At a UCL Connect event in November 2020, UCL Laws alumni shared their experiences and top tips on building a career in the legal sector.
"Is it more of a challenge to enter the law profession at a later stage in your career (10+ years post-graduation) or are career changers with a broad range of experience welcomed?"
Charlotte commented: I can speak more for the Bar but certainly I say that those who start at a later stage are always welcome. It is a distinct commercial advantage to have had previous work experience and life experience. Lots of people that I currently and have previously worked with have had other careers ranging from singers to former civil servants and bankers.
"For a foreign qualified lawyer would you advise to get a solicitor qualification in UK or rather a LLM? What is your opinion about online LLMs? Are they good/well reputed among recruiters?"
Graham commented: It really depends on where you have qualified (common law v civil law jurisdiction); your level of experience to date; and whether that experience is relevant to the type of firm you are applying to (your ‘Target Law Firms’). If the similarities are material there should be no need to pursue further academic study (an LLM) but if you are not familiar with the areas of English law that will be relevant to your chosen areas of practice/Target Law Firms, an LLM from a highly regarded law school is an excellent option. If you do pursue an LLM you should choose your options carefully and with reference to the areas of practice your Target Law Firms focus on. You should also think carefully about the relevance of any independent research essay/thesis you write as part of your LLM. Ideally that will also be of interest to your Target Law Firms. Online LLMs have been developed relatively recently so it is difficult to comment on how they are regarded by recruiters. My sense is that those offered by the most prestigious/reputable law schools will be well regarded.
“What would you suggest for a student that doesn't know so much about Law and doesn't know how to discover if it's his choice or not?”
Charlotte commented: I consider that the internet is a boon in this regard. There are ample high quality resources that are available for free which can give a student a good insight into life at the Bar or as a solicitor. For example, all four of the Inns of Court (Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple) have student sections some of which include reading lists. There are plentiful blogs and podcasts available on a number of platforms and lots of chambers, organisations and law firms run their own. A few minutes spent using a search engine should suffice to bring up some of these resources. I would also encourage students to undertake legal work experience to see the law operating in practice whether it be mini-pupillages, vacation schemes, insight days or simply volunteering at a pro bono organisation.
"What are the benefits of gaining International legal experience; how can it help one’s legal career and what should I think about before choosing to practice abroad?"
Ksenia commented: International legal experience can expand one’s toolset and widen the repertoire of legal constructs the person possesses and applies. The person may also gain invaluable experience of working in international and cross-functional teams, which will certainly be considered as a competitive advantage on today’s market. I would consider the following aspects when selecting a career abroad:
- How will this experience and the skills I will be getting there help me achieve my long-term career goals?
- What are the cultural differences between my home country and my new place of work and how may they hinder my future success? The book called The Culture Map by Erin Meyer can be a good starting point here.
- What does the local market look like, who are the main players there and what are the trends? The person may want to adjust their career strategy and tactics based on these insights.
“Are there any tips for personal statements?”
Charlotte commented: There are three tips that I would give for personal statements: First, focus on those experiences and achievements that are unique to you. You should be your own best advocate and only you can accurately articulate the things that make you special. The assessment panel cannot know what you do not tell them. Second, always keep the competencies and criteria that the university need you to satisfy in mind. Try to ensure that what you are saying seeks to demonstrate the relevant competencies and/or satisfy the criteria. Third, whilst it seems obvious and simple, ensure that your personal statement is structured in a logical manner such that it is easy to read and that you have thoroughly proof-read it before you submit it.
"I struggle to demonstrate effective commercial awareness on my application. Do you have any tips or advice on this?"
Baldeep commented: Commercial awareness can be a tricky subject. Put simply, it is the ability to demonstrate how your legal advice will impact your client. This can be difficult as a law student but I would suggest reading a newspaper on any subject you are interested in. Once you have a topic, the best answers targeting commercial awareness will discuss a problem, a legal solution and what that means to the end client. Remember to always read the question in your application as they may vary slightly and read the law firm website you are applying to as it may have tips specific to that firm.
Charlie commented: This is always a difficult aspect of applications – from personal experience! What I can say from my applications is that I found that firms (particularly during an interview process) took far more interest in a slightly different topic from the ‘generic’ commercial headlines, that was also tailored to link closely to my own interests and those of the firm I was applying to. By way of example, my firm (BCLP) has a strong real estate sector focus – something that drew me to the firm from the beginning. The “commercial awareness” topic I read up on and discussed in my application and interview was the social housing crisis and how the (then) London mayoral race could change the face of social housing in London, into which I built my knowledge that the firm had done plenty of social housing work in the London area. By making the topic something that has an impact on the actual work the firm does, you can more easily build interest from their side, whilst simultaneously showing that you have done your homework on what work the firm does – but it should be something you have a genuine interest in.
“Do you think it is useful or makes you stand out when applying for a Training Contract if you have also qualified in another jurisdiction e.g. New York?”
Graham commented: It depends on the type of law firm you intend to apply to and whether they practice law other than English law, for example New York law, in the office in which you wish to work or elsewhere. For international law firms which have a policy of transferring lawyers between offices in different jurisdictions it may be useful but generally junior lawyers (and especially prospective trainees) are typically only expected to be qualified in the ‘home’ jurisdiction i.e. English law.
“How many firms did you apply to? What was your approach?”
Charlie commented: There is no right answer in terms of the number of firms you apply to, it is all about the reasons for applying and the effort/time you are able to commit to each application. The wrong approach to take is a “scatter-gun” set of applications to so many firms that you don’t have time to thoroughly research them and really think about why you want to work there. It is far better to take your time, apply to a more select group of firms to which you can dedicate the time needed to show through your application that you have really thought about the work they do and why you would be a good fit for them. Key things to think about in terms of the firms themselves would be: (1) the type of work they do, (2) the ‘level’ at which they operate (for example do you want to aim for a Magic Circle firm, an American firm, a regional firm, in-house…?), (3) the ‘culture’ (something you will really glean from talking to people that work there and the firm’s website) and (4) any ‘extras’ that mean a lot to you, such as secondment opportunities, pro bono connections, the trainee intake size etc.
“What are the differences between a tech-based Training Contract different to an ordinary Training Contract and are applicants who have only studied Law at a disadvantage?”
Lorraine commented: I did my undergrad in Law at UCL myself and so far haven't found that to be a disadvantage. I think what helped me was that I actively went out to develop that tech-based experience and networked with the relevant people and attended events. If you are considering this as a straight LLB undergrad, I definitely advise you to demonstrate your interest in tech beyond your degree as I did.
Secondly, I haven't started my training contract as of yet, but the IGNITE programme is designed to give me time away from fee-earning work to work on solutions and explore new technologies that help the law firm to deliver more value to clients or assist other lawyers within the firm to do their work better.
“With technology impacting the legal market, what skills or knowledge should a future lawyer have and how can one gain those skills or knowledge?"
Lorraine commented: From my own experience working in start-ups, I believe the skills that translate well are an open mindset and willingness to experiment. Working in tech I have learned the invaluable skill of not necessarily looking for one answer but iterating on various possible answers and solutions. I think this has definitely helped with my creativity when approaching problems. Lawyers of the future will require a certain level of creativity and open-mindedness I believe to experiment with the possibilities that tech affords us in undertaking our work as lawyers.
Secondly, I believe an appreciation of how cross-functional teams work will take you far. For example: working in legal tech as a Customer Account Manager, I would often have law firm clients report a bug or ask for functionality that might be missing. I would then have to translate this (i.e. understanding how the lawyer works, what they are expecting to see) to developers in a way that would help them to accurately build the solution that meets you and your client's needs. With more law firms developing their own in-house tech teams I think this will be an essential soft skill.
My advice really would be to do internships or spend some time working in a start-up to gain an appreciation of such skills.
Tell us about your career to date. I am qualified to work Russia and did an LLM at UCL in 2011-2012. I worked as an in-house lawyer from 2005 until 2017, mainly in the pharmaceutical industry (Roche and Bayer). By 2017, I held a managerial position as a Legal Team Lead and was one step away from becoming a Head of Legal. However, I decided to change my career path, made a horizontal move instead and set my long-term career goal in the area of general management, strategy, and finance. So, I joined the legal operations and legal project management team in Germany first (the Global Process Owner role mentioned in the briefing). And currently, I am on a sabbatical leave and doing a Master of Business Administration degree in a business school in France to support my career transition.
What is the most challenging aspect of your career? To marry business goals and ideas with limitations imposed by law and compliance as well as the people aspects of these discussions (tough clients who take it too personally and/or are unable to behave reasonably).
What is the most rewarding aspect of your career? Being finally able to find a compromise, a creative yet compliant way to marry the two, against the odds.