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 have interviewed Sarah Grabham, lecturer in legal practice, 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 job title and what does that involve?
I am a lecturer in legal practice. That means I lecture a broad range of law students and accountants on legal topics. I teach the LPC (Legal Practice Course) predominantly. I also teach at undergraduate level as well as some postgraduates and I teach business law to the accountants.
What steps did you take to get to where you are today?
I did an LLB law degree and went straight on to do the LPC afterwards. I then had a training contract in a small high street firm in Swansea which specialised in crime and childcare. I did not really enjoy it. I did not like getting up in the middle of the night and going to the police station. I decided to hand in my notice after three months. I then worked in Cardiff as a paralegal in Morgan Cole and at the same time I applied for a training contract there, which I gained. It was really useful because the time I had trained in Swansea and doing paralegal work meant my training contract was only for 18 months. I qualified at Morgan Cole in 2003. I specialised initially in litigation. I worked there for 10 years. After a year in litigation, I transferred to employment law and worked with the pensions and benefits team. From there I have worked in private practice in other firms.
I went into Hugh James in their training and human resources services team. I have literally just come straight from private practice. Whilst I was in private practice for the last couple of years, I thought teaching would be something that would interest me so I did hourly paid work at the University of South Wales and taught legal executives at Cardiff and Vale College. I applied for this job and I got it.
At what age did you become interested in a career in law and what fuelled that?
Two things fuelled it. I was quite young. I think I was 14 or 15. I watched LA Law but it is nothing like that. The second thing is that I went to do work at the Patent Office and was absolutely fascinated by intellectual property, patents and the procedures. I did that for work experience in year 10 at school and I just really enjoyed it.
What kinds of work experience did you do?
I think the good thing about Cardiff is that they really drilled it into you that there was a huge amount of competition. When I did the LPC, there were about 100 students. This year there are 26 on the course here. I did work experience in a number of local law firms in my student holidays and that set me up for applying for training contracts. I did work experience in the Patent Office, worked in a law firm called Robertsons and went and sat in the Magistrates Court.
Do you think that the market for work experience is more competitive now or would you say it has always been this way?
I think it has always been really difficult. At Morgan Cole, I was involved in the trainee solicitor recruitment and I know that there were formal procedures in place then, even to apply for work experience. It was not an ad hoc arrangement where you send in your CV or ring them up. It was the same when I was trying to get work. I tried to get work experience with a number of firms while I was doing the LPC but I did not get any at all. It was only through nepotism that I got a place. My mum knew one of the partners in Robertsons. The rest of the experience I have had was just taking myself off to sit in the courts and doing it myself. I think it was easier then as I think there were more training contracts on offer. When I went for a training contract, Morgan Cole were offering 25. They have offices in London, Oxford, Reading, Swindon, Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. At the moment, they may only be recruiting 2 or 3. So I think it is far more competitive to get a training contract now but I do not think the process is any easier.
Have you got any tips for students who are looking for work experience?
Work your contacts – I think that is a huge thing. Take as many opportunities as you can. Go and sit in a tribunal, that looks good on your CV because it shows initiative as well. If any voluntary roles come up, try and grasp hold of those because you are battling with a lot of other students. It is an awful thing to say but you just have to work really hard now to make sure you CV is in as good a shape as possible and stands out from everyone else’s. The better your degree the better you are in terms of your ranking. Be part of groups, like the Law Society. There is no magic formula, unfortunately.
Do you have any advice for students who are unsure of what they want to do at the end of their degree?
I think the most important thing is to not jump in and do the LPC. I think you have to take your time. There is no rush. It is an expensive course to commit to. If you are going to do it, it has to be for the right reasons. I think that it is worthwhile to do work experience before you sign up to it to get an idea if it is something you would like to do. An LLB Law degree is a really great degree for whatever profession you want to go into. You have to be sure so you have to get experience. When I was younger, I really wanted to be a primary school teacher. I could not think of anything worse when they put me at the front of a classroom. The reality of the situation is quite the opposite. Equally, I think there is a perception that being a solicitor or a barrister is a really high profile job – it is but you have to recognise there is a lot of admin work involved, you spend a lot of time in an office and you do not get to go to court much. The most important thing is to have your eyes open and know what you are getting yourself into.