Sayo Ogundele

Key factsSayo Ogundule

Experience: 3 years PQE

Specialism: Corporate law - mergers and acquisitions/private equity

Firm: Debevoise & Plimpton

Sayo's story

My ethnic background is still uncommon in the legal profession. I used to feel nervous during networking events, but I got over my anxieties and realised making connections through talking to people you don't know is essential to being a solicitor.

Even though it’s a very competitive process, I was determined to get a training contract.

I grew up with my mum and brother in South-East London. I attended a state school and was fortunate to generally have supportive teachers who encouraged me to work hard and succeed. I did well academically and wanted to continue my education and get a degree.

I didn't know anything about corporate law until I started university, where I had the opportunity to ‎attend presentations held by law firms. These events gave me an insight into what it would be like to be a lawyer.

I was eager to find out more, so during my second year I applied for vacation schemes at a number of major firms.

I was successful with several of these applications, and I spent that summer interning at three City law firms. I liked the idea of working with some of the largest companies in the world, on challenging and complex transactions, and I decided that it was the career for me.

The challenges I faced in joining the profession centred around 'soft skills'. While I found the academic side of my degree rewarding, I struggled with activities such as networking.

During my vacation scheme placements we were expected to go into a room full of solicitors and mingle with people we didn't know.

I found this whole concept totally alien and very daunting, especially because at the time my perception was that most of the people at these firms came from a similar middle-class type background; it was a completely different world from which I was accustomed.

I now know how important it is to be able to network, not just as a training contract applicant, but as a qualified lawyer. Establishing working relationships with people across your business and client base is crucial.

I also struggled with the social side to vacation schemes. During the course of these placements, I was taken to very expensive, fine dining restaurants by the firms I was working for.

The kind of places where there are five types of fork, a huge wine list and a tasting menu! I had never been to these types of restaurants before and, although it was a lot of fun, it was also a very steep learning curve and at the time quite nerve wracking.

I had no contacts or family members in the profession to give me advice about how to behave in these types of situations, and so I had to overcome my anxieties through sheer determination and being adaptable.

My goal was to obtain a training contract and I wasn't going to let anything get in my way. The way I saw it, I had been through more difficult situations in my life before so this gave me the confidence that I could achieve anything, provided that I worked hard and put my mind to it.

I viewed the process of obtaining a training contract as simply another hurdle that I had to jump over.

I wanted to give myself the best possible chance of getting a training contract and so I checked and double checked each of my applications to make sure there were no errors and that my answers to the questions were succinct and well written.

I dressed appropriately and spoke well during interviews. I didn't want to give anyone an excuse to say ‘no’ to me at the first hurdle and wanted to be considered as strong a candidate - if not stronger - than any of the other applicants. I was extremely pleased when I secured a training contract at a City firm.

Black men are underrepresented in the legal profession, and I often find that I am the only black person in the room during meetings and when I visit other law firms.

I know that many firms are beginning to take steps to improve diversity and I am glad the profession recognises this as an issue.

A career in law might not be for everyone and the hours are often long. My mum has been a source of great inspiration to me. I have never met someone more hard working than her. I think a key factor in my achievements to date has been my ability to adopt her incredible work ethic in my studies and my career.

Sayo's advice

I want to be a role model to aspiring solicitors from all backgrounds and to demonstrate that law firms are looking for bright, talented enthusiastic people from all walks of life. Provided you have these qualities and are determined, there is no reason why you can't succeed in the legal profession. I did and you can too.

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