University: University of York
Degree: Politics, philosphy and economics
Year of qualification: 2016
I have always enjoyed using ‘both sides of my brain’, so I identified a career in law as something which would allow me to enjoy both the creative aspects of working with language, written and spoken, and the technical aspects of more detail-based problem solving.
I started off with an ambition to become a barrister. I explored that option and completed a mini-pupillage, and it was only through talking to people in the legal profession and learning about the day-to-day reality of life as a barrister that I began to change my mind. The deciding factor was that I realised I would be happier working collaboratively within a team than I would be essentially working for myself.
The academic aspect of being a barrister did – and does still – appeal, but the area of law I have ended up in (planning) is quite intellectually challenging, so I don’t feel that I have lost out in that regard. I do sometimes wonder about the theatre of court though and whether I’d have been any good at it!
I started by thinking about my preferred lifestyle and where I wanted to live, and began my research from there, rather than starting out with particular firms that I knew I wanted to target. Importantly, I made the decision quite early on that I did not want to live or work in London, which was influenced in part by a vacation scheme I did with a large City firm.
My family live near Cambridge and I went to school there, so I made the decision to stay in the area. Mills & Reeve has a fantastic reputation as one of the leading firms in East Anglia and so that was an obvious draw. At the time, I also had a particular interest in exploring family law and Mills & Reeve has large and very well regarded family and private client teams, in addition to covering the broad range of commercial practice areas you would expect at a top-50 firm. I was therefore confident that Mills & Reeve would provide me with excellent training opportunities – and doing six training seats, rather than four, appealed greatly.
As I mentioned, I completed a mini-pupillage and I also gained some early experience at a family law firm. I think varied experiences are crucial for helping you decide the direction you want to go in and also demonstrate a willingness to learn and an openness to new things. I had in-house work experience at a pharmaceutical company and also an insurance company, which was excellent for my overall perspective of the profession and my commercial awareness.
Trainees at Mills & Reeve do six four-month seats, rather than the usual four six-month seats. I started in the family team before moving on to seats in planning, employment, private tax and commercial. I returned to planning for my sixth seat, as that was the team I had decided I wanted to join on qualification.
The process is fairly similar to that of other firms – a list of newly qualified vacancies is published when trainees are in their fifth seats, with the vacancies spread across our various offices. Trainees then apply for the vacancy or vacancies which they are interested in. Generally speaking, there are usually a few more vacancies than there are trainees, so the firm maintains a high retention rate and sometimes hires externally to fill any remaining positions.
In my case, I was the only applicant for the vacancy in the planning team, so the process was not competitive and I didn’t have a formal interview. However, where there is more interest in a particular team, people do typically interview for positions, which will inevitably lead to disappointment for some. I would say overall though that most people get their first pick and most people are retained.
I started my training contract with ideas already formed about the areas of law I was likely to be interested in and the areas that would not be for me. This probably happens to everyone and is, to an extent, unavoidable. However, I think keeping an open mind is crucial. I enjoyed all my seats and it was actually quite hard to decide where I wanted to qualify. This gave me a little bit of anxiety for a while, but it needn’t have because everyone makes the right decision in the end. I certainly did, even if it did not seem an obvious one at first. It would have been nice to know this at the start rather than at the end though!
Planning is a niche area of law and our team sits within the firm’s broader real estate team. Planning is essentially about development and what you can and cannot do with land. We act primarily for developers and landowners who are typically seeking planning permission for residential or commercial development. We often act in relation to larger development schemes, for example, large urban extensions. Some of our largest schemes involve proposals for up to 5,000 new homes and so they are often long-term projects.
The process of obtaining planning permission is not something that a lawyer is always involved in, but local planning authorities will often require commitments from developers/landowners, such as supporting infrastructure, to mitigate the planning impact of their development proposals, and these matters are often dealt with by way of a legal agreement with the local authority. This typically involves a lot of negotiation and drafting. This is just one aspect of planning law, which actually covers a variety of other things. It is quite ‘law heavy’ and so it is not unusual for me to find myself buried in a statute or some case law.
I think planning is one of the hardest seats for a trainee because you’re unlikely to have touched on it in any meaningful detail during your law degree, GDL or LPC. This means that most people probably don’t appreciate just how varied, interesting and complex planning can be. Planning is also an area which has an important political dimension – the goal posts seem to be moved whenever there is a change of government, so there is a constant stream of new policy and case law to keep on top of, which can be challenging.
As I have mentioned, the work is highly varied, which is something that I really appreciate. I also enjoy seeing the tangible benefits of my work. It’s rewarding to know that it can result in someone having somewhere to live, go shopping or go to school – and in our Cambridge office you can often see the results of your work by looking out of the window at all the cranes! On top of that, I enjoy working at Mills & Reeve, which is a great place to be. The firm is focused on its employees and cultivating a good work/life balance. I think that is something that is important to all the people who have chosen to work here.
In terms of lows, this is not firm-specific, but I don’t like it when things go wrong, as inevitably they do from time to time. Especially as a junior, feeling responsible for a mistake is quite unpleasant, especially when you feel a loyalty to your firm and your colleagues, and a client is unhappy. The most valuable lessons I have learned to date have come on the back of mistakes though, so you have to take the rough with the smooth.
Engaging in business development activity is encouraged at all levels. I’ve found that the people I went to school and university with and so on are starting to move up in their respective organisations, so you do develop a network of contacts. I think the partners and more senior lawyers in any firm will be impressed if somebody junior is already thinking about who they might be able to start an interesting conversation with. We certainly feel encouraged and supported to do that at Mills & Reeve.
Key skills such as a good command of the English language, written and spoken, as well as attention to detail, commercial awareness and interpersonal skills are essential. However, I don’t think that there is one ‘type’ of person who makes the perfect lawyer. There are lots of different personalities in a law firm and everybody brings something different to a team. As long as you understand how a team – and more broadly a law firm – works, and what your client is trying to achieve, you will be able to play your part and be successful.
That’s easy. Michael Jackson, History.