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 Karen Jones, Associate 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 job title and what does it involve?
I am the Associate Head of the School of Law, Accounting and Finance. I still do quite a lot of teaching but my role also involves managing the department and deputising for the head of the school. I help manage staff, work out timetables and deal with equality issues.
What steps did you take to get to where you are today?
I had no idea I was going to go into academia. From the age of about ten, I wanted to be a solicitor. I did a business law degree in the 1980s. It was a very tough situation when I came out of law school. In those days, there were not many places that operated what were called the ‘Law Society Finals’, so very few of us at university got places. I was determined I was going to be a solicitor and I wanted to go to the College of Law in Guildford. I phoned them up every day for the first week of their courses, asking that if anyone drops out they should ring me straight away. On the seventh day someone dropped out and they rang me asking if I still wanted to come, and I said yes.
I did not have a training contract, as is the case for most law students, so after my course, I worked in a pub back home. I was desperate to find a training contract and I was continually writing letters to firms to try and get one. My mum saw an advert in Marie Claire for people to do temping work for Manpower. I phoned them and they said it was in London and asked me if I could start the next day. I said yes, so I got a rucksack and went to stay with some friends. When I arrived at Manpower, they said they wanted me to work in a big city firm doing paralegal work, but it was only a two-week contract. It was at a firm called Davies Arnold Cooper, now known as DAC Beachcroft, and 18 months later, I was still there. I was employed by them as a paralegal. Six months on, I applied for a training contract at the firm because I had worked with lots of people there. I got it and later qualified.
I then went to a provincial firm in East Anglia. After that I came back to Wales and worked at Morgan Cole in Cardiff. Very typically of me, I was browsing through The Law Society Gazette one day – I had had a bad week and was not seeing many clients – and saw an advert for a course director for the Legal Practice Course. I thought to myself that I should apply for it; the next thing I knew, I got the job and have never looked back since. I get to work with people, do what I like – which is law – and I get to impart my experiences on students. I love it!
Is a career in the legal field everything you thought it would be? Is it more challenging than you ever expected?
Academia is very, very different from the private sector. I had a bit of a shock when I came here and saw how slowly things work. Things are changing and it is becoming much more commercial in a sense. My career is everything I thought it would be. I love it. I would be lying if I said I did not.
Did you do any work experience?
I just did the temp job really. I was at university 25 years ago and there was never the option of work experience. I sat in court and I had some friends who did a bit of work experience so I went to sit with them and meet people. Employability did not exist.
Do you think the market is a lot more competitive now for students to get work experience or do you feel it has always been this way?
I think it has always been very competitive and difficult. The legal profession has peaks and troughs. I think that there are just so many people out there who want to do law – just as there were 20 years ago – but numbers have increased. Birth rates have increased meaning the number of graduates has increased. Another difference is that the legal profession has changed. There are now alternative business structures and firms are looking to paralegals for cheaper labour. There are lots of other good alternatives to providing legal services. But it is definitely more competitive.
What tips would you give to students who are looking for work experience?
• Nepotism: if you know somebody, have worked with someone or your parents know someone, go for it. Use every contact available to you.
• Network: if you are invited to networking events or courses, go to them so you can get in and get work experience.
• When you write to firms, do not just send the same letter. Target them and find out something about them.
• Use your lecturers: most of us have contacts and we can suggest places for you to go to.
Do you have any advice for those who are unsure of which route to take when they leave university?
Go and have a look in a law firm. There is time after your degree to go and do some work experience. You can come back and do the Legal Practice Course at a later stage. Try it – do not pay £9,000 and then realise you do not like it.