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.
Becoming a solicitor in England
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. (Edit for 2020: The LPC is being replaced by the Solicitors’ Qualifying Exam, or SQE.) 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 typically complete two years of training (known as a training contract or period of recognised training) at a law firm, before qualifying as a 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. For reasons I won’t go into here, my goal was to become a military lawyer, with the ultimate ambition of working in Washington DC after my five or six years as a Marine, liekly as some sort of government counsel 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. It was a really heartbreaking and frustrating time, especially after spending two years as an officer candidate.
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 – almost on a whim. 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.
During my masters’ degree, I allowed myself to be led by my passions: the creative and performing arts. For so long, I had ignored my interests in music and drama, and instead tried to be this “super serious, political science” type. There’s nothing wrong with that – but it just wasn’t really me. So, during my masters, I studied and did a lot of research on the laws and policies shaping European digital services, like music streaming. Because I let go of preconceived notions of what a lawyer “should” be, I was able to discover an area of the law that I’m passionate about. I stopped asking, “what will other people think of me? Is it weird to go from political science and economics to media law? Will I still be taken seriously?”
After a lot of soul searching, I took a leap of faith. Rather than return to the USA for law school after my masters, I decided to stay in London and become a lawyer in England.
The spotlight effect is a term used by social psychologists to refer to the tendency we have to overestimate how much other people think about us. In other words, we tend to think there is a spotlight on us at all times, highlighting all of our mistakes or flaws, for all the world to see.
Once I decided on the “what” (media lawyer) and “where” (London), I then had to figure out the “how”.
I must admit that in 2013, I was shocked to realise just how competitive landing a training contract would be. As someone who earned very high marks at university, and then went on to do a masters’ at the London School of Economics, 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. The next two years were a somewhat crazy mix of writing my thesis, earning my Graduate Diploma in Law, and taking several short-term jobs. I worked as a celebrity researcher for a publishing company, and then did marketing and advertising at the London office of a major US law firm. I really enjoyed helping the partners develop pitches and marketing materials for their key clients, which is a skill I use on a weekly basis now, as an associate. And, all of these experiences have in some way influenced the lawyer I’ve become.
Of course, I don’t routinely use the swimming or CPR 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. Likewise, working as a barista during the morning rush hour in downtown Seattle taught me a lot about (literally) thinking fast on your feet, and dealing with grumpy customers who JUST WANT THEIR SKINNY, TRIPPLE SHOT LATTE, NOW, PLEASE.
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.
I never tell people – especially those in their 20s – to stop being so negative about their future, or to just try to see the good in everything. I think expressing those sentiments can minimise the intense and very raw feelings of rejection and low-self esteem. I think it’s entirely fair and valid to feel miserable if you’re struggling to find your place in the legal profession. And, although the feeling of not being good enough is very common for aspiring lawyers, just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s any less real.
So, if you’re reading this and are struggling to find your place, I won’t tell you to just be positive about your job search and application process. Truthfully, it’s going to take a lot more than positive thinking to get you qualified as a solicitor (or barrister, or attorney, or whatever). The same thing can be said for those of you who are already lawyers, but are struggling to find the right practice area or law firm. It’s going to take research, writing, re-writing, and re-writing applications. It’s going to take 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.
Securing a training contract is difficult. Knowing which job to take or which team to go into 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 ultimate goal? To my mind, that isn’t “wrong.” I am often asked for advice about how I found “my dream job” – being a media and technology lawyer at a great firm in London. The short answer? It wasn’t easy. And I spent some time doing lots of stuff I didn’t enjoy, to get here. But those experiences were all valuable learning experiences, and I never lost sight of what I really wanted.
For what it’s worth, I qualified when I was 29. There are times that I feel old or a bit discouraged, especially when I compare myself to other people. But recently, I’ve started to challenge my long-held belief that younger means faster, or 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…