“I left The University of Law with a CV that was 100 times stronger than when I started, all achieved in 9 months”
There are many ways to go about securing your dream job. University of Law alumna Shanika Varga has achieved just that by embracing every opportunity offered and taking the time to explore where she wanted to specialise. She undertook pro-bono work whilst studying for her LPC, investing time in young adults from underprivileged backgrounds who were seeking careers in the law. She also volunteered at Personal Support Unit at Leeds Combined Court.
Here she offers some sound advice and insight to aspiring trainees.
What have you been doing since qualifying?
I finished my LPC June 2014 and started my training contract at Stowe Family Law shortly after in October. Stowe Family Law is the largest stand-alone family law firm in the Country. The firm has a team of specialist family solicitors at each of their 7 offices across the country, including one here in Leeds, offering a range of services from divorce through to Wills and Inheritance Disputes.
What attracted you to law?
I first considered a career in law following several of my secondary school teachers commenting on my ability to argue my way out of most situations (even when I was in the wrong). I then explored this career path further by completing my year 10 work experience at a local firm of solicitors which helped me gain a real insight into how a legal firm runs on a day to day basis. It was at this point that I made a career in the legal sector my focus.
How did you get to where you are now?
I studied law at Keele University and in my final year secured a place at the University of Law York. After much thought I deferred my place on the LPC for a year and managed to secure a job working for two sole practitioners. One specialised in residential conveyancing and the other in commercial work. They shared their office with two other solicitors who practiced civil litigation and insolvency work. I made this decision partially for financial reasons and also because my enthusiasm for law had slightly decreased during my degree.
A year later I was off to the University of Law to start the LPC! I didn’t really know what to expect as I had been told so many things by so many people. All I knew were that the books were heavy and the workload wasn’t light either! I opted for the full time course which entailed two days in university per week, I thought this would be a doddle but actually found that the best way to treat studying at home was as if it was a full time job working 9-5 each day. This not only meant that I was never behind on my workshop preparation but also meant I wasn’t taking too much of a break from having a ‘working life routine’.
How was the LPC different to your degree?
Studying at The University of Law prepared me for my training contract in so many ways. The style of teaching and learning was much more reflective of the workplace as is the nature of the tasks you complete. It is much less of a memory test and much more a test of your application skills. This was someway of an adjustment for me from the closed book exams I was used to taking at the University of Keele. I suddenly found it was much less about repetition and so much more to do with the way I organised my files and books and my understanding of content rather than my ability to regurgitate case-law.
How did you tackle applying for training contracts and studying?
I decided not to focus too much on applying for training contracts in the first term, mainly because I was still trying to find my feet with the LPC and because I honestly still didn’t know what kind of law I wanted to specialise in. I had an inkling that family law was my calling but wanted to wait until I had started my family law module in the second term before I really started concentrating my efforts on specialist firms. This of course is only my experience, there were many people who were applying from the beginning and there is no right or wrong way, I just knew that at that point I couldn’t convince myself 100% what I wanted to do so I wouldn’t stand a chance at convincing a firm unless I was completely sure.
What did you do after you left the University of Law?
I started looking for jobs during the second term of the LPC. The workload was lighter as the term was shorter and you only study three subjects, I wanted to have a job lined up for as soon as I finished. I knew at this point it was unlikely that I would be starting a training contract in September of that year as most firms recruit at least a year in advance so I decided to apply for paralegal and legal secretary positions whilst at the same time sending speculative training contract applications out. Anything that would get my foot in the door, many of my friends who had training contracts had achieved them through completing work experience with a firm. The traditional application method is not the only way to obtain a training contract, half of the battle is getting in front of someone to show them who you really are. There is only so much you can show someone on paper especially when most of the other applicants will have very similar experience to you. I knew that if I could get myself in front of someone it would be so much easier to show them that I am capable and a good fit.
I secured a legal secretary position with a legal aid firm. Although this wasn’t exactly the position I had hoped for, it was a way in and I knew I would progress with this firm. They made it very clear that training contracts were only offered internally and you were expected to work your way up and prove yourself. I knew that by easing myself in with a legal secretary position that I could learn how things were done at that firm without the pressure of having to fee earn as well so when the opportunity present itself I already knew the procedures.
How did you get to Stowe Family Law?
It was whilst I was at the Legal Aid firm that I saw the position at Stowe Family Law, I regularly checked the websites of local firms and Stowe’s was a firm that I had had my eye on for a long time, everyone knows who Marilyn Stowe is and to be able to work at her firm was my dream job! I really took my time over this application, I only had one shot and I knew that this firm had such a high reputation I didn’t want to make any mistakes. The application process wasn’t what I expected at all, I was preparing myself for several interviews and assessment days but I was surprised. I sent my CV and covering letter in, had an interview with the managing partner and another solicitor and then was called back for a 3 day trial to help them decide between myself and another candidate. The three day trial was probably the worst part, knowing everything I did was being scrutinised and compared to the other candidate but at least I had made it that far. A month after my trial I was starting my training contract.
How have you found life as a trainee?
The transition from student to trainee was as challenging as I expected partially due to the fact I went from student to trainee in 4 months. From day one I have been expected to carry out extremely varied tasks from legal work to aiding the PR team. As a trainee you are expected to understand all aspects of how a law firm works not just the legal side of things, the importance of commercial awareness is drummed into you during the LPC but it’s much more far reaching than simply being able to hit targets and understanding alternative ways to reach clients and promote a firm is essential.
Often I will start the day with a to-do list and a clear idea of how I would like the day to pan out and by lunchtime my plan is out the window. It is extremely important to be flexible and know how to manage your time. My list is frequently added to throughout the day and a great deal of the time tasks given to me need to be completed, being able to manage your time and other fee earners expectations is vital.
As a trainee you are not expected to know everything all the time, the law is constantly evolving so keeping up with changes and development is key. When I first started my training contract I hated asking questions but as a trainee you are expected to! This is the one time that you can ask as many questions as you can, so make the most of this!
Although the transition was a shock to the system I found that I was putting into use the skills I learnt during the LPC every day from legal research techniques to drafting forms. Although the LPC can’t prepare you for everything it really does teach the foundations of being a legal professional.
What advice would you give to aspiring trainees?
The support I received from the Careers team was second to none, from helping me with my CV to talking through what kind of firm I wanted to apply to. The Careers team is an asset that should be utilised as much as possible, I really think that if it wasn’t for their guidance I wouldn’t have my training contract now.
It is very easy to compare yourself to those around you whilst taking the LPC but I soon learnt that gaining a training contract and/or vacation schemes can be just as much to do with luck as experience and a strong CV. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t one of those students who sent out 10 applications a week or had numerous job interviews or assessment days. Stowe Family Law was the first training contract interview that I had, it wasn’t an intimidating process like I had prepared myself for.
My biggest piece of advice would be to really take every opportunity that is presented to you. I did as much pro bono as I possibly could, signed up as a Student Ambassador and tried to attend as many events as possible. It may feel like an inconvenience going in on your day off or having to do work over the weekend or late at night because you’ve committed yourself to other projects during the week but I left The University of Law with a CV that was 100 times stronger than when I started, all achieved in 9 months.
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