updated on 04 September 2019
Jessica Dick is a trainee solicitor at Shoosmiths.
I graduated with a degree in American Studies from the University of Manchester. I then moved home to work and save to fund my legal studies before going on to study the GDL and LPC at BPP Leeds. I was a paralegal for two years before starting my training contract at Shoosmiths in September 2018.
I was initially interested in law through my government and politics A level. However, I wanted the opportunity to explore different areas of academia and obtain work experience before deciding on my career path.
Throughout the early years of my degree, I did have in mind that the law conversion course would be an option, but it was in my final year that I started to actively pursue work experience. It was through my work experience that I decided a career in law was for me. I wanted a career that would be challenging and give me new problems to solve every day. I also enjoy client service, which has been an aspect of most of my non-legal jobs and a key skill to retain clients in the legal sector.
Obtaining legal work experience
At university I joined the law for non-law society to gain a broader understanding of what a career in law is really like and to learn more about the application process. Many universities have a law for non-law society; they provide a wealth of information and often hold useful events such as talks from lawyers and recruiters.
The University of Manchester also runs a scheme called Manchester Gold, which is a mentoring programme connecting current students with alumni who work in the student’s desired industry. My mentor gave me invaluable advice and support and we have remained in touch since I graduated five years ago.
When I first considered a career in law, I knew that it was vital to gain some work experience. I wrote to local firms and chambers in Manchester and Leeds with a CV and cover letter. It sometimes felt like an uphill battle as I wrote to countless firms and would often hear nothing back. However, through sheer persistence I managed to obtain a day in a barristers’ chambers, a day with the Coroner in Manchester and a week’s experience in a local firm in Leeds. This experience made me certain I wanted to pursue a career as a solicitor and bolstered my CV for future applications.
Key transferable skills
American Studies is not a very common degree, I am yet to meet another lawyer who read this subject! When it came to deciding what to study at university, I struggled to decide between literature, history and politics. This degree gave me the opportunity to study all three areas and to study abroad for a semester in Arizona.
One of the key skill sets I developed during my undergraduate degree was my analytical and research skills. As in most humanities degrees, I was required to research and draft numerous long essays. This required me to analyse large amounts of information and pull out the relevant facts and key points. The ability to research detailed points and write concisely is a skill I use every day as a trainee.
Studying abroad also developed other transferable skills that I use as a trainee solicitor, including adaptability, communication skills and cultural awareness. Living and studying in a different culture increased my confidence and made me more adaptable in unfamiliar situations. If anyone reading this is considering studying abroad for a semester, I would wholeheartedly recommend it not just as a way to boost your CV skills, but become a more confident well-rounded person.
You must be determined and committed when pursuing a legal career. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, rejection is inevitable when applying for training contracts and pupillage, but you must learn from every experience and not be disheartened.
Look at the bigger picture
While many firms have specific academic requirements that you should check before applying, they also have an expectation of non-academic requirements. Not all of your work experience has to be legal; there are many transferable skills in non-legal jobs and those skills will round out your CV and give you something interesting to talk about in your applications.
I didn’t know any lawyers and none of my friends were considering a career in law, so it was up to me to build a network. Opportunities don’t just land on your doorstep, you have to put the effort in to maintain and develop relationships. A varied network may be invaluable once you have qualified.
Alex Friston is a trainee solicitor 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!