Ruth Gibson


University: London South Bank University
Degree: LLB law with human resource management (combined honours)
Year of qualification: March 2016
Position: Solicitor
Department: Construction and engineering

What attracted you to a career in law?

Law is a second career for me – my first was in human resources. While working as a HR officer, I undertook an undergraduate degree in human resource management and had the opportunity to combine it with a law degree. By the second year, I was hooked on the law and decided to major in it which enabled me to obtain a degree classification of LLB.

As a HR specialist, I dealt with a number of solicitors advising me on a range of legal matters, such as employment, pensions and franchises. I began to see how wide the scope of legal advice could be and how it was crucial in supporting a business when making strategic decisions.

I was also attracted to a career in law as a result of often feeling conflicted in my HR role. In HR, I owed loyalties to both the employer and the employees, and I frequently felt compromised when the objectives of each party differed. As a lawyer, I knew that I would have to do the best for my client – there is a clear definition of whose side you are on.

Why solicitor not barrister?

I never really gave much thought to becoming a barrister. I decided quite early on that I wanted to practise law as a solicitor. In my HR role I had dealt directly with solicitors and received pragmatic, commercial advice that had helped keep potentially contentious matters from getting out of hand.

I suppose that I initially saw the role of a barrister as dealing primarily with the court system. I prefer to keep out of the courts (where possible) and provide my clients with legal support from the outset in order to help them plan their business/personal life, instead of only assisting them when they are in trouble.

How did you decide which firms to apply to?

I knew that I wanted to work within the real estate sector and so I chose firms which had a strong real estate presence in the market. Having undertaken work experience in various sized firms, I also knew that my preference was to work for a medium to large firm, where inter-departmental work and the opportunity to move between different offices might be possible.

After working just a few weeks at Ashfords as a paralegal, I knew that it was a firm I wanted to apply to for a training contract.

How much work experience did you do? Why is it so important?

As a career changer, I had several years of non-legal work experience behind me before I started applying for training contracts. My experience was useful in equipping me with a good understanding of how a business works and general commercial awareness. I quickly learned, however, that to set yourself apart from the thousands of other applicants that a law firm recruiter will consider, you also need to demonstrate that you are genuine about pursuing a legal career. One way to do this is to undertake legal work experience.

Before applying for a training contract at Ashfords, I undertook a couple of one week work placements (one at a firm with just two fee earners; the other at a UK Top 30 firm), before working for 12 months, full time, as a property and family law paralegal in a high-street firm.

What do you think made your application successful?

I think that my responses to the competency questions were the key to my successful application for a training contract. Both in the application form as well as at interview, my answers to such questions (such as ’What is commercial awareness and how will it affect your work as a solicitor?’ and ‘Tell me about a stressful situation at work and how you dealt with it’) demonstrated not only my understanding of the issues that crop up in the day-to-day running of a law firm, but also that I had experience of dealing with such issues. The examples that I gave were a mixture of work-based and experiences gained in my personal life. I also highlighted that each experience taught me something new which I could draw on when dealing with the next stressful situation or commercial dealing I have.

Which departments did you train in?

My first seat was in commercial property. This was a natural extension of the experience I had gained working in the residential property department as a paralegal prior to starting my training contract.

I was then lucky enough to complete a client secondment for my second seat. I primarily practised commercial law while there, however, I quickly learned that an in-house lawyer is frequently asked to advise on a whole array of matters, whether they fall into your area of legal expertise and whether they concern law! During my secondment I also assisted with a large procurement project, which was subject to the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. For my third and final seat I worked in the construction and engineering department before qualifying in it, using my "time to count".

Please discuss a specific deal/case that you were involved with, outlining your role in the matter.

I assisted on a multi-million pound project (which was subject to the Public Procurement Regulations 2015) to procure an innovative service that would revolutionise banking services available to individuals who are not normally eligible for a bank account.

My role was to attend meetings between the client and the each party bidding for the contract, taking a note of the drafting amendments agreed to the contract and recording discussions in case there should be a challenge later on in the procurement process. I found the whole process fascinating – from the face-to-face negotiations that took place in competitive dialogue to the drafting of the contract. In particular, I realised that it takes a lot of interesting personalities to produce a truly innovative and successful product/service.

How does the qualification process work at the firm?

Around December and/or April of each year, the trainees in their second year of training contract are sent an email, listing the NQ roles which will be available in the following March/September. To apply, the trainee submits a covering letter and their CV. Applicants are then interviewed by the head(s) of department and/or HR and asked a series of questions, which are the same for all applicants.

What do you wish you’d known about being a trainee before you started that you now do?

I wish I had known that every seat change would trigger a period of adjustment and that feeling unsettled in a new seat was normal and part of the learning process. I also wish I had known that this feeling would only last a couple of months at most, before I would relax into my role and really get the most out of that particular seat.

Being a trainee is as much about learning the craft of being a solicitor as it is about learning how to work for different people, who have different management styles and grant a trainee varying levels of responsibility and autonomy, and who have different preferences when it comes to stylistic presentation of work.

Please outline your area of expertise. What might you do in a typical day?

I specialise in construction law and deal with both contentious and non-contentious matters. This means that I get to work on a full range of construction work, from advising a client at the outset of a building project, to assisting a client when it is in a dispute with another party on the project.

A typical day may involve me attending a meeting (whether in person or by phone) to advise on matters relating to the construction project, then sitting down at my desk to draft (amendments to or from scratch) standard forms of construction contracts, consultants' appointments, collateral warranties, guarantees/bonds and other ancillary documents. My dispute resolution experience includes assisting with pre-action negotiations (including mediation) and court proceedings. My day is always varied and never dull!

Please discuss a current/recent specific deal/case, outlining your role in the matter.

I recently advised a property developer who had issued a claim in the county court against one of his customers who had failed to pay him for building works that he had carried out. The customer was a retired solicitor and issued a counterclaim against our client, stating that the building works were defective and had caused water damage to his property.

We were instructed quite late in the proceedings, after the defendant had made several applications to defer the court proceedings. My client was a litigant in person and required my expertise to guide him through the court process. My support included drafting his witness statement and defence to the counterclaim, as well as advising him as to what he could expect to happen at trial.

What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?

I love that every day is different and that I am constantly challenged to think outside the box and provide our clients with options that they may not have thought of themselves. In my area of specialism, I particularly like working with other professionals (including surveyors, architects and engineers) who all bring unique skills to the project and who make achieving a very complex task easier for our mutual client.

On the flipside, a career in law is often stressful and, as a solicitor, you must be the objective voice of reason for your clients and others that you work with. During these times, I often think that it would be lovely to work in a day spa or yoga studio with soothing music and the smell of incense wafting through the room.

How involved are you with business development and promoting the firm?

Everyone at Ashfords is encouraged to promote the firm and there are plenty of opportunities to be involved in business development. I frequently attend external networking events and assist in the preparation and delivery of the autumn series of seminars that my department puts on each year.

During my time at Ashfords, as a paralegal, a trainee and as a solicitor, I have been encouraged to attend different networking events and seminars that our office hosts.

What makes your firm stand out from the rest?

Unusually, we are a national firm with a thriving London office with our headquarters in the Southwest. Ashfords are the leading firm of solicitors in the Southwest and this reputation provides an excellent platform from which to punch above our weight from our London office.

Working from the London office, I am often pleasantly reminded when speaking to peers from other law firms that I get the best of both worlds - I get to be a City lawyer in a firm with a distinctly more relaxed, Southwest feel.

What advice do you have for budding solicitors who are contemplating a career in law?

Get as much legal work experience as possible. Your academic qualifications are important, but enthusiasm and being personable are just as important.

What’re you reading at the moment?

How to be great at the stuff you hate by Nick Davies. I'm a sucker for a self-help book!

View Ashfords's details

Go to Ashfords's website