A different class: Teach First

Teach First is an innovative route that takes wannabe lawyers from the classroom to the boardroom.

A different class: Teach FirstIt seemed an odd place to start a career in law. Student Steve Costello was standing in front of a roomful of students at a tough inner-city school in Hackney, preparing to teach his first class. And he was extremely nervous.

They were testing you out, he recalls. One or two kids would say a few cheeky things. The first lesson wasnt too bad; after that they try and turn the screw.

Fast forward three years and the 26-year-old has secured a training contract at magic circle law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Costello is one of a small but growing number of students using the Teach First programme to launch careers in law. The scheme takes academic high-achievers and sends them to underperforming schools for two years after they graduate from university. The participants gain vital life skills and a seriously impressive CV, while inner-city youngsters benefit from exposure to some of the countrys brightest minds.

You get six weeks of training and then you have 30 kids sat in front of you.

No other graduate scheme gives you such responsibility from day one, says Costello, as he reflects on his unusual path to one of the UKs top law firms.

In his two years at the Cardinal Pole school, Costello now an ambassador for the programme had to make some tough decisions. It is something that will serve him well in his career as a lawyer.

One challenge was dealing with pupils who simply refused to come to school. It was hard because I was accountable for pupils behaviour and pupils that werent attending, reveals Costello. I had to get them in with the parents, but sometimes it just wouldnt work. I also had to let a few of them go. One time my decision was challenged by the local authority and I was accused of this and that. But when it came down to it I made the right decision.

So far only a handful of law students have completed the Teach First programme in the UK, but law firms are starting to take notice. Freshfields head of UK trainee recruitment Deborah Dalgleish says: Teach First candidates are distinguished by an ability to swim rather than sink when dropped in the deep end and not give up easily.

In addition to Freshfields, Allen & Overy (A&O) and CMS Cameron McKenna have also recently hired Teach First graduates. Tom Evans is currently a trainee at A&O, while Odette Orlans is soon to begin a training contract at Camerons. Vivienne Ball, head of recruitment at Camerons, says: Of the [Teach First] people weve interviewed, their presentation and networking skills are much more developed than other candidates.

Teach First launched in the UK in 2002 and is based on the phenomenally successful Teach for America scheme, which has started the careers of more than a thousand lawyers.

Costello is certain he would not be where he is today without the programme. He studied economics at the University of Manchester before signing up to the programme in the summer of 2005. A year into the scheme he applied and was accepted to several vacation placements at law firms. This came several years after the majority of law students take this step, with most applying for summer placements during their penultimate year of university.

Dalgleish admits that she would not have considered Costello had it not been for Teach First. The firm usually only accepts applications from law students at the end of their penultimate year. Because theyre committed to teach for two years, she says, were happy to accept applications from Teach First candidates after theyve graduated.

With more and more students wanting to wait until the end of university before making major decisions about their careers, Teach First can offer a more considered route into law. The two-year teaching break fits neatly between graduation and taking the LPC, allowing students to apply for training contracts later than usual. This was the approach taken by Costello and other successful candidates.

So why dont more students and potential employers use the scheme? So far only A&O, Camerons, Freshfields and legal insurer DAS have taken Teach First alumni.

Perhaps recruiters have yet to realise the benefits of this kind of experience to a legal career. Costello reveals that, when he was interviewed for training places, law firms would question the relevance of teaching skills to the legal profession. They used to say things like, youre a teacher youre too nice for law. Its not about being nice or not. Its about being professional and dealing with stressful situations, explains Costello.

Most students apply for the Teach First programme in their last year of university, but competition for places is fierce.

Eighty per cent of our teachers come from the top 15 universities, but we do take applications from any university, explains Teach First spokesman Philip Fearn. The degree has to be at least a 2:1 and thats just the start of it.

The next stage is to be screened and then take part in a gruelling day of assessments, including tasks such as teaching a mock five-minute lesson. Only then can applicants finally be accepted. No wonder only 300 students make the cut from more than 2,000 entrants each year.

For the lucky few, training begins after graduation, with an intensive three-week programme run by universities in London, the North West and the Midlands. All the recruits then come together for three weeks of study at Canterbury Christ Church University before being sent to their respective schools.

Over the course of the two years teachers are given leadership training, including a short course at the Tanaka Business School at Imperial College.

Each is also assigned a mentor, usually a successful member of whichever industry the teacher hopes to work in. Costello was put in touch with former Clifford Chance partner Rodney Short, now a legal consultant, who he describes as a massive help.

But Teach First is not just about personal gain. For Costello, the opportunity to help others was a major consideration in applying. He talks with passion about providing positive role models in areas of the country where there are few.

A day out at Clifford Chance, the worlds largest law firm, during his second year gave pupils a glimpse of what can be achieved. Some of his students were even accepted on work experience placements at Freshfields something Costello rates as one of his top achievements.

These kids from Hackney were coming in and holding their own, he says. It was amazing.

Regardless of whether Teach First takes off as a potential route into law, that is surely worth emulating.