updated on 02 March 2021
Hannah Cotterill is a trainee solicitor at Shoosmiths.
I graduated with a degree in sport and exercise science from Loughborough University. I then moved home, qualified as a secondary school science teacher and taught in local schools while saving to fund my legal studies. I went on to study the Graduate Diploma in Law and MSc in law, business and management at The University of Law in Manchester. I worked as an in-house paralegal after finishing my legal studies before starting my training contract at Shoosmiths in March 2020.
I was initially interested in the law while completing a law-based module as part of my teacher training. I enjoyed the analytical and problem-solving nature of the legal scenarios and being able to provide advice. After becoming disenchanted by the teaching profession, I researched different professions and found that the skills I had gained from teaching are sought after within the legal industry. Having enjoyed the legal-based modules I had undertaken previously, I was interested in pursuing this further.
Obtaining legal work experience
The careers department at The University of Law (Manchester) ran a work experience scheme with Slater and Gordon lawyers. It involved submitting an application form to the careers team and if successful you were given the opportunity to gain one day’s work experience over a period of five weeks at Slater and Gordon’s Manchester office (so essentially a week’s worth of work experience which could be undertaken alongside your studies and other commitments).
Key transferable skills
Teaching enabled me to develop my confidence and ability to speak to and in front of people while ensuring information is accessible and can be understood by the audience. Teaching a class of 30 students and keeping them engaged for an hour helped to build my resilience especially when encountering behavioural issues. As a lawyer your bread and butter is being able to engage with clients, develop relationships and advise them using simple language – very much the same as the role of a teacher.
My science background developed my analytical and research skills which I draw on near enough everyday as a trainee. Whether it be undertaking some research for a supervisor or reviewing a document and picking out points of contention or important information to report back to the client.
What are your three top tips for non-law students?
Alex Friston is an associate at Shoosmiths.
What was your background before coming to law?
Following A levels, I went on to read criminology and social policy (as part of the wider social sciences), and was the first person in my family to attend university. While this broadened my understanding of the way in which societies function across the globe, I came out the other side knowing that my skillset would be better suited to law and that a legal career would lead to a sense of certainty and fulfilment. I was mindful that I had not achieved the A-level results I had hoped for and thought as a result that succeeding in a legal career would be an uphill struggle from day one. Nevertheless, I was determined to accomplish the goal of becoming a solicitor and did not allow the negative perception of my A-level results to stand in my way and hinder my ability in other areas.
Why did you decide to pursue a legal career?
Law is something that reaches into every aspect of life and I was attracted by the autonomy of not being tied to one practice area immediately, or arguably ever. Law firms are largely departmental entities, but so far I have already had the opportunity to work collaboratively with a number of other teams and expect to do so when I qualify into a particular area. This opens the door to a range of fields and really demonstrates that it is a multi-faceted industry. This ultimate flexibility offers a huge variety of opportunities and renders any notion of ‘routine’ remote. Ultimately, different matters pose unique issues, which requires quick, active thinking – keeping everyone on their toes.
The role of a modern lawyer goes beyond encompassing technical legal knowledge. There is an expectation from day one to develop your commercial and technological acumen, as well as the ability to emotionally connect with those around you. Being a client-facing industry, it appealed to me that I would have the opportunity to work alongside a diverse range of people, both in and outside of my office.
Individually, the law presents a clear pathway in regards to professional advancement; but collectively, it is an industry that is constantly developing, harbouring a dynamic landscape that will provide many exciting opportunities throughout my career.
What legal work experience did you have, and did you attend any non-law specific firm events?
My first experience of working in the legal sector was at a high street firm in my home town during sixth form. I also sought various summer holiday stints at other local firms between leaving school and gaining a vacation scheme placement at a City firm. Outside of law firms, I wanted to get involved with the local community by becoming a gateway assessor at the Citizens Advice Bureau. This was a weekly role that I fitted around my degree. I also provided additional support to the legal team at a bank between the GDL and LPC, which offered an interesting exposure to the intricacies of in-house practice.
In terms of firm-held events, I only attended those that were for both law and non-law students. This was not through choice, but rather at the time there seemed to be more on offer that included all potential applicants. There was always a mixture of different backgrounds in attendance, so I never felt left out or isolated.
What did you enjoy about studying the GDL?
The GDL is a fast-paced whistle-stop tour of your bread-and-butter law in the space of about 10 months. While lots of what you’ll learn will soon be a distant memory once you’re in practice, the focus is clear from the outset – to bag a training contract/pupillage. I enjoyed being taught by ex-lawyers who would often provide interesting anecdotes about their career, which would often either excite or panic us!
What transferable skills have you brought across from your undergraduate non-law degree to your legal career?
My first seat at Shoosmiths was in the tax team. While completely unrelated to the social sciences on the face of it, my degree offered me the opportunity to work closely with both qualitative and quantitative data and how we can make use of and interpret it. Applying this to the complexities of the laws behind tax, it was all about how numerical data and tax updates can be presented in an easily obtainable and understandable way for the client.
Studying within the social sciences also helped me to develop an ability to take a step back and make well-informed decisions based on logic, rather than rash instinct. This is helpful in a legal environment where careful decision-making is critical to succeeding in a case.
More specifically, I was involved in a number of modules which required frequent verbal presentations. In taking part, I not only improved my public speaking ability, but also managed to integrate other important skills such as active listening and how to structure an argument.
While transferable skills are important in leading you to ultimate success, as a trainee and junior lawyer you are still very much a work in progress. Having an aptitude to constructively criticise yourself is an essential skill to improve and keep you well grounded. For instance, I am still working on becoming more concise and straight to the point, but my supervisors have been excellent in pointing this out to me!
How has studying a non-law degree impacted your career?
In my office’s current intake, there are three trainees. I am the only one who did not study law as a first degree. Do I feel as if this has put me at a disadvantage? Not in the slightest. You will cover all the necessities during the GDL if you decide to take this route. Yes, it is intense and can be hard work cramming it all in, but with good organisational skills and a desire to succeed, you will be able to get through it.
What advice would you offer to non-law students interested in pursuing a legal career?
Forget what your peers are doing and focus on yourself and your own qualities. The journey towards a career in law is often not linear and will inevitably have ups and downs, regardless of your academic or working credentials. If you do experience rejection, don’t take it personally, but instead seek advice on how you can move forward to improve for the next time round. I would recommend you treat each application as brand new and avoid the common error of copying and pasting paragraphs.
Another piece of advice is to gain as much experience as you can. While legal experience will whet your appetite for a career in the industry and put you in good stead, I am a firm believer that other commercial experience can be just as helpful for building up the essential skills for working in an office environment. Business skills go a long way too – don’t forget or discount them!