Having undertaken the GDL, gone on to work for the University of Law whilst completing his LPC, and secured a training contract with Stevens & Bolton to begin in September, Aidan Grant has taken a slightly less conventional route to becoming a solicitor. The Student Lawyer spends five minutes with him to ask him about his experiences, and why they have bolstered his applications to get him where he is now.
1. Your undergraduate degree was in politics; what drove you to pursue law?
I was looking for something to do after studying politics, I tried applying for lots of different things. Eventually, I decided on law. I wanted to do something that would combine two of my biggest passions. Firstly, I enjoy analysis and problem-solving (there is a lot of that in law). I like that someone might need a legal answer, sometimes a commercial answer, and sometimes just a common sense answer, and balancing all three is the challenge. Secondly, I always wanted to do something that had an element of presentation in it – whether orally like in court or in an interview, or on paper like reports and briefs. Having done things like tutoring I knew I’d enjoy the challenge of helping people work through problems.
2. If you could redo your education again, would you do it differently? Would you have gone straight into law rather than doing a politics undergraduate degree?
I’m fortunate to have a supportive family who helped me through my GDL and so looking back, I’m glad I came into law through the non-law route. I waited until I was older and more ready. The only reason for looking back and considering doing law at university would be if I thought I’d wasted a year or thought it was too expensive, neither of which I’m fortunate to say have been the case. Plus the GDL itself was probably the most I’ve enjoyed a year of study since my A-Levels, both with regards to its content and the way it was taught.
3. What do you think sets you apart from students who have followed the ‘typical’ route into law and what do you feel you can bring to the table with your non-law starting point?
Two degrees – in particular the fact that my law degree is of a higher class than my undergraduate degree – show that I’ve developed over time and that I’ve been serious about pursuing law. Secondly, for non-law students in general, from a recruiter’s perspective, if you work with a particular type of client (here for me it could be public sector clients), are you going to choose the student who has a law degree or the student who has a law degree as well as an understanding of your client on a much more fundamental level? This is most relevant for STEM students – if your client is concerned with their manufacturing/pharmaceutical/bio-chemical (etc) patent for example. The student who actually understands the underlying science behind it is going to be able to design a more thorough patent and is likely to get along much better with the client by being able to converse on a much more sophisticated level. There are advantages to following the law route, but there are just as many examples of benefits for non-law students.
4. What sort of work did you undertake at The University of Law and do you think it helped you a lot in terms of your development and understanding of the field?
In terms of legal work experience, I took part in everything I could from shadowing a Citizens Advice Bureau worker, to shadowing a judge at Guildford Crown Court. I did mooting, a mock trial, speed networking and a business game. All of it was to help me understand the legal sector as broadly as possible to be able to better understand what sort of law (and law firm) I wanted to work for. Trying to understand something as broad as the legal profession can be incredibly daunting, so you need a helping hand to guide you to the right place to begin looking. Once someone gives you the correct tools to start to find the answers yourself, it becomes much easier.
The work I’ve been doing the past year in the student recruitment department at the university has allowed me to focus my analytic and presentation abilities in a more practical and commercially-minded sense, though I’ve been fortunate that I started this job already knowing I had a training contract, so it hasn’t played a part in my getting one (though I’m hoping to use what I’ve learned on the actual training contract itself!).
5. What did you do to secure your training contract and did you find it very difficult?
The short answer is that I managed to get onto the firm’s summer vacation scheme and the training contract offer came out of that. Over the whole application process, the time I felt the longest odds was getting past the first round of the vacation scheme application – the covering letter/CV round. With each subsequent round your chances get exponentially better. The difficulty came from the applications wearing you down, having to psych yourself up to start another application, reminding yourself that although you’ve already just filled out ten, you’ve got to approach this one like it’s the only one you’ll ever fill out, all the while knowing the odds are it’s never going to get anywhere. Pushing through that wall was the most difficult part. I treated my applications and career search like an extra module on the GDL – I set aside a specific number of hours a week over the entire year to learn and develop my applications.
6. How did you decide on your shortlist of firms to apply for training contracts with?
Starting with a book like the Chambers Student Guide to Training Contracts is a good way to give yourself a head start on who is who in the legal profession. You have to start broad, don’t think too much about individual firms and instead think about the wider questions. For me there are two main questions: ‘what sort of law firm do I want to work for?’ and ‘what sort of law do I want to practice?’. These two are for the most part mutually exclusive. You might be interested in inheritance law, but there’s inheritance law as practised by a small high street practice and there’s inheritance law as practised by an international City firm. Either question can be tackled first.
I didn’t know exactly what sort of law I wanted to go into so I chose firms with generally broad departments, but I was keen to work for a mid-range firm – not so small as to be in danger of being acquired or collapsing, but also not a giant firm with 100 trainees a year.
The danger when you get into the face-to-face sections of an application is that they will ask you why you chose them. They want to know you haven’t just pulled their name out of a hat. They want to know that they mean something to you. If you scatter-gun your approach to applications you’ll find it hard to convince people that they’re your favourite.
7. Many hopeful lawyers are daunted by the idea of interviews at law firms. Do you have any interview tips?
By the time you’ve reached an interview, they’ve already decided a lot of the time that they like the sound of you – go into it with that confidence! Most likely hundreds of people have already been rejected. The point of an interview is often to meet you as a person – they’ll be looking at you and thinking ‘could I work with this person?’ Be yourself, it may sound cliché but you’ll relax into it more and do better. Try to imagine it from their side of the table – they’ve got to give an interview to dozens of people, if you give an answer that you think they want to hear, they probably have already decided. They’re desperate to find that perfect candidate that just sweeps them off their feet.
If you get asked a question that you’re not sure about, take your time over the answer. Nobody will begrudge you for taking five or six seconds to think of an answer, especially if the answer that you give is amazing. It shows you’re genuinely thinking about their question. Equally if you’re not sure, don’t feel scared to ask if you can come back to it at the end. The only times you shouldn’t do this is if it’s a fundamental question like ‘why this firm?’ (they won’t like it if you’ve got to ponder why you’ve applied!), or if you’ve already passed on a few questions already.
If you have to network at a lunch try to move around the room. You may not want to think about it, but every person who works for the firm who you meet is probably going to ask if anyone stood out for them (that goes for the trainee who shows you round the building). In discussing you, if someone asks ‘Which candidate are we talking about again?’ then you’ve had it.
Oh, and if you make a claim (like I did stand-up comedy at university), be prepared to back it up. They will ask you to tell them a joke to see how you think on your feet, so have one prepared in that situation, because the only ones you’ll be able to remember will be the rude ones!
8. Finally, do you have three pieces of key advice for our readers, perhaps things you wish you’d known from the start?
1. It only takes one application to be successful and each firm only sees that one application from you, so make it count. Don’t send in a half-baked application. Quality is definitely better than quantity.
2. On that note, spelling, grammar and punctuation are crucial. You’ll never win with good spelling alone, but you’re sure as heck going to lose with bad spelling. If you quote a name – be 100% sure you’ve got the name spelt correctly. Don’t forget, if a law firm has to cut from 250 applications down to 40, they’ll be looking for reasons to cut otherwise-equal candidates. It shows you either don’t have a good eye for detail (not good for a lawyer), or you rushed the application (not a winner with firms either). I used to read my covering letters backwards to ensure I wasn’t reading what I thought was there rather than what I’d actually written.
3. Don’t miss opportunities to learn or network. Every talk/workshop/fair/meeting that you’re allowed to go to is a potential goldmine of information for you to exploit. A law fair is the time to get some insight into how a firm works (ask the trainee at the stand what it is they’re currently enjoying about their seat, then in an application under ‘why this firm?’ use that as an example – and quote the trainee’s name!). A networking lunch might get you a name, or a bit of information that can be the difference between a ten second glance at a CV and a second read. Firms are looking for someone to demonstrate that they’ve gone out of their way to learn about their firm. They don’t need you to have read their latest audit, but anyone can read their website and quote it back at them. They want to know some personal reasons why you like them. A memorable experience at a networking event or workshop is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate this.