Exeter student wins Clifford Chance vac scheme in pressure cooker competition

A 22-year-old philosophy and politics student has scooped an innovative award from a magic circle law firm, bagging £5,000 towards her university fees and a place on the practice’s summer vacation scheme later this year.

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Jessica Bryant, who is in her final undergraduate year at Exeter University was the overall winner of Clifford Chance’s Intelligent Aid competition. She joins 19 other students in taking highly coveted places on the global firm’s vac scheme, which finishes with interviews for training contracts. 

It is the fourth year Clifford Chance has run the competition, with firm representatives claiming the 2014 version saw the biggest number of entries yet. Some 500 students from a wide variety of backgrounds initially entered with an essay on growth economies. 

That group was whittled down to 40, who attended a final all-day session at the firm’s London Canary Wharf headquarters. 

“The final day was a really tough process,” said Bryant. “The amount of preparation time was short, but there was a lot of material to get through.” 

The 40 students had to contend with working in groups of four on a mock pitch to a prospective client on a project finance deal set in Indonesia. They had to balance teamwork with the knowledge that they were also competing against their group members. 

“That was the biggest challenge,” said Bryant, “But I was lucky that our team got on really well and gelled together.” 

Emma Matebalavu, a real estate finance specialist and one of two Clifford Chance parters on the judging panel, explained that the final case study exercise encouraged the students to set out the deal’s envisaged issues, as well as producing a convincing argument as to why the fictional client should use the firm. 

“A lot of skills are tested,” says Matebalavu, “communication, the ability to work and present as a team, and to put together a coherent and structured pitch. It also gives the judges a chance to assess how well they pick up the commercial points, how well they understand what lawyers do generally and what Clifford Chance does specifically.” 

Past competition themes have included micro-finance, commercial issues in Africa, and renewable energy. “We chose areas that relevant to Clifford Chance’s practice and that we are interested in growing,” explains Matebalavu. “We also try to make it topical, and to have elements of general knowledge, economics and commercial awareness. It is not a purely legal question.” 

Matebalavu acknowledges that it is “tricky” assessing individual talent in an exercise involving predominantly teamwork. “But we score them all individually at the end of each session on a range of criteria for communication skills and commercial awareness. There is also a question-and-answer session at the end, and the decision on the overall winner is partially based on how well they respond to that.” 

Bryant has had her eye on the firm for some time. “I’ve always been keen on Clifford Chance over and above the other magic circle firms or the US firms in London,” she said, citing the firm’s general diversity record and its specific “CV blind” policy for training contract interviews. 

“I applied in the first place because I’m interested in growing economies,” said Bryant, whose initial competition essay covered the issue of how natural resources will affect China’s future economy, with specific analysis of the country’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. 

Last year, Bryant worked as an intern at the Foreign Office – “so I had quite a bit of knowledge about foreign affairs.” 

And she certainly doesn’t regret not doing a law degree. “When I finished my A-levels I wanted to do something totally different. I looked at a law degree, but I’d read a couple of books on philosophy and found it really interesting. I knew that I could always do a law conversion course. And it was the right decision because I love my degree – it is a really interesting subject.” 

But Bryant is acutely aware of the significant added cost of going down the Graduate Diploma in Law route. “I don’t plan on doing the GDL or Legal Practice Course unless I have a training contract in place,” she says. “I don’t have the financial backing that others have. So this year is geared towards getting a first in my degree and then a training contract.”