updated on 05 February 2019
You've enjoyed several years of interesting work in a career that you originally thought would be yours for life, but have recently come to the decision that law is the profession for you. What do you do? Is it possible to make the switch? Be reassured; one of the most common questions we are asked, both in person at law fairs or via the Oracle, are from people who are keen to pursue their dream of becoming a solicitor or barrister, despite having pursued an entirely different career up until that point.
We’ve spoken to many people who have previously had successful careers in banking, teaching, international diplomacy and music (one of our finest publishing moments was an interview with former Blur drummer, Dave Rowntree, then a solicitor at Kingsley Napley, now a Labour councillor in Norfolk), only to move on to similarly successful careers in law. All have chosen to set aside one set of dreams to pursue another, sometimes at not inconsiderable cost (university and postgrad courses not being cheap) and anxiety-producing job uncertainty.
What makes people do it? For some, it is the realisation of a life-long dream that was put on the backburner while other avenues were pursued. For others, it is down to meeting legal professionals in the course of their work and a dawning awareness that they’d rather be doing what their lawyer is doing! Most firms and recruiters appreciate what career changers have to offer – life experience, professional experience, a whole range of different skills, insight into other industries, contacts within those industries and, frankly, the ability to conduct oneself professionally in an office, perhaps even with clients.
But making the switch is not without its hurdles. You will not be following the traditional, regimented timetable so beloved of law firms and their recruiters. You will not be the “typical” second-year undergrad, primed by law fairs and campus events, and careers advice on how to craft the perfect application (on which more here!). You may not fit neatly into the expected slots or be able to tick all the requisite boxes.
So, are there ways to smooth the transition? Here are some tips on how to get ahead if you’re coming at this as a second career:
Aim high, but be realistic. Spend time researching your preferred firms and looking out for existing trainees who have joined as career changers. If you’re looking at regional practices, one thing they look for in a candidate is stability, which gives those who emphasise their connection to the area an advantage. Remember also that some firms are willing to take on prospective trainees as paralegals, which may be a good option (although not always guaranteed).
“Aim for a distinction, be happy with a commendation and re-evaluate things if you get a straight pass. It sounds harsh, but it's reality." We think this is good advice. Try also to participate in any extracurricular activities on offer. Volunteering at legal clinics or doing pro bono work while you are at university could be a useful way to add some legal work experience to your CV during your studies.
Meeting people in the industry – and ensuring they remember you – can be a valuable tool in the career changer’s belt. Put your previous professional experience (and hopefully confidence) to use by attending events and law fairs, and putting yourself out there where recruiters and lawyers will notice you. Don’t feel marked by your difference as a career changer, rather use it to your advantage! Ask questions about the firm’s attitudes towards mature students, let recruiters know if you will be applying, and call upon your networking skills to make a good impression.
Make sure that you apply before the deadline! And don't think that because you are older, and your credentials and experience are non-standard, that the rules don't apply to you. Make your qualifications fit into the mandatory elements of the form as this is the first place recruiters will look to cut the pile.
Be prepared to answer the two questions almost all career changers face: why the change and how will you feel being supervised by people younger than yourself? You can use your career change as particular evidence of your dedication to law: you’ve given up everything to start again and pursue a legal career! As for any interviewee, it is important to convey as much energy, enthusiasm and openness as possible. Be yourself and bring everything you have to the table.
Don't underestimate the power of a follow-up email after an interview, letting the recruiter know you're grateful for the opportunity. It shows enthusiasm and good client care skills. On the other hand, bugging recruiters for a decision is unlikely to go down well. Above all, have faith and hang in there. You have a lot to offer potential employers – not least maturity, confidence and transferable skills – so make sure you capitalise on that and go for it.