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Where to start as a mature candidate changing careers into law

updated on 03 March 2020

Often, when I tell people that I am involved with the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society, the first question they ask me is “what age does that go up to?” My response is that the ‘junior’ refers to post-qualification experience and that age isn’t actually a factor. At that point, the quizzical expression in their gaze disappears as they confirm to themselves that yes, I am indeed older than the average junior lawyer.

Mature entrants or career changers in the legal profession are still rare, but they are becoming increasingly common (at least in my experience). However, if you are on the outside looking in, it can be difficult to know where to start. “Have I left it too late?”, you might be asking yourself as you read about a case online and wonder what it would be like to be the lawyer in charge. The thought of networking and indeed competing with ‘actual’ juniors might be off-putting. The exhaustion of daily life and the practical and financial considerations of returning to study can be overwhelming. Those are all extremely valid concerns and I’m not here to tell you that you can cheerfully ignore them. I’m here to offer some insight and suggestions into how you might go about making the change.

There can be, I believe, a tendency within the legal profession to believe that all future lawyers need to be shaped and fashioned into the image of a ‘lawyer’ and that any prior knowledge is not of any value. I say this because sometimes firms are unwelcoming (or at least not openly welcoming) of previous experience.

Many firms also don’t look at a person’s intellectual potential, but only at what their academic achievements are to date.

Both of these things potentially place a career in the law outside the reach of anyone who didn’t have the benefit of the heavens aligning for them during their formative years. Who maybe didn’t know what it took to become a lawyer in the first place, or who came from a broken home with a mentally-ill parent and survived on benefits, or didn’t do so well in their A levels. Those things could apply to quite a few people. They all applied to me.

I started down the road to qualification and ended up working as a paralegal in a high-street firm once I had graduated from my LLB. It was incredibly busy and there was very little supervision. I had to do everything from fixing the photocopier to visiting clients in Belmarsh Prison. Not all small firms are like that of course but I lasted six months before I had had enough. I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was 13, so I wasn’t sure what to do next.

I took a job in sales at LexisNexis Butterworths. I realised that I enjoyed the training aspect more than selling and three years later I joined Sweet & Maxwell to train their legal helpdesk and to train clients in using Westlaw. I should have already done my LPC in order to get that role but I was hired because I came from their biggest competitor. Partly due to this, I was granted partial funding for my LPC which I completed part time over two years, gaining a distinction.

Eventually in 2010 I started looking for training contracts. I was worried that history would repeat itself but I reasoned that I was also a different person now. I obtained my training contract in 2011 and started in 2012, qualifying in 2014.

So why did the firm pick me? First of all, the lawyers who interviewed me were comfortable in their ability to teach me the law. What they were looking for were behaviours to apply that knowledge to. Secondly, they were operating their firm like a business and recognised how my experience could assist with that.

So where should you start? The following might help:

  • Within your practice area/firm type of choice, look for a firm that already employs career changers.
  • Also, try looking for a firm that works with clients that do what you do/did for a living, or that practises in your career area (eg, a firm specialising in clinical negligence/professional discipline may welcome a former nurse).
  • Get along to industry events. The Law Society runs free events (not just in the evenings) where you can go along and meet lawyers working in your area of interest.
  • Approach local firms for work experience.
  • When applying, relate your skills back to legal practice if you can, but general skills are just as important: throughout your professional life you will have organised, communicated, presented, worked as part of or even led a team. All of these things will set you apart from a graduate-stage trainee.

Adele Edwin-Lamerton is the former chair of the Junior Lawyers Division and a specialist employment and discrimination lawyer at Pattinson & Brewer Solicitors.

Read this article for more on becoming a lawyer as a career changer.