Sam Butler, social mobility ambassador

Social mobility ambassador Sam Butler shares his experience of entering the profession, including the challenges he faced and how he overcame them.
Sam Butler is a white man with closely shaved hair and a short beard. He is smiling and wears a black suit, white shirt and dark red tie.
Photograph: Alice Mutasa

What inspired you to study law?

I was originally inspired, like many young people, from reading To Kill a Mockingbird in school.

It was just a passing teenage thought at the time and, back then, going to university at all wasn’t part of my plan.

Eventually, I went to university and studied history. I was elected president of my student union after university.

I was passionate about social justice and education and was learning advocacy, research and arguing “cases” for students “on the job” so it was a great grounding for a career in law – without me even realising!

Did you receive encouragement to pursue your ambitions?

It was when working as student union president that I was encouraged to pursue law.

I chaired our trustee board and we had an external trustee who was a solicitor. He said I had the skills to make a good lawyer and I should look into it.

It was a real confidence boost for me and he became a brilliant mentor to me. He’s always been happy to give good, practical (and realistic) advice.

Where did you study law?

I studied the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and then my MSc Legal Practice Course (LPC) at the University of Law in Bristol. I had studied my undergraduate degree at the University of Liverpool.

Did you encounter any challenges studying law?

I remember my very first day doing my GDL and somebody asked me where I had secured a training contract.

I didn’t have one and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be a barrister or solicitor; it really spooked me how shocked the person was when I said I didn’t have one.

I was terrified that I had jumped into something I wasn’t prepared for and was already “way behind” the other students who all seemed to have their career mapped out. I was also a little older and it was a big imposter syndrome moment!

Growing up, I didn’t know any lawyers and I was the first generation in my family to go to university so I had to accept that it was just going to take me longer to network, build up contacts and get work experience.

What type of law do you specialise in?

I am an employment solicitor and partner in the firm, Counterculture LLP. I work with educational, cultural, arts and third sector clients across England and Wales.

I trained and qualified at the international law firm, DLA Piper, working for large international companies, charities and public institutions.

I then moved in-house to work for the University of Manchester, covering a wide variety of regulatory, litigation and student matters.

Most recently before Counterculture, I worked for Thompsons, a leading social justice firm, specialising in claimant litigation. 

Why did you want to become a Law Society social mobility ambassador?

Law is incredibly competitive and one of the main barriers is, people look at it and can think, “I’m too far behind to break in” (in terms of age, cultural capital, education, contacts and so on).

I want to change the perception of entering and succeeding in the profession.

The legal sector is hugely diverse and the variety of opportunities and careers is vast. There is definitely a place for a much more diverse workforce.

I saw the ambassador position as an opportunity to work directly in this area and encourage more people to consider law as an accessible career.

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given regarding your career?

A tutor I had at university once told me “push every door” when considering new opportunities. “You never know where one might lead”, he said. And he was right.

I had a set idea in my head of where a career in law might lead, but the most important thing at a junior stage is to be open minded.

You really don’t know where opportunities can lead, so I would encourage people not to focus too much on one direction too early.

Some things take longer and take a more winding route – and that’s fine! It’s the journey that makes it!

Has your idea of success changed over time in your career?

I think because I didn’t go straight to university to study law, and straight into training, I have had to adapt and change what I saw as success at different stages.

My education and training was focused on “the next stage”, not a grand vision of where I would be in five or 10 years’ time.

I think the most important thing at an early stage is enjoying learning and training, being open to new opportunities and not rushing.

There is definitely an environment now of constant comparisons between students and junior colleagues which can be damaging. Focus on the positive impact you can have on others – that is success to me.

Do people have misconceptions about becoming a solicitor?

US TV shows don’t help! Obviously, people will have their own personal experiences but there is a misconception with students I meet that the legal world is all about big city firms and a training contract there is the be-all and end-all.

There is a real variety of training and qualification routes and it’s better to spend a bit of time learning about the industry and yourself before jumping in to one firm/environment.

It is certainly competitive and hard work is required to succeed – that isn’t a misconception!

What skills would you say are essential for the job?

Of course you need the traditional skills of diligence, attention to detail, hard work and an aptitude for solving problems.

However, for me, the most important thing is being able to listen and be a team player. You can have all the technical answers but the softer skills really do count.

I honed those real-world skills working in my mum’s bakery as a teenager or serving customers in my Saturday job at university.

I find it frustrating that so many students discount that crucial experience when applying because they feel it doesn’t fit with what a solicitor should be like.

Skills developed working in retail, fast food and newsagents are more relevant to working with challenging clients or difficult colleagues than a week in a firm’s work experience programme.

That hard work in my teens and early twenties is definitely paying off now.

Contact the ambassadors

If you want to ask an ambassador a question about their career or route into law, email using the address below and include their name in the subject line.

Email: ask an ambassador

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