Hi Sophie! Can you briefly discuss your legal career thus far?
I originally studied a business degree at the University of Bath. Because I applied to university in the midst of the financial crisis in 2008/09, employability was top of my mind. So, I really wanted to get work experience and study a degree that involved a work placement. This, coupled with how much I enjoyed business at A-Level made me decide to pursue a degree in business as opposed to Law, which I had previously been interested in. Whilst studying business however, I could still maintain an interest in law via studying some law modules, such as company law. By about halfway through my degree, I had made up my mind that this wasn’t something I wanted to do forever, so I decided that I would complete my degree and then go on to study the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). After graduating in 2014, I went on to study the GDL at BPP University. I didn’t yet have a training contract at that point, so I was self-funding the GDL. Employability was also still at the forefront of my mind, so I selected the two-day option for the GDL, so I had all my seminars on Monday and Tuesday, and Wednesday through to Friday, I worked as a paralegal. This was helpful in that I was literally implementing what I was learning as I progressed through the GDL.
Whilst studying the GDL, I started making applications for training contracts but I think I overexposed myself in the time I could dedicate, so I didn’t really get anywhere with those applications. I had completed a placement in marketing during my undergraduate degree, and I had completed the GDL so I had a lot of legal marketing recruiters getting in contact with me. So, I took what I thought would be a quick diversion into legal marketing and ended up doing it for three years. Whilst I was applying for training contracts, I continued to work in legal marketing, as I had an incredible opportunity to work at Linklaters in the pitch team. I loved that job and it taught me a lot about how law firms work and business, and what I learned in this role ultimately really helped in my applications.
Then, in 2016, I got two assessment centres for two vacation schemes. I completed a vacation scheme with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP) in the winter of 2016, and luckily got offered a training contract, and accepted. So, at that point, I was working full time, but I put my notice in and went on to study the LPC, at the University of Law, in 2018. I started my training contract in March 2019 and finished the LPC six months prior to that. BCLP actually had a bespoke programme with the University of Law, which was good because it meant I trained with my cohort of future trainees. Ultimately, my route into law was long but not too unconventional.
Would you say having studied a non-law undergraduate degree was helpful at all when entering into the legal industry?
I think doing a degree in business was really useful for two reasons actually. Firstly, the work experience I gained during my degree and having had full-time office jobs, I think really gave me confidence and improved my applications. Secondly, having studied a business degree, I can now understand financial information quite easily; I can interpret accounts, I know basic corporate finance portfolio theory, and I think when doing commercial law, that’s extremely useful. Ultimately, I think my undergraduate degree has really helped me and made me a better trainee.
How did you find the transition from your undergraduate degree to the GDL?
I didn’t find the transition that bad actually. My undergraduate degree was quite a high workload anyway, with quite high contact hours, so it wasn’t new to have to cram reading in on the evenings and weekends. However, the mode of studying with the GDL was quite different, in that it was essentially a solution to something, in which they are trying to give you a basic understanding of law in a short amount of time. So, they sort of do the work for you in terms of how they will give you the case and main takeaways from it. From what I’ve heard, I think there is a lot less self-study than if you studied a law undergraduate degree. Overall, as long as you did the reading, came to workshops with any questions you had, and covered all the material you were going to be assessed on, you would do well. Whereas on my undergraduate degree, it felt like there was an infinite amount to do, so the mode of learning was a lot different. I struggled with having time to do everything on the GDL, as I was doing my paralegal role at the same time, but I still managed to get a 2:1.
In terms of the transition, I didn’t find it too bad. I think it helped that I went on to study the GDL straight after graduation, because I know when I did the LPC after a three/four-year break from studying, that was slightly difficult. Overall, I didn’t find the GDL too bad, but I undertook it because I really wanted to do it, so my motivation was definitely there to kind of crack on and do it so I think that it was fine.
Do you have any advice on how to stand out in vacation scheme or training contract applications?
My biggest piece of advice, whilst it may be obvious, is that you have to draw on your own experiences. When I’ve read people’s applications recently, what I’ve often found is how generic they are. Your background and your unique qualities and experiences are your biggest asset. For example, my role at Linklaters was an important experience for me. When I got to the final round in my application at BCLP, they were really intrigued about this role and we had lengthy discussions about how law firms can run more efficiently as a business.
If you put yourselves in the shoes of the interviewer or the person reading your application, they must read the same stuff again and again, and they want to engage with something interesting. So, if you go out there and cultivate new experiences and expand your skill set, that will really be helpful in making you stand out. It then just becomes the case of getting that across and being convincing, and then just dropping in some of the right words such as key skills that specific firm is looking for. Something I always point out to applicants is that if any other person could write that, then it ultimately won’t be good enough. So that is always my biggest tip is to really present your unique qualities in the best way possible.
How did you make a good impression while attending vacation schemes and what advice would you give others about how to do so?
The feedback I think you hear time and time again is that it’s all about your attitude; people love to see a positive, enthusiastic training or vacation scheme student. Additionally, never underestimate the importance of a smile and when you meet people, actually be engaged. People that fit in well with a team and are interested and eager to learn always appeal to recruiters. When I did my vacation scheme, which was in person, in terms of standing out I think I just really tried to chat to people as much as possible. Whenever any opportunity was presented to me, I took it, even if I had a busy schedule.
Virtually, it is a bit harder, but I think it really is all about proactivity, and just maximising your impact while on those sessions. At the moment I think that can manifest in having some really good questions prepared. And don’t be tempted to just answer in the chat box; try to be vocal and try to stand out. I think trying to be as keen as possible, and having some really good, insightful questions prepared are my two biggest tips.
Why did you choose BCLP to complete your training contract at?
I have always found that the people at a place that I work at are the most important thing, which is one of the really good things about having had jobs prior to having to make a decision about where to train. When I was going to law fairs on the GDL and different networking events, and meeting different firms, I just didn’t feel that connection or that enthusiasm from anyone that I’d met until I met BCLP. I completely felt like they were the most normal, down to Earth people I chatted to. We had a really good conversation and it just completely piqued my interest, and all the interactions after that, that was born to be true. It’s just a really down to earth firm and the atmosphere is what I wanted.
And then there were quite a lot of factors that sort of fed into it, which aren’t necessarily unique to BCLP, all together, but ultimately the combination of those factors worked for me. So, at the time we just had the one female Managing Partner, Lisa, and Lisa is now co-chair, since we had a merger with the American firm Bryan Cave, which I found really aspirational, and it’s not that common at all. Additionally, in 2016, BCLP had a policy of one day working from home as an associate, which it seems weird to even think that now, but they have very much embraced like flexibility in a dynamic working model. And then there was a whole host of initiatives which BCLP works on that shows its commitment to being a responsible corporate citizen, and to promoting inclusivity. So, they are really well known for their market leading ‘Race for Change’ campaign, which is a way of bringing in people from the black and ethnic minority communities in the UK. And that’s going from strength to strength every year. Social mobility particularly resonates with me and that is an area where I think lots and lots of law firms are lacking. BCLP to me just seemed quite vocal about trying to implement and change that. I just wanting to work somewhere where diversity was prized, and that anyone can work there, and you felt normal, and included, and that is what I got from BCLP.
And finally, in terms of the work and the clients, BCLP is the preeminent real estate firm, it’s where 50% of its revenue comes from; it dominates in that area. And that is one thing I definitely wanted: a firm with one key strength. Real estate is a really good one in particular because it’s an asset class that feeds into so many other practice areas. Also, the clients: at BCLP we have lots of private clients but also lots of public sector clients too, and I think that posed an interesting type of work. Overall, everybody has different motivators for why they want to join a firm, and this is just what resonated with me: its people, its practice areas, its work, and its environment.
Is there any advice you would give to someone about to start their training contract?
I think it’s really important that you listen more than you speak and take accurate notes of everything that’s being said. There’s going to be so much at the beginning that you don’t know. And it’s also really hard when you’re first starting out as a trainee and you have such little awareness of things. My biggest tip that I’ve learned along the way is don’t just sit there if you don’t understand something; whilst you’ve got them that time seize the moment and grab it. Nobody’s ever going to mind answering your questions, and generally people in this profession take on training because they love to impart their knowledge. So just talk to them as many times as you need to properly understand the task, firstly because we’re here to learn, and secondly because you want to do the task more efficiently and quickly. There’s no point beavering away for eight hours on a task that should have taken you an hour if you had understood what you were doing.
It’s also really important just to have confidence in your abilities, like the firm has picked you for a reason and it’s going to be a big learning curve for everyone, so don’t beat yourself up if you make mistakes. The firm will probably have a pretty low bar in terms of your ability, as they will have seen so many trainees over the years make the same mistakes again and again. So, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and the biggest thing is if you do make a mistake, just own up to it and it will be fine.
Do you have any advice for future trainees on how to stand out during your training contract?
I think this is pretty similar to what I mentioned for the vacation schemes to be honest. Ultimately, what people want in a trainee is somebody who has a great attitude, is really positive and enthusiastic, keen to get stuck in, wants to learn as much as possible, and is just an asset to the team. You’ll notice that none of that actually draws on legal knowledge. I just think having a really great attitude and being really positive is the best way to mesh with the team, and to make the most of your training contract by completely seizing every opportunity.
I think in terms of standing out as a trainee as well, people really appreciate when you’ve had other life experiences. For example, people have commented in the past on how it is obvious I’ve worked before and working with clients comes naturally and that’s something that comes from having previous jobs and these life experiences. So, for anyone reading this article, if you have never had a part time job or you have never worked in office, if you can seek out those types of experiences, it will definitely make you a better trainee.
Also, I think commercial awareness really is the biggest thing that helps you understand law firms. And I don’t just mean commercial awareness in terms of reading the Financial Times and things like that, I mean more understanding how law firms and businesses work. You can literally just YouTube how law firms make money, law firms 101, etc. Also, so many of the big law firms have presentations on how law firms make money, how we build our client base, how we can improve profitability as a law firm, and that knowledge is going to really make you stand out. Overall, the vast majority of the time you’re not going to be the smartest person in the room, so it is the other stuff that you can bring to the table, which is important, like being a rounded person and trying to be as positive and enthusiastic as possible.
Which seat during your training contract have you enjoyed the most and why?
The seat I enjoyed the most was definitely the one that I’ve just done, which was restructuring and insolvency. I had always known I had wanted to do that seat, as one of my undergraduate placements was at an accountancy firm in the restructuring and insolvency department. So, back in 2013, I’d started to develop an interest in that area. Then when I did my vacation scheme with BCLP, I sat in the restructuring and insolvency team, and they were just such a lovely team. So, I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do a seat with that team.
I think what I really have enjoyed about it is that you can turn your hand to so many different things. I’m one of those people that has potential to get bored quite easily. So, for me, the thought of doing the same thing for the rest of my life, producing the same set of documents, essentially, with modifications for different clients for 40 years, was not particularly appealing. With restructuring and insolvency, you have like lots of advisory work in terms of contingency planning and actual financial restructuring of businesses, but also things like when Company Voluntary Arrangements (CVA) get passed we advise lots of our landlord client base on how CVAs can affect their landlords rights, and how the relevant sites are affected. There’s also the transactional piece. So, when we work on a trade refinancing, we will advise banks and borrowers on actually amending and restating that loan. And then at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got the court-based procedures. So, those three different areas I think really for me, gives me the day-to-day variety that I need.
Also, I think at a base level I enjoy working in that environment and helping businesses thrive and flourish again. I’ve been involved in some amazing matters, and even if it ends up in administration, and you know the business is bought by a pre-pack, you’re helping that business survive via a new buyer, even if it is a different iteration of what it was before. For example, just before Christmas, we advised on the Arcadia fallout, and advised an Australian buyer on the purchase of Evans. And that was such a frantic two weeks to get that sorted but we have rescued that brand, we have helped that brand carry on. For me, with a commercial background and enjoying the business climate, helping companies achieve their goals is what I’ve always wanted to do. So, that coupled with the fact that ultimately, we’re trying to engage with clients to help their businesses succeed, I think is why I enjoyed that seat so much and why I’ve decided to do it for the rest of my career.
How did you decide which department you wanted to qualify in?
I had always wanted to work in restructuring and insolvency, as I’ve mentioned, and I think when I did my seat in that department it confirmed it for me. However, the qualification process does very much depend on what jobs are available. So, the restructuring and insolvency department did have one job available but then obviously you don’t know how competitive it’s going to be and who’s going to apply and things like that. So, I did debate making an application to our real estate team because I had such a fantastic six months in my seat there as well. But the thing that it came down to for me was I would have only wanted to do real estate, with that team, and I couldn’t see myself doing real estate at another firm. And I thought you can’t base the life decision on a nice six months that you had with that particular team, because all that can change. You have to actually enjoy the work that you do at the base level, without those external factors. So, that’s why I ultimately choose to do restructuring and insolvency. Throughout your training contract, I would say it is really important to have those honest conversations with your graduate recruitment team because you don’t want to end up in a position where you haven’t really enjoyed any of your seats and don’t really have solid qualification prospects. However, you also don’t want to do really niche seats, all the way through, that might not hire or that only hire perhaps every five years, or only hire one trainee every time. So, when you’re making these decisions you have to really factor in whether it’s something you could do in the long term.
Additionally, when you’re trying to decide where you want to qualify, think about your personality, your lifestyle etc. For example, I did a seat in our corporate department, and it wasn’t for me. However, even if it had been for me, that lifestyle is not something that I wanted for myself for the rest of my life, because it will be frantically busy evenings and weekends, but then nothing. And I don’t do well with having nothing on my desk and going from being really busy to having absolutely nothing on. So, it’s important to consider what lifestyle you want and how your personality matches with the underlying work. As I say, I have really enjoyed working in restructuring and insolvency because I like working with businesses, but if people weren’t interested in that and they want to, for example, advise individuals, then you might want to look at Private Client, employment potentially. So, it’s just thinking what you want and being self-aware enough to think about your personality and how that plays into the type of work that you want to do.
Finally, why did you choose to start your Instagram page ‘lawwithsophie’, and have you gained anything from running this page?
I started it for a few reasons. After I got my training contract, I always thought I don’t want people to struggle as much as I did, as it did take me three/four years to secure my training contract, and I don’t think it should be that hard. And my dad even suggested I write a book. Whilst I may have not written a book, I did think it made sense to share things I have learnt over the years, and Instagram is an amazing way of doing that. I have also recently got more involved with graduate recruitment, which made me realise that mentoring people and helping people get into the profession is a huge part of the job that I enjoy. So, I think this coupled with the fact that I struggled myself, made me really want to help other people. So, I just thought I would try and collate all the work I had been doing recently with graduate recruitment and all the ideas I had and see if it was useful for anyone, and hopefully make it easier for people to embark on their legal careers.