On taking the “scenic route” to becoming a lawyer

According to the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England & Wales, the average age of a qualifying solicitor now is 29. However, despite the fact that more and more lawyers are joining the profession in their late 20s or even early 30s, it’s still common for many prospective lawyers to feel like outliers – or even outsiders – if they take a “scenic route” to qualification. I know I certainly did!

Inspired by the recent #TimeToTalk day, here is some advice and perspective on being one of those slightly older junior lawyers.

For readers who are not familiar with the English legal education and training system, a solicitor must complete a mixture of classroom and practical internships prior to becoming a qualified lawyer. In the most streamlined scenario, a prospective lawyer will complete three years of undergraduate study in law, followed by one year of practical postgraduate study, called the Legal Practice Course. For students who study something other than law as undergraduates (or for international students) completing the Graduate Diploma in Law will also likely be necessary.

After the Legal Practice Course, a junior lawyer must complete two years of training (known as a training contract) at a law firm, before qualifying as a licensed solicitor. Obtaining a training contract is an extremely competitive process, with only one spot being available for every four or five students. Applications are therefore usually made two years in advance, with many students applying in their final year of undergraduate study.

However, “many” certainly does not mean “all.” And I’m here to tell you that if your path doesn’t follow the fastest or most direct route, don’t despair. 

When I was in my penultimate year of undergrad, I was a 20 year-old political science student at Washington State University. I had my heart set on becoming a military lawyer, with the ultimate ambition of working in Washington DC as some sort of government counsel, intelligence expert or (insert grimace here) even a lobbyist. When I injured my knee during my final training course for the Marine Corps, I was forced to imagine a new future for myself.

I needed the courage to let go of my idealised, perfect future. To put some space between myself and the goals I had been holding so tightly for so long, I applied for a masters degree in London. I thought a year or two away from familiar surroundings would help me overcome the grief of losing my “Plan A,” and help me to create a “Plan B.” What I realised in the process was that, to quote John Lennon, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. 

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My Masters’ Degree Graduation Ceremony, 2012. The following month, I began what would become a five-year journey to becoming a qualified solicitor.

During my masters’ degree, I ended up focusing on −and becoming fascinated by − European Union intellectual property law. Rather than return to the USA for law school, I decided to stay in London and become a lawyer in England. The next two years were a somewhat crazy mix of writing my thesis, finishing my masters, earning my Graduate Diploma in Law, and taking several short-term jobs. I also met my now-husband in late 2012, so I was trying to balance a social life with studying and of course, “adulting” in a foreign country.

It was during this rather eventful period that I realised just how competitive landing a training contract would be. As someone who earned very high marks at university, I never thought I’d struggle to land a job as a trainee lawyer. But I did, and there’s no shame in admitting that.

To put things in perspective, it’s important to remember that in any given year, there are some 25,000 first-year undergraduate law students in the United Kingdom. However, with fewer than 6,000 training contract spots available, this means that only about one in five students will become a trainee. Many well-regarded law firms in London routinely receive several thousand applications for only 50 or 60 training slots.

Many of us who were unsuccessful on our first round of applications pursued other things in the interim. I ended up working in business development at the London office of a major US law firm, and enjoyed helping the partners develop pitches and marketing materials for their key clients. I also spent some time working as a paralegal for the firm where I would eventually train, which gave me some early exposure to life as a fee-earner. And all of these experiences have in some way influenced the lawyer I’ve become.

Of course, I don’t routinely use the life-saving or swimming skills I gained as a lifeguard when I’m drafting commercial contracts. But that summer spent by the pool taught me how to stay focused and calm in chaotic environments, amongst other things. I can guarantee that clients and colleagues alike appreciate the perspective and maturity that comes with having experience from beyond the legal world’s bubble.

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In retrospect, what difference does a year or two (or five) really make?

I don’t like telling people – especially those in their early 20s – to stop being so negative about their future, or to just try to see the good in everything. I think those sentiments minimise the intense and very raw feelings of rejection and low-self esteem found amongst those who are struggling to find their place in the legal profession. The feeling of not being good enough is very common for aspiring lawyers, but just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s any less real.

I won’t tell you to just be positive about your job search and application process, because it’s going to take a lot more than positive thinking to get you qualified as a solicitor (or barrister, or attorney, or whatever). It’s going to take research, writing, re-writing, and re-writing, humility, tenacity, and looking at your options from a variety of angles. In short, applying and working towards becoming a lawyer looks a lot like actually being a lawyer. 

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Worth the wait. Here I am at my Law Society qualification ceremony last year.

What I will tell you is that securing a training contract is difficult. But you’ve likely accomplished difficult things before. While it is normal to feel negative when you receive a setback, I challenge you to reconsider how you define a “setback.” There is much that could go wrong throughout your journey, but needing an extra year (or two, or five) to reach your goal? To my mind, that isn’t “wrong.”

For what it’s worth, I qualified when I was 29. There are times that I feel old or a bit discouraged because some of the lawyers who qualified before me are several years younger than I am. But recently, I’ve started to challenge my long-held belief that younger means faster, and that faster somehow means better. The truth is, everyone’s path – scenic or otherwise – is completely subjective: and slowly, I’m learning not to care so much about what others may think of mine…

Featured photo – Holly Mandarich

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