An age-old problem

The online application form disallowing candidates from
bypassing academic criteria is just one of the hurdles facing the more mature entrants to the profession. Kian Ganz meets the trainees whove broken through the barriers

An age-old problemWhen 55-year-old Tony Sheridan was told there was no way that at his age he could become a trainee solicitor, he asked: Why not, why not and why not? Today he is training at Cornwall firm Cornish Venning Chellows, proving that age is becoming less of a barrier to entering the legal profession.

Thirty-five-year-old Koser Shaheen wears a hijab and has had no formal education after the age of 11. She is just about to begin her training contract with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Although firms are starting to wake up to the fact that those candidates who decide to pursue a legal career at a later stage in life may have something unique to offer over their younger competitors, do not suffer any illusions. If you are not a fresh-faced 21-year-old graduate, securing a training contract is not going to be a walk in the park. In short, it is going to require hard work, dedication and a lot of preparation.

Be prepared
First of all, think very hard why you want to change your career, advises Andy Jackson, who decided after several careers and spending almost 11 years in Asia that he wanted to be a solicitor.

Jackson is now 35 and is a third-seat trainee at Allen & Overy.

Jackson says it is important to know why you want to be a lawyer because you obviously do not want to wonder about that question after you have already left your previous career and suddenly find yourself a lawyer.

You cant start too early thinking about how youre going to market and place yourself, agrees Sheridan, who worked in a senior business role at BT until his early retirement at 50, when he embarked on the challenge of becoming a lawyer.

Sheridan says his managerial experience taught him that there is often a lack of strategic thinking in peoples
decisions. He recommends a useful exercise: imagine yourself in the position you want to be in 10 years time, for example as a senior lawyer in a magic circle firm; then ask yourself what characteristics such a person would need to have; then work backwards from that position to the present day, building your ideal portfolio and the steps that would
enable you to achieve that goal. This is a basic technique from business planning, but it works equally well for planning your life.

On top of that, the question why law? will come up time and time again in interviews. So it is crucial to come up with some convincing evidence of your commitment to the profession. One way to achieve this is to secure a place on a vacation scheme or to attend a law firm open day.

Second, heed the advice of every person Lawyer 2B interviewed for this article and do a lot of research. Although this is a rule of thumb across the board, it applies doubly to career-changers, who cannot absorb everything they need to know by osmosis through careers fairs, university careers services and fellow students going
through the same routes.

I was all alone out there, says Dani? Tyler, who is 31, Canadian and who worked as an embedded software engineer in Switzerland before joining Ashurst as a trainee. She says she researched the profession on the internet, ordered a few books and delved in.

In addition to reading the legal press, there are many other ways to enhance your knowledge of the profession. Meeting people is a good way of doing it, says Jackson, who had grown a successful headhunting business while in Japan. He
used his university alumni and found friends of friends who had become solicitors, invited them for coffee and asked them for personal advice.

Apply yourself
Pinsent Masons head of graduate recruitment Spencer Hibbert warns that preparing online application forms is not something you can do in 10 minutes.

As one applicant found, despite applying to 50 firms he did not get any offers because he rushed his applications.

He tells Lawyer2B: I suppose I was relying on the fact that my qualifications were unique.

Shaheen remembers her applications well. She did not have GCSEs or A-levels, but was awarded the highest first in her
year studying law at the University of Central England, which no magic or silver circle firms visit. Her fellow students never actually entertained the hope that you could start [in the magic circle].

Many firms application systems, even for vacation placements, dumped her even before the second page. When you apply it asks for Ucas points and that was the worst thing that really, really upset me, she says. If an application form starts asking candidates to insert points, says Shaheen, and does not let them proceed because they do not meet the minimum academic criteria, the firm is excluding a whole raft of interesting people.

Damian Cullen is 37 and is doing his LPC. He raises another problem facing more mature applicants who completed their A-levels a long time ago: grade inflation. Nowadays everyone is expected to score at least three grade As in their A-levels, but many insist that 20 years ago it was much more difficult. Even with a 2:1, an MSc and solid work experience, Cullens two Bs and a C make many applications almost impossible to navigate.

Fortunately, an increasing number of firms are starting to realise the problems with such restrictive practices and are
beginning to adapt. Simon Cockshutt, partner in charge of graduate recruitment at US firm Orrick, says: Weve had it in the past that [low grades are] just a blip in the CV. You can miss out on very good candidates and thats why we continue to review candidates in their entirety.

Dorita Sheriff, Eversheds head of learning and development, agrees. Weve revised the application form so that its
more holistic and takes account of things outside of just grades, she says. She adds that Eversheds has started looking more for skills, attributes and attitudes rather
than hard and fast figures.

Age discrimination
Age discrimination is now unlawful in the UK. All employers in the UK must now be able show that they make decisions based on the abilities of applicants and not on their ages. While the limits of this legislation have not yet been tested, it can be expected that firms will start actively dealing with potential problems in this area. For example, many firms have stopped requesting candidates ages to forestall charges of age discrimination being made against them.

But not everything is perfect yet. Geoff Kitchen, who is 35 years old, has started at Eversheds after 10 years working in marketing, but he found that application forms at many firms were very focused on what youd done at school or university some didnt even give the opportunity to
post a CV or talk about work after uni. He says it was usually nothing that a phone call to the HR department could not solve and, if the online form was particularly
restrictive, he would agree to post a CV with a cover letter.

When questioned by Lawyer 2B all firms confirmed they were happy to accept CVs and cover letters in such cases, but Kitchen says he personally had no success with applications where he did not use the provided form.

Firms are also happy to accept non-academic referees if academic ones are not available, and often LPC or conversion course tutors will be happy to act as referees.

But remember, if you are supplying additional information, keep it short. Jackson remembers that, as a headhunter, he never read more than one page of A4, even in applications for high-profile positions.

Sell yourself
Finally, you have received one or more invitations to be interviewed. Oddly enough, this may be the easiest step for those with more experience behind them.

Nevertheless, you need to brush up on the firm by reading recent news stories, revisit your CV and application form and be sure to arrive on time for your interview. If you have done all the preparation, says Sheridan, your background will not be an issue.

Tyler says you need to present yourself in a manner that makes your background an advantage, not a disadvantage, and as Kitchen found it can actually be an advantage, as skills that youve built up can work for you in law. And obviously, your soft skills can be more advanced if you have had previous careers, so do not be afraid to flaunt it.

Jackson recommends: Spend 80 per cent of the interview talking about your match [with the firm]. If youre ever on
your back feet in an interview, remember the match and talk about that and give concrete stories.

Clare Harris, associate director of legal resourcing at Lovells, says: Generation Y is quite a fluid group. Were looking for people who want to build a long-term career with us. People who want to put themselves through a second career shows a heck of a lot of commitment.

Correspondingly, she says that some of the most engaged people weve worked with have had non-traditional backgrounds.

And that, at the end of the day, is what you need if you want to make it, regardless of your age. You need to be engaged, confident and to savour the challenge.

In the words of Shaheen: The more I read about the system being geared against me and towards white, middle-class, well-educated males, the more I wanted to do it. It was the
difficulty of the challenge that made it so appealing.

And when asked what makes you unique, savour Sheridans advice: Me is what makes me unique, but my background now makes me confident to say it.