Survival guide: Career change
8 August 2012
These are extremely challenging times for aspiring lawyers and even more so for the mature applicant and career changer, with competition for training contracts, pupillages and even paralegal roles more intense than ever before. However, a career in law can still be very rewarding both financially and in terms of job satisfaction so if you’ve decided that this if what you want as a second, third or even fourth career then go for it. But beware, you will need to be prepared for a real challenge.
You may think that you have the luxury of planning your applications for training contracts or pupillage once all your exams are out of the way and you’ve at least completed your GDL or even LPC/BPTC. You could not be more wrong.
Very little latin is used by lawyers nowadays but one latin expression should be framed and placed above your desk: “Tempus fugit”. It is very important indeed to plan and start your campaign to ultimately get a training contract or pupillage as soon as possible, ideally yesterday. You will need to continue that campaign throughout your studies.
Firstly, you cannot afford to wait until you complete a LLB of GDL before deciding whether you want to be a solicitor or a barrister. You need to start your applications long before then if you don’t you will be at a massive disadvantage against undergraduates who have a clearer idea of where they are going and have already started the application process. As a more mature student you do not have time to deliberate.
Make a decision, read the legal press, speak to tutors and professionals, look at your skill set and decide where you would be best suited, but don’t neglect to make a cold hard economical decision based on your chances of success. Make a decision and make it early. Don’t rely on your law school careers service, even if they are good they will not be much help to you until you know where you’re going.
You will probably have a job and family commitments. Managing your time between study, applications, networking, your job, your family and your social life will be a real challenge. You will need to think long and hard about how you prioritise everything you need to do. It is tempting to put training contract and pupilage applications to one side especially when you look at your reading lists and assignments, but you simply can’tafford to. You will be up against undergraduates who started attending law fairs in their first year and started applying in their penultimate year at university. Many of them will have legal work experience on vacation schemes or mini-pupillages already and will have a head start.
Focus and a sense of urgency is essential if you want to start a legal career as a mature person. As an older applicant there are a number of questions that you should consider and re-consider regularly, including:
What am I doing?
Why am I doing it?
Where am I going?
Why do I want to get there?
And most importantly; how am I going to get there?
There is no way around it – you have to find the time for all those application forms. If you don’t start planning and applying right now you could easily miss out on some vital opportunities.
Survive your law studies
Law is a rigorous subject and studying law is hard, there’s no two ways about it. For the more mature student this is even more so. You will either have a degree in another discipline or you’ll have no degree at all and are starting from scratch with a LLB or exempting degree.
Mature students will often be studying part-time as they still need to earn a living and they often struggle to adapt to law after graduating in another discipline. You may be a graduate who has developed well honed skills of textual analysis in an English degree. You may have a Maths degree and have a very logical mind. It doesn’t really matter what kind of degree you have; if it isn’t law then you are in for a shock. Learning law, for a graduate from another discipline law is a real challenge. The basic reason for this is that lawyers do not think like normal people, and the quicker you cast away all your existing analytical skills and start again, the better.
So how do you cope? Don’t panic! At the start, things may fly by in a bit of a blur. In law, the concepts themselves are not difficult, it’s just the way that they are applied and it really does take some time to change the way you think and use legal analysis. For most of you who are prepared to persevere it will click into place. If you’ve ever lived in Germany or France for a number of months armed only with a GCSE in the language you will have understood most of what people were saying but rarely been able think of a way to reply. After about six months or so you may find that you can discuss all kinds of issues in the language with native speakers. Sometimes beer helps but eventually you will get to the stage where you start to think in the language, and law is a bit like that.
Once you start to think like a lawyer it suddenly becomes much easier to know how to approach a legal problem, but like anything it will require perseverance. Practice answering exam questions. The more you practice writing answers to legal problems, the faster you will develop, and a really good idea is to make the most of opportunities to meet tutors one on one and go over answers to legal problems you have written. Eventually the coin will drop, and you will start to make real progress.
Why is getting a training contract or pupillage harder for the more mature?
It shouldn’t be, should it? This is a bit of a thorny issue, but the brutal truth is that it isharder and some applicants are certainly at a disadvantage due to their age, despite the protection offered by anti-discrimination legislation.Let’s be clear - law firms and chambers do not as a rule deliberatelydiscriminate on the grounds of age. In fact the majority of firms and chambers would appear to have robust recruitment policies in place to encourage diversity and counter discrimination through their recruitment.
The problem is often the application process itself. There’s no getting away from the fact that most graduate recruitment application processes are not designed with the mature applicant in mind. If you have 10, 20 or 30 years of work experience, just try distilling examples of when you have shown leadership qualities into 50 or 100 words!
Essentially, and I’m talking primarily about law firms here, there is a certain graduate route set out that is tailored specifically to undergraduates and if you graduated some time ago you will not fit easily into it. For all the talk about encouraging applicants from a diverse background, it seems that many firms and sets do seem to recruit very similar types and you may notice that they are all at least 10 or 20 years younger than you.
Another concern for law firms when it comes to mature applicants is whether or not you have time to make partner. The way that a law firm works is that succession planning needs to be in place to generate partners for the future, so where do you fit in if you are in your 40s or even 50s?
Some smaller firms will not entertain your application at all and this may well be because you are older. What can you do? Not a lot. You will never know for certain that this is the reason and do you really want to take a law firm to tribunal on a discrimination claim?
It can be very discouraging when every single training contract or pupilage application comes back as a rejection or is simply not acknowledged. Often hours of research and preparation and time spent drafting answers to bizarre questions on application forms can feel like it’s been wasted. Meeting all the criteria, and more, for the role you are applying for and still not getting a reply is irksome. You may find yourself asking “Why is nobody interested?”
In many instances this may be due to discrimination on the grounds of age. But this is no time for sour grapes. A pile of rejection letters on the mat when you get home is dispiriting but you need to keep a positive attitude and move on.
Get legal work experience
As we’ve said before, most of you will be employed and may have families. It would be a mistake to consider that this means you should not apply for vacation schemes or mini-pupilages. A growing number of trainees are recruited straight out of vacation schemes. Vacation schemes and mini-pupilages are the ideal way to showcase yourself to potential firms and chambers. Therefore it would be foolish not to try to get this kind of work experience, and there are no two ways about it, if it’s a choice between a family holiday in the sun or a vacation scheme or mini-pupilage then the latter should always be your choice.
Getting onto vacation schemes and mini-pupilages or onto graduate recruitment pathways leading to a training contract or pupilage is spectacularly hard for most aspiring lawyers and it will be even more so for you. This should not stop you from applying. It can certainly be true that a more mature applicant will perform better on a vacation scheme or mini-pupilage, for the simple reason that you already have real-life work experience. This is an excellent chance to showcase your skills and get an invaluable insight into the legal world. To not even apply for them is frankly suicidal to your chances.
If you can’t get a formal vacation scheme or mini-pupilage what do you do? You have probably knocked around a bit in your professional life to date and you may well know solicitors, partners, barristers, magistrates, judges or anyone connected to a firm, chambers or the Courts. If not you may have an acquaintance who is in a legal role. Use any contacts you have and ask them if you can do informal work experience or shadowing. Now is not the time to be shy. You never know when you may be interviewed by someone who knows this person and you will be able to talk knowledgeably about what they do.
Market your brand
It’s true that the competition is stiffer than it used to be and in times like these we’re all looking for an edge, an angle, something that sets us apart from the rest of the herd. Even in the current climate where training contracts and pupillages are as rare as hen’s teeth you will have an edge over many of your contemporaries. There are law firms and chambers out there who are looking for people with the skills that you possess.
So, sit down with a cup of tea and dredge through your past experiences for anything that could be useful. Identify the skills and experience you already possess from your working life to datethat would make you a good lawyer. You may be surprised by just how many you think of.
Here are just a few thoughts to get you going:
COMMUNICATION SKILLS: Being a mature applicant can be a massive advantage for some firms or chambers because the breadth of your experience means that you can be put in front of clients, both individuals and businesses and communicate with them effectively. Once you become a mature trainee or pupil you will find that often clients take you more seriously and probably assume that you know more than you actually do. You will have used communication skills. There will have been times where you have had to get ideas across effectively, be persuasive, and be clear and unambiguous. These skill is an absolutemust for a solicitor, and are very highly prized.
NEGOTIATION: What solicitor will not have to negotiate effectively on behalf of their client at some point? Barristers are always sounding out opposing counsel in order to settle before the trial or hearing, for instance. You will have been in situations where you have had to sound out a client or potential client, make a deal, or communicate in a commercial context. In short, you will have negotiation skills that are transferable.
COMMERCIAL AWARENESS: Maybe you have run your own business. That involves marketing, negotiating contracts, accounts, forward planning, identifying alternative work, diversifying and constant appraisal of the market among so many other things. Maybe you’ve been employed but you’ve had involvement in management, recruitment, marketing or accounts. No matter what business you’ve been in you will have become aware of the risks to that business and what the key issues are. Commercial awareness for a lawyer is simply understanding what the risks to your client’s business are and how best to manage them.
TEAM WORK: This is an area where you should have a huge advantage over an undergraduate. It’s all very good being captain of a hockey team, but that is nothing compared to working with others in a commercial environment where there has been an impossible deadline or target to meet and you have played an integral part within a team to achieve it while also integrating yourself successfully and recognising your strengths and weaknesses and those of others. You will have done this. Write down two examples now!
NETWORKING: Law firms and chambers are looking for people who can generate and develop useful contacts in order to bring in work. Maybe you’ve been self-employed and had to make contacts and build relationships? Perhaps you’ve worked in sales or marketing or for a company where you have had to network and work on maintaining good client and customer relationships. Write down what you have done and you may come to realise that over time you’ve developed some real networking skills.
PROBLEM SOLVING: You will have the experience and the maturity to know what you can and cannot do and will be able to deal effectively with matters as they arise, knowing when help is needed. It doesn’t matter what kind of work you have done, you will have had to solve problems.
TIME MANAGEMENT: Something that you will be able to bring to any legal role very early on is your experience of time and file management and the ability to proactively deal with matters. Compare and contrast this with an undergraduate who struggles to get essays in on time. There’s only one winner isn’t there?
Essentially, it doesn’t matter what your past experience is. There are skills that you will have acquired that will put you in good stead in getting a training contract or pupilage. And furthermore the breadth and range of experiences you have will be far superior to any callow undergraduate! So make yourself a cup of tea, put your thinking cap on and see what you can come up with. I’m expecting you to breeze though any competency based interviews that come your way!
You need to understand the market and how law firms and chambers operate. A GDL followed by the LPC or BPTC will teach you next to nothing about the legal market place and all its idiosyncrasies.
You need to devote all the time you can to learn about how the legal market place works and how firms and chambers are run. You will not “pick this up” on a GDL or the LPC/BPTC so make sure that you devour the legal press every week. Interrogate anyone and everyone you know who works in any kind of legal role.
Attend all the free law seminars and meetings on offer and introduce yourself to people. Ask lots of questions and note down names afterwards if you don’t get a business card.
Use linkedIn, and any other professional networking tool you can find.
A thorough understanding of how law firms and chambers make money is absolutely invaluable when you get to interviews.
Have a Plan B, and C and D…..
You may have so much work experience that editing your CV down to two pages is a real challenge. You may have done pro bono, been involved in the JLD, have a 2:1 or a first, and great marks on the LPC/BPTC. You may still be getting next to nowhere.
Perhaps you’ve made it to the final stages of recruitment only to fall at the last hurdle. If so you may have to start again from scratch and look at all your options. Go through all your contacts again. Make another push.
Look at alternative pathways into law. Consider firms or sets that up to now have been under your radar. Consider moving to another part of the country.
Sometimes there is an element of timing involved. Doors that were once firmly shut may now be slightly ajar. Opportunities or openings may be there that weren’t there before. If you get invited in “for a chat” be ready to do your pitch. All the spadework that has gone in before will be crucial. Your referees may already have been approached, so whatever you do, make sure that when you do work experience that you work really hard and show plenty of initiative. If you do nothing else, make sure that whatever references you get willbe great.
Is it worth doing some old fashioned leg work and putting yourself about? It can be. Don’t forget that networking is important. When you get to interview you will be able to show knowledge of the local legal market. Work experience enables you to talk about work you have done with solicitors or barristers that your interviewer knows. Sometimes, eventually, making contacts and knocking on doors can lead to an opportunity that makes all the difference.
Not all work
We’ve been stressing just how hard it can be to make the change to law, and that’s especially true for the mature career changer. But don’t neglect your family and social life. If you do, you’ll start to come across as a bit of a law automaton with nothing else to talk about. And nobody wants to work with one of those!
Top tips on successfully surviving the career change to law:
Be yourself. Know why you want to be a lawyer and be able to explain it to someone else; but don’t lose touch with who you are as a human being!
Be proactive – sometimes you’ll need to be creative when looking for openings and networking will help.
Don’t get bitter or discouraged. Graduate recruitment in chambers and at law firms is simply not designed with you in mind; just accept it, and keep going.
Get involved in the Junior Lawyers Division and any other organisation where there are support, advice and networking opportunities.
Do not be put off simply because you may be more mature than most other aspiring lawyers.
Play to your strengths. Identify what skills you already possess that would make you a great lawyer.
A lot of time and effort goes into applications for training contracts and pupilage. If you don’t them properly, you’ll end up in the rejection pile. Don’t wait for deadlines – do them early. Set a whole day aside for each one.
No response or a rejection? After the intense disappointment, just resolve to make the next application stronger, the next interview better and the next assessments absolutely perfect.
Remember, there are opportunities out there for more experienced applicants.
The legal landscape is changing and opportunities will arise for those with experience of retail, construction, leisure, healthcare, civil service, in fact all the areas the more mature applicant has knowledge of.
You have accumulated skills over many years that some lawyers never fully acquire. You will really understand customer care, know how to motivate yourself and others, understand the commercial world and how it works. You may have run your own successful businesses. You are offering your talents to the legal profession at just the same time as the legal profession is opening up to new structures, greater commercial focus and better client care.
Market your brand well and you could join the revolution.
Mark Pentecost is 51 years old and in the first year of his training contract.