Graduates who come to the legal profession from other disciplines offer employers not just expertise in specialist fields but often analytical and management skills too
About 40 per cent of lawyers now come from a non-law background and the demand for legal jobs from career changers and other graduates shows no sign of slowing.
Expertise in an academic subject other than law is not the only advantage of this approach. Many career changers are able to contribute to their firm’s development too.
Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption told the Bar Council’s magazine, Counsel, last year: “The study of something involving the analysis of evidence, like history or classics, or the study of a subject which comes close to pure logic, like mathematics, is at least as valuable a preparation for legal practice as the study of law.
“Appreciating how to fit legal principles to particular facts is a real skill. Understanding the social or business background to legal problems is essential.
“I’m not sure current law degrees train you for that, nor are they really designed to.”
Lawyer 2B’s evening event in February, Law for Non-Law, was designed for non-law students looking for a career as a solicitor or barrister.
Held with the University of Law, presentations and workshops guided potential lawyers through the legal education landscape, while networking provided a chance to forge connections with firms and chambers including Bircham Dyson Bell, Bristows, DLA Piper and Linklaters.
Alexander Ash attended the evening. Ash studied economics at University College London before working in publishing at Octopus and Random House and is now a Graduate Diploma in Law student at the University of Law in Bloomsbury. He is particularly interested in intellectual property (IP) law.
He admits that his route into law is an unorthodox one. “I think I’m the only graduate in the year who wanted to go into law – lots of them wanted to get into accountancy,” he says.
At first Ash was attracted to the bar because of the intellectual challenge, as well as its image, but studying law changed his mind.
“I realised I was more suited to the life of a solicitor,” he says. “It’s less risky and having a guaranteed income is always a good thing. My original perception of what life at the bar would be like was a bit skewed. Since talking to quite a few barristers I thought it would be less time in the library and more doing advocacy work.”
Taylor Wessing IP partner Tim Worden studied life sciences at the University of Cambridge but knew even while still at university that he was not destined for life as a research scientist.
“I enjoyed the science itself,” he says, “but I was keen to find work that had a business and commercial element to it. I spent a summer doing research work in a lab and then did a vacation scheme with Bristows, which does a lot of IP. It allowed me to use my interest in science but also get involved in the law, advising in a business context. It was also very intellectually challenging.”
IP is a popular option for scientists but it also interests English literature student Rachel Longman, who also attended Law for Non-Law.
Currently at Goldsmiths, University of London, Longman worked in a barristers’ chambers while still at school and discovered that she loved law. She then worked in a dispute resolution practice in her second year summer holidays.
Her decision to study English literature was based on her love of the subject and the fact that she knew if she changed her mind about law it would stand her in good stead.
“Having spoken to barristers I know it’s a valid way of getting into it,” she says. “I am quite interested in IP or media, but definitely in the more commercial aspects of the law. That said, I have done some work experience in family law and that was interesting. I like working with people and that was very much focused on that.”
For Longman, the biggest obstacle to potential success is funding. “If you come from a certain background you really don’t stand a chance,” she says. “I think it’s outrageous. Second to funding is competition, definitely.”
Call the doctor
Lawyers on Demand lawyer Tom Chakraborti is a former medical student and junior doctor who worked in medicine for five years before embarking on a training contract with Slaughter and May.
Despite knowing that medicine was not for him, he also knew that he was in a rare position, having professional expertise that he could put to his advantage. He now works as a pharma and healthcare lawyer.
“I enjoyed medicine but felt that it wasn’t for me in the long term and I still wanted to take advantage of my medical training somehow and put it to good use,” he says. “Some people leave medicine and don’t want to have anything to do with it at all again, but I wanted to use it in a different context.
“I looked at the reasons why I had done it. I was from a medical family and at the time it was what I wanted but I realised that it just wasn’t for me. I can say personally that I have found law to be more stimulating.”
Graham Gowland was a radiographer for two decades before switching to law. After working for the NHS he left to join a small company with four staff, including the CEO and himself.
“I got a good deal of experience in running a business and the challenges the business faced. That’s stood me in good stead, particularly when it comes to the commercial awareness that everybody asks for but nobody defines,” says Gowland, now an insurance associate at Mayer Brown.
Bird & Bird associate Ben Hughes worked in IT services in Australia, London and Beijing before returning to London to join the firm. After eight years in the IT industry he decided to act on his interest in negotiating contracts with clients.
“Working as a project manager in Beijing I was doing a lot of contract negotiations with our prospective customers and putting together the description of what we were going to do and the timetable for delivering it and agreeing a price,” he explains. “I realised it was the initial contract and negotiation that interested me more than implementing the work, as did managing the relationship with the client.”
He is now able to lend expertise on marketing and business development at Bird & Bird, adding: “Definitely in the field of things like marketing and business development and understanding what makes an offer attractive to a client, having wider commercial knowledge is helpful.
“There are two aspects: when you’re advising clients you can understand their concerns from a wider commercial perspective but you can also help the firm develop as a business.
“Having worked in other types of business you can see things that those who have worked only in legal services might not spot.”
His internal involvement with the firm’s business development has revolved around marketing initiatives on cloud computing and agile software development, to which he has lent technology expertise. His cultural insight and knowledge of Mandarin means he can contribute to the marketing efforts around Bird & Bird’s China offering.
For Taylor Wessing’s Worden, an IP seat at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer during his training contract was another catalyst for his eventual choice of practice area.
“I hit the IP seat one year into my training contract, which was ideal. It was in 2000, it was in the middle of the technology boom and was a very fun place to be – and a very busy seat,” he recalls.
Worden maintains that a background understanding rather than specific academic knowledge is the main boon for lawyers who have taken alternative routes to a training contract.
“It’s not so much that I have used specific knowledge I learned during my degree,” he says, “but you develop a scientific understanding through doing a science degree which means that when you’re dealing with scientists and business development professionals and CEOs in the technology and life sciences sectors you’re not fazed by the terminology they use.”
Simmons & Simmons associate Benjamin Thomas studied for a PhD in biochemistry and went on to work in medical publishing for five years before qualifying as a lawyer.
He agrees with Worden’s assessment, saying: “My scientific background has been helpful in dealing with technical subject matter, such as in medical patents. I’ve also been able to get involved in the work of the firm’s life sciences sector more generally.
“There is a lot of scope to assist on regulatory matters, both in terms of client work and business development.”
He adds: “I’d hope my previous work has given me a head start in commercial awareness and building relationships with clients. My publishing work was for the pharma industry and Nice [National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence], which has also given me an insight into some of the issues facing the life sciences sector.”
Simmons has taken advantage of Thomas’s medical and scientific expertise. Thomas explains: “The partners and business development team are aware of my background and have encouraged me to build on it. I’m developing my knowledge of the pharma industry and healthcare regulatory law.
“I’ve recently attended a Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency meeting on the advertising of medicines and I will be going to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry’s annual conference.”
Chakraborti’s immersion in the medical world stands him in good stead during his healthcare work. After qualifying into his preferred seat at Slaughters he left after a year as he knew the firm could not offer the specialised work he wanted.
“Because I have concentrated on being a pharma and healthcare lawyer I have always tried to work on pharmaceutical or healthcare legal matters,” Chakraborti says. “It’s been much more interesting for me and I’ve been able to understand science and the background to the projects as a result, whether it’s a scientific matter or whether it’s a pharmaceutical promotional matter. It’s been easier because I have the insight of having seen the other side of it. I understand issues when I deal with medical clients or drug safety matters, and I can alsounderstand a lot of the science behind the motivation for commercial licensing transactions.”
Although an added area of expertise is undoubtedly a bonus in legal practice, being able to break into the legal world from an atypical background is not a given.
“It helped that I had tried another career and had developed a clear idea of what I wanted to do.
“I obviously needed to be able to justify my previous career choices, but they were also my unique selling point when applying,” says Thomas.
Gowland says frankly: “There were certain firms where it was blatantly obvious that because I was older than the normal candidates there was no chance I would get anywhere. I would say it is about 50:50 – for half of firms it piqued their interest, for the other half, not so much.
“I remember one rejected me the day after I applied saying that I did not fulfil the criteria despite a 2.1 and A-levels at AAB.
“The criteria were never published and when I asked they would not tell me – so draw your own conclusions.”