John Collins

Key factsJohn Collins

Experience: 23 years PQE

Role: General counsel

Organisation: Royal Bank of Scotland

John's story

I was the first person in my family to go to university and struggled financially at law school. I worked as a security guard and an administrative assistant during my studies.

I am now general counsel of a bank, which means I'm head of legal operations and responsible for advising senior management on key legal issues and leading a team of 400 people.

At the age of 18, I had no real idea what I wanted to do. When I left school my ambition was to not get into trouble and try to find something useful and constructive to do. Most of my mates either worked in the mills, the local tile factory or went into the Marines.

I applied to do a law and politics degree at university and eventually decided to qualify as a solicitor, as I became intellectually engaged by it.

I was able to pursue my university career because the local authorities at the time paid a grant to cover the tuition fees. While no one from my family had gone to university my parents were supportive of me trying to better myself and encouraged me.

They always wanted me to have the chance to do what they hadn't.

I worked in London in the first year after graduation, first as a night security guard and then as an administrative officer in the Department of Transport.

I studied at night on a correspondence course to complete law and trust modules, as my joint law degree hadn't qualified me to attend the College of Law to take the solicitors exam.

When I first got to London I lived in a shared house in a shared room and slept on a mattress on the floor. Things slowly improved from there. My CVs were hand-written and I sent them to various law firms.

Perhaps because I had already completed my degree, I was more of a certain bet and therefore received several interview and training contract offers. The offer I accepted was the one that would fund me through law school. I couldn't have afforded to go to law school unless I got a training contract with a bursary. I decided to study in York.

I lived in a bedsit with my (now) wife, Emma, who got a job as an administrative assistant in the local hospital to support us through law school. Although we didn't have debt from student loans, it was still a challenge that required us to take on debt and overdrafts in order to stay financially afloat. We made sacrifices and even lived apart for a while.

When I came to London to start my training contract, I lived in bedsits while Emma stayed working in Leeds with my sister. We lived like this until I had built up enough cash to get us a place where we could live together.

When I interviewed with the firm I trained with, I found that they were open-minded to having someone like me, who was perhaps a little less polished than some other applicants. They were interested in who I was and my motivations and the interview was more conversational than the others I had.

I faced a few challenges when I started my training contract. Firstly, it was challenging on a physical level. The City environment meant I worked extremely hard, day and night and, although I did get very tired at times, it was a good learning experience.

Secondly, I found that my social background was very different from most of the other trainees in my intake and this affected my self-confidence. Some people were a little prejudiced against me because of where I had come from, but I remained positive and got past it as most of the people I dealt with were fair and reasonable.

I decided to have some steel and forced myself to socialise in environments where I felt daunted, unable to converse, uncomfortable and shy about engaging with senior and confident people.

I soon realised that my colleagues weren't better than me, they had just been trained to believe in themselves. I learnt that they were all the same as me and I was determined to overcome any prejudices to the extent they existed and my own insecurity.

I threw myself into my career and worked hard. I was judged on the results I delivered and in the end found a way through. A lot of it was about self-motivation and believing in my own capabilities.

John's advice

The best piece of advice I've been given is to choose your battles and your priorities and realise that you can't control and do everything. Learn from all your experiences, including the bad ones and build up your resilience and emotional strength.

Talk to people from all sorts of backgrounds about your career and learn from what they have to say; networking is key.

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