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The Skills You Need to Succeed by Alumna Justine Watkinson

Justine Watkinson, an alumna of The University of Law, is Partner and Head of Employment at Hillyer McKeown, a full-service law firm with offices in Chester, Liverpool and the Wirral. Here she shares her tips on increasing your employability and how to stand out when applying for jobs.

By Editorial Team. Published 01 December 2016. Last updated 11 February 2020.

There is an assumption that candidates should have the legal knowledge to hit the ground running once they’ve completed their training. However, what is equally as important is the ability to communicate effectively. For client relationships, it’s about being able to communicate in a manner they understand and engage with. We’re looking for candidates with affable personality traits that will ensure clients receive a good customer experience and service.

Candidates should also demonstrate other experiences outside of their academic achievements, for example the Duke of Edinburgh Award, or volunteering overseas – something where you can show life experiences and demonstrate additional interpersonal skills. This could also be from a standard day job where you’ve had customer interaction, perhaps dealing with customer complaints. These are all valuable skills that candidates can bring with them to their legal careers.

Legal work experience is important, but what is even more desirable is gaining experience in different legal environments and different types of legal practices. Sometimes perception is far from reality, so this wider experience will give candidates a broad understanding and insight into how law firms operate day-to-day and what they like and don’t like.

Students can gain practical experience in lots of different environments. Whether it’s shadowing a solicitor, drafting case material or advice or researching, all of these day-to-day tasks will give you practical experience into life as a solicitor.

Using initiative is key. Find your closest court room and watch a case or research legal seminars. A lot of firms hold presentations for clients and prospects that you could register to attend. You could call up local charities and see if they need volunteer support staff – all of these types of experience demonstrate a willingness to help and learn and will build on your communication skills.

The University of Law’s Careers and Employability Service can help you make the most of the opportunities such as their pro bono programme and mooting competitions. The careers consultants are fantastic and are able to advise you on practise-based activities available to you.

For some people, being commercially aware will come very naturally, but it’s something that can be taught. It’s essential to show an understanding of how a business runs and your role in contributing to that business.

Legal practices have been through significant change over recent years. It’s an extremely competitive and commercial environment, and how we communicate and market our services has changed. It’s absolutely crucial that as solicitors we understand our clients’ business environments, challenges and needs so that we can provide the right advice and services.

Employees who can demonstrate presentation skills, represent the company at networking events and write articles or thought leadership blogs add value to a firm to help it to stand out. In addition, being able to look beyond the project you’re working on and identify other commercial opportunities – so not only feeding your own funnel but making a difference to the broader business – will set you in good stead..

Develop and expand your network of people as well as your networking skills. Mastering the art of networking can be hugely important to your career. Being able to socially interact is very important. To enter a networking environment and be able to work the room, talk confidently and be able to sell yourself in an honest and trustworthy manner is key. Engaging a person’s interest, trust and confidence in you is the first stage; then comes business. There are various groups for young lawyers that provide a great platform to exchange experiences. Social media also plays a big role, so use important platforms such as LinkedIn.

Pro bono work is important. During my undergraduate law degree, I did pro bono work experience at a housing community support group in Leeds. I used to man the phones – we would get a lot of calls from deprived people in the area asking legal questions about housing benefits and repairs. When I was a trainee, I volunteered at an open clinic at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Liverpool where people would drop in and ask general legal questions. While studying at The University of Law Chester, I got involved in university mooting competitions – a great opportunity to argue points about a case and practise advocacy.

Mentoring is hugely important at all stages of a career, but even more so when you’re just starting out. Someone to learn from but also to fight your corner, who wants to help you and develop you, is invaluable. My advice to students looking for a mentor is don’t wait around for someone to fall into your lap. Use your initiative and go looking for it. Using your initiative will show you’re committed to your own development and will make you stand out from the crowd. Be smart and carefully pick out a mentor within a business. They need to be someone that you can relate to, you aspire to be, you like how they work and you want to learn from. It’s all about building relationships. Once you become helpful to people, they will take you under their wing.

Whether you want a career in law or business, find out how our Careers and Employability Service can give you a head start.