Jessica Berkeley


University: Nottingham Trent University
Degree: Law LLB
Year of qualification: 2018
Position: Newly-qualified solicitor
Department: Corporate, London office

What attracted you to a career in law?

I studied law as an extra GCSE and then later at A level – it was just always the direction I wanted to go in. My aunt was a barrister in the Republic of Ireland before becoming a judge. When I was younger, watching her get ready for work events, it seemed like such a glamorous job – though I now know that not to be true 99% of the time!

Why solicitor not barrister?

There was no big decision for me, it just happened that way. I always planned on being a barrister – I did what was the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) and was called to the Bar in 2010, around the time very deep cuts were made to legal aid. Maybe if circumstances had been different, I would be a barrister now. But pupillage eluded me in that first year so I went off travelling (as so many do!) and then lived in Australia for a while. When I returned, I worked in white collar outplacement support before taking quite a big pay cut to become a paralegal at Shoosmiths. The intention was still very much to look for a pupillage but I enjoyed working at the firm and it seemed silly not to make the most of the opportunities it presented. I applied for the training contract (TC) externally, I didn’t even tell my team that I was going for it until I secured a place on the assessment centre.

How did you decide which firms to apply to?

When I came back to the United Kingdom, I was living in Northamptonshire. Shoosmiths was the best-known firm in the region and I knew it had a good reputation nationally. I got in touch with an acquaintance working there via LinkedIn. We had coffee and she let me know when a paralegal vacancy came up.

Once I had made the decision to go down the solicitor route, I never even considered looking elsewhere. Some might think that a little naïve, but if I was going to be a solicitor, Shoosmiths was the only local firm I wanted to train at and I had already started to build relationships within the firm. It just felt like it was the next natural step and luckily for me, it worked out.

How much work experience had you had? Why is it so important?

Shoosmiths has quite a mix in terms of people applying for TCs. For me, the fact that I had actually worked for a number of years helped me stand out, as well as the fact that I had done the BVC. I’d worked in a few legal environments, including the attorney general’s office in Sydney, I’d worked in HR, I’d even worked on a farm in Australia driving tractors through the night! Funnily enough, that got picked up on a lot – I think people found it interesting and unexpected.

What do you think made your application successful?

Nearly everyone who applies has pretty good grades; that goes without saying. You need something more than that to make you stand out from the 2,000 other people applying. I think what set me apart was the fact that I had experience – not just short placements in legal environments, but of actually working and living in the real world, mortgages and all. It took me a little longer to get my TC but I wouldn’t trade what I’ve done just to have qualified earlier. I’ll always be glad I did the BVC and took a couple of years out to see some of the world. Once you’re on that legal treadmill, it’s very hard to leave for any substantial period of time and then get back on without it slowing down your career development.

Which departments did you train in?

My first seat was a 6 month client secondment to Volkswagen. My second seat was in Corporate, my third in Dispute Resolution and my fourth in Commercial, which included another three-month client secondment to Mercedes-Benz.

I qualified into Corporate in our London office. Corporate was by far my favourite seat and our expanding London office is a dream location in terms of career development. Until my seat, I had never really considered Corporate. It just goes to show that you need to keep an open mind!

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

During my corporate seat, one that stands out was where we acted for a client in relation to multiple purchases of veterinary clinics. It was quite an aggressive acquisition strategy, which involved buying a number of veterinary companies in a short space of time. Our client then streamlined and centralised operations across the group, before selling on the parent company. I was involved on some of the smaller individual deals, drafting ancillary documents and even a couple of share-purchase agreements, before assisting on sale of the parent company.

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

I wish I’d realised earlier that the TC really is a two-year job interview! At a large firm like Shoosmiths you encounter lots of people every day. At the beginning of my TC I think I was a little naïve and thought only the people in my office would know who I was. But people talk! From day one, every person you encounter helps shape general opinion of you. Always try to remember that and try to work with as many different people as you can.

When jobs come up at the point of qualification, there is always fierce competition for them – that’s when having invested some time building your personal brand across the wider firm can really make a difference.

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

Within the corporate department I’m involved in private equity (PE) and venture capital (VC) work. That can cover a lot of things, whether assisting on large management buy outs or investments by PE firms to smaller VC pieces for start-ups.

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

I recently assisted a company that had developed an artificial-intelligence powered hedge fund. We helped them set up a corporate structure – from drafting a shareholders' agreement to articles. We also helped with the initial investment round and ensuring the algorithm they had created was protected.

Working in a busy corporate environment, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of what the businesses you’re buying/selling/exiting actually do. But with VC work, you tend to get involved with those ideas really early on. The hope is that clients will come back to you for later funding rounds and you will be able to grow that relationship.

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

Corporate is quite addictive. There’s an adrenalin rush, a buzz – more so than in any other area in which I’ve worked.

The flipside is that it quite often involves unusual and long hours, which can make it difficult to plan ahead. For London, Shoosmiths doesn’t have long hours compared to some city corporate departments. Most days I start around 8:30am and I’m out by around 7:00pm. But when a deal is going on, it can be all-consuming. Deliveroo get a lot of business from us during those periods.

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

We are all encouraged to get involved and promote the firm – we’re always being encouraged to attend networking events. And anyone who wants to get more involved in business development is always welcome – you just have to put your hand up.

What makes your firm stand out from the rest?

I’ve been at Shoosmiths for five years. In that time, there has been an unprecedented level of growth and yet, for the most part, the firm has managed to retain its core values and friendly culture. I might be biased but most people here are lovely to be around and good at their jobs. I’ve worked at enough other places to know that isn’t always the case. There’s a lot to be said for that.

What skills/strengths do you need to be a successful solicitor?

Tenacity. And the ability to relate to people from all walks of life.

My secondments have taught me a huge amount about what the client wants to see from their legal advisors. Clients want straightforward, workable answers and solutions, not a legal essay with complex reasoning (they trust it’s there in the background, they just don’t need to see it).

Any advice needs to be commercially relevant. We as lawyers need to understand the commercial pressures that clients are operating under. It’s simply not enough to just know the law these days.

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

Engage with the graduate recruitment team right from the start – whether that’s online or at law fairs. It is never a waste of time. These people are the gatekeepers to law firms and they keep track! If you can get your name known positively by graduate recruitment, it means that the firm is already aware of you when it comes to applying. I think Shoosmiths received over 2,000 applications for 20 TCs this year, so any edge you have can make all the difference.

When you go to law fairs, make sure that you have a few sensible questions lined up. Trainees often get roped in to help out at law fairs and when we get back, we’re asked who made a good impression. It’s not hard! It just takes a bit of time and research.

Also: be focused, smart and realistic. Pick four or five law firms that you think you are a good fit for and target them specifically. I think that that increases your chances.

What is your dream holiday destination?

Pig Beach in the Bahamas. Slightly odd but very beautiful – I’ve always wanted to swim with the pigs there. Once I’ve finished renovating my house, it’s top of the list!

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