On taking the “scenic route” to becoming a lawyer

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. 

Image may contain: 1 person
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.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting and child
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. 

mimi
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

Privacy Day 2019

Privacy Day 2019

In 2006 the Council of Europe officially recognised 28 January as a data privacy holiday, to celebrate the date The Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data was signed in 1981. Also known as Convention 108, this document remains the only international treaty in the field of personal data protection.

In honour of this year’s Privacy Day – also called Data Protection Day – here are a few excerpts from some of my favourite English and American legal cases about privacy.

Image result for entick v carrington

In 1762, the King George IV’s Chief Messenger Nathan Carrington and others broke into the home of the writer John Entick. Over the course of four hours, the messengers broke open locks and doors and searched all of the rooms, before taking away charts and pamphlets, and causing £2,000 of damage. The King’s messengers were acting on the orders of Lord Halifax, the newly appointed Secretary of State: Entick later sued Carrington for trespassing on his land. In his judgment in favour of Entick, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas Lord Camden wrote:

Has a Secretary of State a right to see all a man’s private letters of correspondence, family concerns, trade and business? This would be monstrous indeed; and if it were lawful, no man could endure to live in this country.

Today, Entick v Carrington is considered to have deeply influenced the establishment of individual civil liberties, and limiting the scope of executive power. It also served as an important motivation for the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees protections to Americans against certain searches and seizures. 

Image result for queen victoria sketches

Prince Albert v Strange was an 1849 court decision which began the development of confidence law, the common law tort that protects private information. By way of background, both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sketched as a hobby. John Strange obtained some of these sketches after they had been stolen from Windsor Palace, and published a catalog showing them. Prince Albert filed suit for the return of the sketches, and a surrender of the catalog for destruction. The Lord Chancellor Lord Cottenham granted Prince Albert’s plea, and explained in his judgment that:

The Court of Chancery will protect everyone in the free and innocent use of his own property, and will prevent other parties from interfering with the use of that property, so as to injure the owner. It is certain every man has a right to keep his own sentiments if he pleases. He has certainly a right to judge whether he will make them public, or commit them only to the sight of his friends. Privacy is a part, and an essential part, of this species of property.

 

Image result for Eisenstadt v Baird

In 1967, William Baird was charged with a felony for handing a condom to an unmarried woman who had attended one of his lectures on birth control at Boston University. Under Massachusetts law on “Crimes against chastity”, contraceptives could only be distributed by registered doctors or pharmacists, and only to married persons. The Supreme Court of the United States overturned the law in the 1972 case Eisenstadt v. Baird, and the majority opinion was written by Justice Brennan, who famously wrote:

If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.

In 1982, the state of Pennsylvania enacted legislation that placed a number of restrictions on abortion. In the resulting 1986 case Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Supreme Court overturned the Pennsylvania law, holding (amongst other things) that the “informed consent” and printed materials provisions of the law unduly intruded upon the privacy of patients and physicians. Justice Brennan penned the opinion, noting:

Our cases long have recognized that the Constitution embodies a promise that a certain private sphere of individual liberty will be kept largely beyond the reach of government. Few decisions are more personal and intimate, more properly private, or more basic to individual dignity and autonomy, than a woman’s decision whether to end her pregnancy. A woman’s right to make that choice freely is fundamental. Any other result, in our view, would protect inadequately a central part of the sphere of liberty that our law guarantees equally to all. 

Image result for naomi campbell magazine 1994

In 2001, British supermodel Naomi Campbell was photographed leaving a drug rehabilitation clinic, despite having previously denied that she was a recovering drug addict. After the photographs were published in the tabloid The Mirror, Campbell sued for damages in Naomi Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers. The House of Lords held the paper liable, and Law Lord Nicholls stated:

The importance of freedom of expression has been stressed often and eloquently, the importance of privacy less so. But it, too, lies at the heart of liberty in a modern state. A proper degree of privacy is essential for the well-being and development of an individual. And restraints imposed on government to pry into the lives of the citizen go to the essence of a democratic state.

In the 2011 case of Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper, the Supreme Court considered if the United States Privacy Act of 1974 covers mental and emotional distress caused by privacy invasion. The Court held that the Privacy Act’s “actual damages” provision only allowed Cooper to recover for proven pecuniary or economic harm. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I personally agree with Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, which noted:

Nowhere in the Privacy Act does Congress so much as hint that it views a $5 hit to the pocketbook as more worthy of remedy than debilitating mental distress, and the contrary assumption [in this case] discounts the gravity of emotional harm caused by an invasion of the personal integrity that privacy protects.

Of course, the cases above provide only a small glimmer of insight into the weird and wonderful world of privacy law. On international Privacy Day in particular, it’s important to remember that the legislation and court cases which shape our understanding of privacy and protection from intrusion go far beyond the modern notion of cyber security.

The right to privacy is a human right!

Related image