her CV, it made securing work experience, vacation schemes and training contracts even more difficult than normal: “Other than a few telephone interviews, my initial applications didn’t lead to much else.” Indiya resumed her paralegal role in December 2019 and is continuing to persevere with training contract applications.

Amie’s route

Amie is a recent LPC graduate and future trainee solicitor at Taylor Wessing, starting in August 2022. She comes from a low-socio economic background with no connections to the legal profession and was the first from her family to attend university: “Everything was very much an alien concept for me – I learnt as I went.”

Amie thought she was on a simple route into the profession until she started applying for vacation schemes and other work experience: “I realised my pathway into law wasn’t as straightforward as it initially seemed on paper. I didn’t secure a vacation scheme, training contract or any other kind of work experience in my third year, which was probably the hardest point of the journey.” After finally securing two weeks’ work experience, which was extended into a paralegal-style role, Amie started the LPC, which she hoped would add value to her applications. She said: “I was so desperate to secure something that I was just churning out applications, which in the end was my biggest downfall.”

Finally, Amie secured a vacation scheme at Shoosmiths, but was met with further disappointment as she unfortunately wasn’t offered the training contract at the end of the two weeks: “I started to contemplate whether law was the right career for me.” Amie is now looking forward to starting as a trainee solicitor at global law firm Taylor Wessing.

Carina’s route

International student Carina, who is currently studying the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) part time while working full time, also comes from a low-socioeconomic background. “I didn’t go to university straight away because I couldn’t afford it, so I worked lots of jobs to save up and started university a few years after graduating from high school in Germany,” she says.

Carina had prepared herself for a non-straightforward route into the profession by creating her own long-term strategy. Having moved to the UK in 2015, her first role was in the media industry, thanks to her degree, and she then found herself reviewing contracts: “Following that I worked in client management, where I reviewed documents. And from there, it was more of a seamless transition into corporate law – I worked in investor real estate and I’m currently working at an investment bank.” After a “disastrous” initial application cycle, Carina is due to start the accelerated LPC course in July 2021 and begin work as a trainee solicitor at her dream firm Linklaters in March 2022.

Lotus’ route

Like most young people, Lotus wasn’t sure which direction she wanted her career to go. While studying BTEC media in college after her GCSEs, she became fascinated with photography and even considered it as a career before moving onto her A levels: “I studied law, history and sociology at A level, and became really interested in learning about places around the world that had various human rights issues. I am from Congo, which has its own human rights issues, so I was keen for my career to have a positive impact on things like this.” Lotus studied law with business at the University of Portsmouth, and has since finished her LPC and masters in August 2020. Her role as a paralegal at a family law firm has also come to an end and she is now searching for opportunities in commercial law.

Sophie’s route

Despite being unaware of vacation schemes or the traditional route into law while at university, Sophie always knew she “wanted an academically stimulating career”. After securing a paralegal role in a family law firm and starting her LPC part time, Sophie soon realised that “family law in practice was different to the family law module I had studied. I discovered this wasn’t the area of law I wanted to work in”.

She added: “I wanted a more challenging and fast-moving environment within a bigger firm with pro bono and professional development opportunities.” Sophie then secured a role at a national commercial law firm in their real estate department. But then coronavirus struck, her contract at that firm ended and she found herself back at work in her local pub.

Now working as a paralegal in the real estate department at Eversheds Sutherland, Sophie is also hoping to secure a training contract in the current application cycle: “For various reasons, I haven’t secured a training contract; however, I have completed a vacation scheme and attended assessment centres.” Sophie is hoping to use her past experiences to progress her career.

Advice for you

What does a straightforward route into the legal profession look like? Does a straightforward route even exist?

The insights provided above were bravely and gracefully shared by LawCareers.Net users in a bid to show other aspiring lawyers that although it might seem like everyone around you is having a smooth ride into the profession, this is never the case. We only ever see or hear of achievements, with failure tending to be a taboo topic that everyone avoids. Future Taylor Wessing trainee solicitor Amie said: “Sometimes I think we are consumed with the idea that on social media all we should share is positive successes but equally those small rejections are your stepping stones to your future training contract. It’s about how you overcome the rejection. We need to normalise talking openly about our rejections and setbacks.”

Non-legal work experience and pro-bono work

On top of vacation schemes, there are several alternative ways to gain valuable experiences that will enhance your applications. Indiya found “reaching out to charitable organisations really helpful”.

“They tend to have really flexible hours and it’s all pro bono work. The opportunities you are exposed to can be really rewarding and varied.” Indiya has found it difficult to secure a vacation scheme with the little experience she had, but once she “started working with charitable organisations, it provided a basis to apply elsewhere as well”.

On this point, Amie added: “The non-legal work experience and voluntary experience I have had has been key to developing crucial skills that can be transferred into the legal profession.”

Understand the process and take advantage of every opportunity

Being aware of the various aspects involved in the route to becoming a lawyer, for example applying for vacation schemes in the second year of university, is also vital. The process was unclear for aspiring lawyer Lotus, who looking back said: “Being aware of the process and the things you can do in between studies to support your journey is crucial – this would have helped me to potentially secure something earlier”.

Meanwhile, Sophie said: “I wish I had known how important it is to take advantage of all the opportunities at university to meet law firms. Attend law fairs, turn up to events (virtual or face-to-face) and use the university’s careers service.”

Reflect on your applications and be authentic

As we have established by now, facing rejection is something that everyone, everywhere will encounter at some point. Choosing to respond to these rejections in a positive way is crucial. “I reflected on my applications to try to work out where I had gone wrong and identify areas of improvement. I researched firms to find ones that resonated with my personality, which is a much more efficient way of applying than just throwing out as many applications as possible”, Amie said.

Opening up about her experience and the nine-month gap in her CV was difficult for Indiya. Reflecting on her experience, she explained: “Eventually I realised that being open and honest about my situation was the best thing to do. Firstly, it accounts for the time that you couldn’t be proactive and secondly, it’s a true depiction of who and where you are.”

And for international students, Carina suggests contacting a firm’s graduate recruitment department to ask how they want your grades to be presented: “Most of the forms don’t give you enough space to explain how international grading systems work, so just check with the firms you’re applying to.”

Stay positive

Remember, there is more than one route into the legal profession and, like aspiring lawyer Indiya said, “it’s about finding the one that works for you and your circumstances”.

Olivia Partridge is the content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.