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I didn’t attend a Russell Group university, can I still get a training contract?

updated on 02 April 2024

Dear Oracle

I attended a non-Russell Group university and have concerns about being overlooked by firms. Do I stand a chance of securing a training contract?

The Oracle replies

Reading time: six minutes

There’s no way to sugarcoat this – until relatively recently, the number of trainee lawyers at leading law firms were overwhelmingly from Oxbridge or Russell Group universities. It’s fair to say that the legal profession had an issue with recruiting graduates from a slim slice of the pie.

However, times have changed and the focus for many firms is now hiring candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds. This means tapping into the talent pool at universities they might have previously overlooked.

So, whatever university you attend, if you work hard, demonstrate those all-important key skills and take the time to understand the employers you’re applying to, you’ll be well on your way to securing a training contract.

For those of you who attended a non-Russell Group university, here’s some advice on elevating your employment prospects.

Student law societies

If you’re not a member of your university’s student-led law society, you’re missing out on a wealth of information and resources.

Of course, it could be said that law societies at Russell Group universities have more opportunities to secure law firm sponsorship and might be able to therefore provide better networking and events for their members. However, after judging and running the annual LawCareers.Net Student Law Society Awards for the past 10 years, we can confidently say that some of the best submissions we’ve read have come from non-Russell Group law societies. These societies have created numerous opportunities to support their aspiring lawyer members.

At the recent 2024 Student Law Society Awards, many of the nominated societies (and some of the winners!) were from non-Russell Group universities. Their submissions showed us that these organisations provide tangible benefits for members – from mentoring schemes and mooting workshops to panels with students who’ve secured vacation schemes and guides for first year and non-law students. Not to mention the social events and other community bonding initiatives that form the heart of student-led societies.

Many societies also now provide low-income bursaries for students who are unable to afford the membership fee. So, being a part of a society can pay a crucial role in your career development as a student. It’s even better if you join the committee and can discuss this in your applications.

There’s more on how student law societies can support you in this LCN Says.

The hidden advantages

You’ve probably seen information about the advantages of attending a Russell Group university but not enough about the benefits of attending a non-Russell Group one. For example, non-Russell Groups can offer students a really positive experience on campus – this is why many students at non-Russell Group universities tend to speak fondly of their institutions.

We spoke to an anonymous LLB student who says that he was drawn to non-Russell Groups because he wanted a place he’d feel at home and be part of a community. He had the chance to attend a Russell Group university but opted not to because he thought he might experience imposter syndrome or feel out of place.

Former solicitor Ian Bagshaw shares his advice in ‘How socially mobile students can break into BigLaw’.

Another advantage of attending a non-Russell Group university is the variety of courses available. Non-Russell Groups are more likely to experiment with new courses and introduce non-traditional courses that are more interesting to tomorrow’s lawyers and could help to make you into a well-rounded candidate.

Non-Russell Groups tend to value diversity and freedom of expression and are therefore more inclined to introduce courses that align with this. For example, SOAS University of London has a niche specialism – it’s one of the few universities that offers the directed study of an African language as a course and is invested in providing its students with a wide understanding on the diverse cultures of Africa.

Diversity and inclusion in the profession

As mentioned, diversity and inclusion is a big focus for the legal profession and many law firms have recently introduced measures to widen their attraction campaigns and avoid unconscious bias in the recruitment process. We’ve outlined some of these below:

  • Blind screening – some employers might not even be privy to the university you attended when reviewing applications.
  • Contextual recruitment – many law firms use contextual recruitment tools such as social mobility charity upReach’s REALrating, which allows employers to identify hidden talent and monitor socioeconomic data. The system has been designed to contextualise academic performance and highlight candidates’ potential to succeed.
  • Targeting non-Russell Group universities – collaborating with the careers service or student law society to host events and attend careers fairs.

The above means that you might find more law firms on your campus than ever before and you can be confident that once your application’s submitted, it’ll be reviewed only on its merits in a way that ensures fairness and equality.

Worry about what you can control

The final point is that attending a non-Russell university might not be within your control – some people might not have met the required grades to get into a Russell Group institution.

The university experience is what you make of it. Here are some actions and advice on how to make yourself more attractive to graduate recruiters:

  • Get involved in extracurricular activities including joining a society at your university (eg, the law society, netball team or mooting society).
  • Speak to a careers adviser about volunteering opportunities within your university or outside.
  • Get some legal work experience.
  • Get experience outside of the law with part-time work (don’t disregard non-legal work experience, you can gain key transferable skills).
  • Build your commercial awareness by visiting our Commercial awareness hub sponsored by Mayer Brown International LLP, reading our monthly Commercial Connect newsletter, digesting the weekly Commercial Question and reading the commercial news round-up on Thursdays. You’ll be an expert in commercial awareness in no time.

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Grades are important so it’s key you try to achieve good academics throughout your law degree, not just when it counts towards your final grade. A graduate recruiter might not be familiar with your university, but they recognise strong academics, an impressive work ethic and interesting extracurriculars – all of which are a wonderful recipe for a future lawyer.

Overall, try not to ponder on what you don’t have and start listing the advantages your university offers and what you, as an individual, can bring to a firm. Good luck!

The Oracle also answers this question: ‘How do I figure out which law firms value diversity and inclusion?’.