updated on 20 May 2020
A careers adviser at university told me that I was delusional to think I would get a training contract straight after my studies.
I explained that this was something I really wanted and that my goal was to be a partner in a City law firm in my 30s. But she responded: “Well, I want to be a super model, but it’s never going to happen!”
Hardly inspiring advice for a young Asian girl with a state school education.
Fast forward two years and I received a training contract and made partner in a City firm by the age of 31.
However, you might be surprised to hear that I turned down my first training contract offer.
After completing a LLB at Westminster University, I did the Legal Practice Course at the College of Law full time while also working part time as a paralegal in a high street firm in Essex. This is where I was offered my first training contract. I was unsure whether to accept it, so I turned it down because I had my sights set on working for a magic circle or City firm.
I had originally wanted to be a criminal defence solicitor but after dealing with a difficult and unrepentant client followed by a gruesome youth kidnapping case, I knew it was not for me.
Fortunately, I got on well with a property solicitor at the Essex firm who took me under her wing. I subsequently moved to the property department and started doing property work – mainly residential but with commercial scope too. Eventually, the firm offered me a tailored training contract, which enabled me to continue with my property seat while also completing the other required seats alongside it.
It was through my paralegal experience at the firm that I discovered what was right for me – for example, I learnt that I really like structure and certainty, which is something I was never going to get from criminal defence work.
I qualified at the firm within two years and although I never regretted taking the tailored training contract, I knew I was lacking in general commercial and corporate experience. After qualifying, I landed a job as an in-house lawyer for the FTSE 250 pub chain, Wetherspoons. Situated in the property and estates team, I worked on the management and acquisition of the chain’s property portfolio, before moving to their legal department. Despite the daily four-hour commute, it was a role I thoroughly enjoyed as it provided me with the commercial experience I had desired.
In 2010 a friend who was working at Devonshires told me about a one-year-fixed cover role at the firm. I applied and was taken on. After just six months I was made permanent and within six years I had made it to partner, at the age of 31. That was four years ago.
I am now a partner in the firm’s securitisation team, working with registered providers of social housing. I advise them on all aspects of the securitisation process in the charging of security under varying loan facilities, private placements, bond issues as well as all refinancing aspects. I also head a sub-team dedicated to smaller registered providers providing specialist advice and bespoke training aimed at helping them to maximise their property portfolios and upskilling their staff.
It is a niche within a niche. I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that this work is securing the futures of those who provide social housing and in turn guaranteeing a more comfortable future for the millions of people who rely on social housing to put a roof over their heads.
I learnt from an early age that you must believe in yourself – if you do not then no one else will – and be firm in your conviction. Look for role models too – I was fortunate that the property solicitor who took me under her wing became a mentor, which helped me to secure a training contract. It was my professional connection with her, as well as my self-belief and determination at the outset that got me through.
That determination has manifested itself in my ability to always try to think ahead. When I first joined Devonshires 10 years ago, my goal was to make myself indispensable. In response to any task, I always thought about what else I could do; I always wanted to go that extra mile to show my worth and potential. Anticipate the needs of your line managers and clients and then deliver these needs – this has always been my approach.
It is only half of the battle to be technically brilliant, you must also have the right level of emotional intelligence to understand your clients and build rapport. As you can imagine this has become increasingly important during the covid-19 pandemic where social distancing measures have made it impossible to physically see clients.
My experience, both personally and professionally, has helped me to set up a mentoring scheme at Devonshires for our clients. I have benefited from having mentors throughout my career and want to do the same for others working in the social housing sector. I highly recommend mentoring, as it gives you an extra dimension and can provide invaluable guidance and focus, plus it helps to build confidence.
Finally, as a young Asian female lawyer, I discovered the importance of building a good professional network. It is important to engage with like-minded people who understand some of the challenges faced from working in the legal profession – which, although is improving its diversity, still has some way to go.
Saghar Roya is a partner at Devonshires Solicitors.