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Instagram versus reality - the pursuit of becoming a litigation lawyer and a lesson in overcoming obstacles

As a relative newcomer to the world of recruitment, I am often asked why I made the transition from lawyer to recruiter. I was an insurance litigator for over 15 years and a partner at a well-known insurance law firm in London and so I wanted to give an honest account of some of the harsh realities I learned along the way for those starting out in the legal profession.


Like many, my journey to qualification wasn’t entirely smooth. I wanted to be a lawyer from my early teens. I studied law at GCSE and A level, largely because I had a very passionate teacher, and I was a huge fan of Ally McBeal (which most of you ‘young people’ have probably never even heard of!). For me it seemed like a natural progression. I obtained good A levels and went on to study law at university but was naïve and had no idea when I embarked on the mission to seek out the holy grail (i.e., a training contract), of the difficulties I would have to overcome along the way.


At first, I adopted a scatter gun approach, applying to various large London law firms in the hope of being able to work in some exciting area of the law - media, IP etc. If I was lucky enough to get a reply, it was a thanks, but no thanks. Slowly but surely the postman seemed to deliver one rejection after another (this was in the days before email was widely used).  I managed to secure a small handful of interviews and assessment days at firms that were oversubscribed and sit in a room full of other hopefuls, each eyeballing the competition. I recall being ridiculed by one partner at a silver circle firm based on my work experience (at age 20 and during the summer holidays from university) as amounting to “nothing more than a secretary”.


After countless applications and rejections, I graduated with a 2:1, but was no closer to obtaining a training contract. Admitting defeat, I gave up my search and returned to my parents’ home, (now relegated to my younger brother’s small room as he’d commandeered mine in my absence!) and began searching for a ‘regular’ job. This seemed the only chance of me being able to live independently. However, most graduate positions were in short supply and high demand. After a few months I secured a permanent position as a paralegal at a firm of solicitors specialising in debt recovery. The work was not glamorous, but it was an eye opener to the realities of litigation, dealing with angry and often rude clients and expressing empathy with others, complying with court deadlines, liaising with counsel, court staff and bailiffs, but most of all working with a team of qualified and non-qualified lawyers, imparting their knowledge and a sense of camaraderie. After a year-long hiatus from study, I decided to sign up for the LPC, using savings from my job and fortunately some financial support from my family.  


I started to re-apply for training contracts at smaller firms, including those outside of London, and boosted my CV by doing some additional volunteer work at the local police station and some other legal work placements. My experience made me better equipped for making targeted applications. I liked litigation – it was process driven, fast paced, evolving and exciting to be part of and I felt passionate about it.


I still encountered setbacks, but instead of being defeatist, it made me more determined and driven to get there – I had experience and was confident in my capabilities. I knew what I wanted from a working environment and culture and how to respond to questions in interviews about the practical side of litigation. Most of all, I was prepared to compromise on certain aspects to reach my goal.


I was invited for an interview at a law firm in Liverpool. I remember the dark and dated decor, the panel of 5 middle-aged white men and the sense of dread as I stood at a lectern and gave my presentation on my views on the impact of “Tesco law” and multi-disciplinary partnerships on the legal profession. When the offer of a training contract came through while I was preparing for my LPC exams, it was a no brainer to accept.


So, off I moved to Merseyside to embark on the next steps of my legal career, put the theory into practice, as well as starting to pay off my student debt. The trainee solicitor salary was low, but it was worth it to be on the right path at last and I took on bar work at weekends to subsidise my income and embrace all that a new and vibrant city like Liverpool had to offer.


The offices were not glamorous – at one point I was commuting out of the city centre to the docklands to work in an industrial park with limited options around but a sandwich van for lunch - not entirely the slick city workplace I’d envisaged.  Still, the work was interesting and the benefit of working at a smaller firm meant that I got invaluable exposure to quality work, worked directly with some inspirational lawyers, and had the opportunity to conduct procedural hearings in person myself. I travelled to some unsavoury locations while attending criminal trials, inquests, meeting with clients and taking on a small caseload of my own. 


Litigation is relentless, expectations are high, court deadlines are strict, and you must be prepared to drop other work (or social plans) at a moment’s notice to tackle an urgent problem, but the atmosphere was collegiate, and I enjoyed being part of a challenging industry that is constantly evolving.


Having like-minded peers and leaders that I could talk to for advice as I navigated my journey was crucial. At Chadwick Nott we support some excellent Junior Lawyer Division (JLD) events, which are a great networking opportunity for trainees and junior solicitors to meet each other and obtain careers advice from experienced recruiters who know the market inside out. The Liverpool Trainee Solicitor Group was no exception when I was there. At a small firm with only 3 trainees, who were reluctant to join the group’s activities, I attended the first social event alone. I put myself entirely out of my comfort zone and introduced myself to a group of trainees from one of the larger firms chatting amongst themselves, who of course welcomed me with opened arms.  Little did I know then that this experience would serve me well when honing my networking skills later in my career. I made some firm friends, building up my network and joined the social committee, helping to organise other events for future trainees and junior lawyers.  


Ultimately, I was able to use my experience and network of contacts as a stepping-stone to move to a larger insurance firm on qualification. That’s when the real work started – whilst you still have the support, ultimately the onus is on you to be responsible for your own caseload, without the protection of a supervising partner or associate, complying with deadlines, meeting client expectations, achieving targets, and of course hitting your chargeable hours – which are monitored daily in many instances.  


I said “yes” to every new opportunity – be it a new case to work on, a client training session or event to present at, secondments, or a project to be involved in. Of course, this meant that there were long hours, late nights and often working weekends, but there was always a sense of doing it to be part of something more. It also meant that my career in litigation evolved and took me into new and exciting areas that I’d never even thought of when I started out – £multi-million lawsuits, aircraft crashes and block-buster movies. It all served me well when I embarked on the route to Associate and later Partner.  


I’ve worked with some great mentors and inspirational lawyers, leading the way in some major changes in the legal landscape. My career eventually took me to the other side of the table hosting assessment centres, marking questionnaires and case studies and conducting interviews, as well as supervising and mentoring the next generation of junior lawyers – one of the reasons I became a recruiter.


Hard work continues all the way. Never give up, be prepared for setbacks and to compromise. The work might not be all glamorous, and it might not be what you planned from the start, but you never know where it might take you and the not knowing is half the fun.


For advice on navigating your way through your legal career or some advice contact Louise Carroll at Chadwick Nott on 020 3946 8091 or