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LCN Says

How socially mobile students can break into BigLaw

updated on 19 September 2023

Reading time: five minutes

I’m often asked how I broke into BigLaw but, to be honest, I fell into law by accident. I grew up in Accrington, was state educated and the first person in my family to go to university. Growing up, my parents ran a fish and chip shop, so I was never exposed to professionals. However, many of my qualities came from my background: grit, determination and a genuine desire to improve. Sometimes it’s the simple things that shape you; they can have just as much impact as the school or university you attend. Don’t ever lose sight of this.

I studied law at the University of Sheffield but was more interested in football. I had hopes of becoming a football coach in America, however this dream soon ended after I broke my leg. As an alternative, I thought law would be a good profession to pursue as my only role model was Arnie from L.A Law (he was cool and drove a Porsche, so it looked like a great option). In the end, I applied to the Lancashire Education Authority and secured a full tuition grant to go to law school, which was awarded on a discretionary means. Afterwards, I got a job at a firm in Leeds which then became Eversheds Sutherland (International) LLP.

I then acquired a job at Clifford Chance as an associate. I quickly made partner and was headhunted to go to Linklaters LLP to refresh the private equity (PE) team alongside Richard Yule. Eventually, I joined White & Case LLP to build the PE practice before leaving in 2021 - bringing 28 years of being a solicitor to a close.

Ultimately, I think the combination of mentors, confidence and consistent hard work is what drove me to the pinnacle of BigLaw.

During my early career I was hesitant, I avoided applying for jobs in London because I doubted I was good enough for the City. Looking back, there was no real reason for me to think this other than imposter syndrome and a lack of visible role models.

Read all about imposter syndrome in the legal world in this LCN Says

So, to all aspiring socially mobile lawyers, here are my top pieces of advice to succeed in BigLaw.

  1. Your experiences and background will put you in good stead

Your background has laid the foundation for your great work ethic and resilience. Strive to self-improve and keep up the hard work. Be proud of your journey, it's who you are.

  1. Don't expect to be a success overnight

It’s the small steps taken on a consistent basis that’ll drive you forward. Consistently put in effort, be willing to learn from day one and always be open to new opportunities that come your way. Your journey will be long so keep walking, keep your nerve and never give up.

  1. Be the best version of yourself

As cliche as it sounds, it’s essential to being a successful lawyer. I always say, it’s your last 10% that determines whether you succeed or fail. At the end of every piece of work and every work day, be self-analytical. Ask yourself, ‘have I given my best?’ to your client and yourself. That’s all anyone can ask of you and it’s the last 10% that’ll leave the lasting impression.

  1. Just get things done

Make things happen. Being a straight-talking Northerner served me well, my clients and colleagues relied on me to give them a clear answer on matters. It’ll make everyone’s lives easier by simplifying decision making. Be real and honest, people appreciate this and will give you their loyalty in exchange.

  1. Get yourself some mentors

As mentioned, mentors were vital throughout my career. I had many great mentors, Adam Signy at Clifford Chance, Charlie Jacobs at Linklaters and Thierry Bosly at White & Case to name a few. When I joined White & Case, I became more of a mentor rather than a mentee, which was rewarding because I started to pay back all the guidance that I’d previously received and was able to benefit from reverse mentors like Lucy Bullock.

That’s why I became chair of Zero Gravity, a mission-driven tech company that propels ambitious low-opportunity state school students into top universities, and then careers. Zero Gravity replicates similar mentoring relationships that I had, but on a vast scale through the use of tech.Thousands of mentoring relationships and communities have been created all across the UK.

Zero Gravity students are stellar and many of them would excel in law. However, many lack access to a professional network and the awareness and resources that come with that.  This, understandably, inhibits career decisions. That’s why we’re pioneering a Zero Gravity legal vertical, complete with masterclass content from legal market leaders from a plethora of top UK and US firms. These masterclasses will provide a gateway to the legal profession. We’ve already powered 922 UK students into top universities to study law, and we’re supporting 1,073 school students aspiring to study it.

Forward-thinking organisations are making clear steps to ensure socially mobile talent will thrive in their organisations. They know it’s not enough to wait and hope that socially mobile talent comes to them. The traditional ‘milkround’ approach at a handful of prestigious universities isn't working and doesn’t appeal to the majority of socially mobile talent. 

To recruit and empower socially mobile talent, legal employers need to actively seek them out and understand all the nuances of the barriers to opportunity in the UK. Firms need to build the pipeline of socially mobile students early, while students are at school. Firms can use technology to do this and ensure that those living outside of urban hubs are engaged before they get to university. By this point, talent will already be aware of the graduate roles available to them.

Ultimately, there’s a genuine business reason as to why social mobility is required. This isn’t optics, as diversity is proven to lead to stronger business at all levels. You can only truly have diversity if social mobility is at the heart of your equality, diversity & inclusion initiatives. Recruitment is just the beginning. Empowerment drives value. I’m excited to see Zero Gravity students breaking into BigLaw in the imminent future.

Ian Bagshaw (he/him) was a BigLaw solicitor for 28 years and is now chair of social mobility tech company Zero Gravity.