Many students find it difficult to find work experience or even decide which career path they would like to pursue when they leave university. I interviewed Donna Whitehead, Head of the School of Law, Accounting and Finance at the University of South Wales, to find out how she reached her current position and the steps she took along the way.
What is your current role and what does that involve?
My current title is Head of the School of Law, Accounting and Finance. There is a team of around 40 members of staff within the school spread across three different sites. I am responsible for the strategic development within the school, so I set objectives and then ensure the team undertake and achieve those objectives. I ensure everyone is teaching to their strengths. We also focus a lot on the National Student Survey, so I look at improving the student experience and employability. We do a lot of research within the school and make sure that our findings are aligned with what is delivered to the students. We also have a set of financial professional services, so we engage with businesses which means I do a lot of ‘black tie’ events. I engage with a lot of local law firms to make sure our provision is up to date and responsive to their needs. I run around a lot and I insist on teaching even though I am Head of School. I enjoy teaching and I think it is important that I do not lose track of what happens in the classroom.
At what age did you begin to show an interest in a career in law? What steps did you take to make it to your current position?
I think my story is a little bit unusual. It started quite traditionally as I did GCSEs and A levels. I did A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Psychology and then discovered I am horrific in maths so I was sat in classrooms thinking, ‘I have no idea what I am doing’. Everybody was getting it and I just was not. It took me three years to do A levels as I dropped out then to think about what I wanted to do. I decided to take Law, English and Media and I particularly enjoyed Law. I got an A in Law and that was because I enjoyed it. It was not because I was particularly good at it at that stage but I was really enthusiastic about it. I figured I had a bit of a flare for law so decided I would go to university and do law. I went to university and did an LLB. When I first started, I thought I wanted to be a solicitor, which is what everyone thinks. There were certain elements that I hated and certain elements that I loved. I thought I would love criminal law and I did not. I hated contract and constitutional but I really enjoyed the human rights side of things, along with family law. I got to grips with it and did reasonably well. At the end of my second year, I started to work in some local firms voluntarily. I was offered training contracts but it slowly dawned on me that it was not what I wanted to do. The firms were nice but small and I thought, ‘I do not want to do this every day’. I did not really have any idea of what I wanted to do.
When I graduated I got a job with a local authority in a legal department and it was a fixed-term contract. I was doing local authority right-to-buy and I quite enjoyed the transactional approach. I was just working with file after file but I quite enjoyed that. Then I got a phone call from the university I graduated from to say they had a post available as a lecturer and would I be interested. It had not really dawned on me that I could teach straight after a degree. I was really nervous but I applied, got shortlisted, went to the interview and got the job. So I graduated in the June and started work in the September. It was superb but I remember being so desperately nervous because I knew nothing at this stage of my career. So I think my path has been a bit unusual, entering the academic path like that. I found my feet a bit and started becoming more qualified. After my first year, I did a postgraduate teaching qualification, a masters by research, then the Legal Practice Course and after that I did the New York bar exams, but this was all throughout my teaching life. I worked there for nine years and really enjoyed it. I was promoted again and again and quickly became team leader for the law school. Then I wanted to move somewhere else and do something bigger, which is when the job came up here as head of the law school, as well as accounting and finance. So here I am.
Is a career in law exactly the way you thought it would be? Did you think this is where you would be?
From the start, I thought I would be a solicitor but when I realised I did not want to be, I thought, ‘what on earth am I actually going to do?’ I toyed with the probation service and I thought about starting my own business and working for myself. There were lots of ideas going around but I thought I would give lecturing a go. I have always enjoyed it and it is everything and more than I thought it would be. It is incredibly challenging, especially with everything that is going on in the legal sector at the minute. So we are trying to make sure that we can satisfy students, parents and law firms. It is challenging but I can count on one hand how many times I have had that ‘back to school’ feeling on a Sunday night. I think that is a very good sign.
What kinds of work experience did you do?
I did work experience in law firms while I was studying. I did a lot of conveyancing, family and crime work. When I graduated in the June, I got the job at the local authority so I did that for four months before beginning work at my university.
Do you think the market is more competitive now for students trying to get work experience in law firms or has it always been this way?
I think it has always been very competitive. There always has been this idea, whether it is right or wrong, of it is who you know, not what you know. I think to some extent that is true. I have heard of a lot of places giving work experience to family and clients, which is understandable. I do think that law firms no longer want work experience, they want students who can go on placement and help them out. I engage with law firms all the time, particularly in the local area, and they get hundreds of requests from students asking if they can come in for a week of work experience. The students are putting the onus on the law firm to do something and so the firm feels they have to run the students around and impress them as well. In this university, I try and encourage the students to go on placements and do something for a longer term, even if it is just manning reception. I do think the market is incredibly competitive, more so than ever before, but there is a real chance for students who do not just send out blanket letters. Students should take more initiative and make it clear they are looking for project work.
What tips would you give to students looking for work experience? Do you have any advice for students who are not sure what they want to do at the end of their degree?
I speak to students all the time who have one year of work experience at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. I think that is incredibly impressive but I think it is important to do a variety of work experience. Sleep tends to come as the last priority. Try and do as much as possible, you have to make yourself stand out. All graduates have been in the mooting team, the debating team and the law society. Most of them have done some sort of work experience. Students need to stand out over and above that. Get a real mix of experience, not just in law firms but in the voluntary sector as well. Any project management roles, no matter how small, says an awful lot about a person. Students should maybe consider trying teaching as well. A lot of students just think about being a solicitor or a barrister, but they can go to a local collage and teach there and we are always open to graduates coming back to assist our lecturers. It is good for the CV and it also provides opportunities in case there is a desire to go into teaching in the future.