Hi Molly, tell me about yourself and your journey into the legal profession.
I would consider myself to be from an underrepresented background in the legal profession. I grew up in a single parent household on a council estate in Leicester, and no one in my family worked in a professional job or had attended university. I always knew that I wanted to aim high in my education and professional life, and I was fortunate to be supported by my teachers. In 2012, I attended a Sutton Trust summer school at the University of Cambridge, which gave me the confidence to apply there to study law. In 2013, I started my undergraduate degree at Jesus College, Cambridge.
While at university, I applied to the Rare Discuss and Sutton Trust Pathways Plus programmes, so that I could learn more about the legal profession and what it took to be a commercial solicitor. I learned how to shake hands, how to develop commercial awareness and how to advocate for myself in interviews. With the support of my mentors, I successfully applied for vacation schemes at several firms and, at the end of that summer, I was delighted to accept an offer of a training contract from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (Freshfields). I started my training contract in February 2018 and now I am an associate in the commercial disputes group at Freshfields.
Tell us about your position on the board of PRIME.
I strongly believe that without the support of charities such as Rare and the Sutton Trust, I would not be where I am today. That is why I am so passionate about social mobility, diversity and inclusion. I think everyone should have a fair chance of joining the legal profession no matter what their background is. I also think that law firms have a moral obligation to continue to challenge the barriers which prevent less privileged students from accessing and succeeding within the sector.
In February 2020, I was appointed to the board of PRIME. PRIME is a charity which was set up 10 years ago with the aim of improving access to the legal profession. We work with an alliance of over 60 member law firms from all over the UK who are committed to delivering high quality work experience to school aged children who meet the PRIME criteria. PRIME also works collaboratively with partner organisations, including MyKindaFuture, which will begin delivering a series of careers workshops in Autumn in collaboration with PRIME’s member firms to students living in the UK’s social mobility “cold spots”.
What attracted to you to Freshfields?
Firstly, it was Freshfields’ breadth of practice areas, and the opportunity to see up to 8 seats across the two-year training contract, which appealed to me. I was not initially sure what areas I wanted to see or where I wanted to qualify, so the opportunity to experience such a diverse range of teams was very exciting. Almost all trainees at Freshfields also have the opportunity to go on secondment during the final 6 months of their training contract. I was fortunate to do a pro-bono secondment as part of the Housing law team at the Tower Hamlets Law Centre in East London, which was a great experience.
Secondly, I was impressed by Freshfields’ commitment to responsible business and pro-bono. It was also important to me that the firms I applied to were committed to diversity and inclusion. Freshfields uses Rare’s Contextual Recruitment System and supports a number of initiatives to promote diversity within the legal sector, including the Aspiring Solicitors START programme and the Stephen Lawrence Scholarship. Last year we gave over 61,000 hours of free legal work to over 250 pro-bono clients. As a trainee, I volunteered to be the clinic coordinator at the Tower Hamlets Law Centre, where we give free housing law advice to those who cannot access legal aid. This is an initiative we have been supporting as a firm for over 40 years.
Finally, it was the general feeling I got from the firm during my vacation scheme in 2015. Everyone was incredibly friendly and very open to answering my questions. The graduate recruitment team were also very supportive, and I was able to vividly picture myself being a trainee in the London office. I suppose the simplest way to describe that feeling is that I just felt that I would “fit in”. I think the importance of finding a firm where you feel that way is not to be underestimated; if you are not comfortable somewhere, chances are that you are not going to enjoy working there for any length of time.
What advice would you give to applicants to help them set themselves apart?
You should try to be your authentic self in your applications and during interviews. I do not recommend looking at other people’s applications, even where they have been successful. Law firms are not looking for a specific ‘type’ of person and we benefit from hiring from a diverse pool of candidates. Practically, graduate recruitment teams can tell the difference between an original application and one which has been copied or cribbed. The process of researching and drafting your applications is also an important learning experience which will enable you to practise your written communication skills and it will also force you to really think about why you want to be a commercial solicitor at the particular firm you are applying to.
How much of the knowledge that you gain from a law degree do you use as a trainee and is it more necessary to develop practical skills?
Having the right knowledge and the right practical skills are equally as important. You certainly don’t need to study law at undergraduate level to be a great lawyer, as there is always the option of studying the GDL after your undergraduate degree. At Freshfields, our trainee intakes are usually split about 50:50 between students who studied law and those who studied other subjects, and there is no detectable difference in how well they perform during their training contracts. Whilst it is not necessary to remember every word of what your Contract Law lecturer said during your first year at university, having a good grasp of the core rules of whichever area of law you want to practice in will set you up for success.
I would also add that during your training contract and even after qualification you will be continuously learning and developing your skills. In the first few months after the Covid-19 lockdown, I was advising on a lot of contractual disputes involving purported breaches of contract which often required us to advise on the relevant “force majeure” clause. I obviously learned about force majeure clauses at university, but I know much more about them now than I did back then. It is important to be aware that studying law and practising law are two very different things and that you will have to learn to work in a very different way. Our clients do not usually want to receive an academic treatise like the essays students produce at university. Instead, they want practical commercial advice that is tailored to them and their business.
What is the best way that you developed your commercial awareness?
The first step for any student who wants to be a commercial solicitor is to make a conscious effort to pay attention to what is going on in the commercial world. There are many ways you can do that which don’t necessarily involve reading the FT every day. For example, you can listen to the business news on the radio, watch documentaries on particular industries, read a regular publication such as the Economist or even curate a specialist Twitter feed. You should find that there are particular stories that capture your interest and that you enjoy keeping up with developments. You do not need to follow every single news story, but it is important to track the key themes.
How has Covid-19 impacted your career at Freshfields, and do you think law firms may adopt a working from home culture in the future?
I qualified in March 2020, the week after the UK went into lockdown. I have not been into the office and have been working 100% virtually since then. I never imagined that this would be how I would spend my first six months as an associate. At first, I was apprehensive about how I would build relationships with my colleagues without meeting them in person. However, it was comforting to know that the entire country was in the same boat and everyone in my team went out of their way to make me feel welcome.
We are very fortunate to work in an industry where it is possible to work from home and, in the last six months, I think we have proven as a firm that we can do so successfully. There are differences, but most of the job remains the same; we still work in teams and we still collaborate with our colleagues and clients all over the world. That being said, there are definitely benefits to working in an office. You learn from watching how your colleagues interact with each other and with clients, including how they manage pressure and deal with challenging situations. Those skills and the opportunities to build relationships are an essential part of your training as a lawyer, so although I think we will see more flexible working in future, I also think that many people are looking forward to being back together in the office again.
Was it a big change from being a trainee to becoming an associate at Freshfields?
It certainly is more challenging, but also more interesting. As a trainee you are typically given a piece of work to do by your supervisor, which you complete and then hand back. Because you move seats every few months, it is harder to gain an insight into how a matter progresses over time. As an associate you are generally much more embedded into a matter and you are responsible for managing your own time. You are also required to delegate and to supervise the work of trainees and paralegals, which are skills you don’t often get the chance to develop during your training contract. The best thing about being an associate is that you have the opportunity to build relationships with your colleagues and clients which will potentially last for your entire career.
Finally, what one piece of advice would you give to aspiring lawyers?
I would like to address my advice to anyone who, like me, identifies as being from an underrepresented background in the legal profession. You should never tell yourself, or let anyone else tell you, that people like you don’t belong in the City or that they don’t belong at the top law firms. There is no one specific ‘type’ of person that makes a good lawyer. To the contrary, law firms need cognitive diversity and a diversity of lived experience in order to be fit for the future and to best support their clients. I would encourage all aspiring lawyers to work hard, to aim high and to pursue their ambitions with confidence.
Where can students find out more information about Freshfields and PRIME?
There is lots of great advice and information on our websites: