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From Professor McGonagall to Ally McBeal: breaking into law after 20 years of teaching

20 September 2017

I have just completed the LPC. It is demanding and expensive, so not something to undertake on a whim. I was seeking change and challenge in my professional life and felt that law would provide me with both. The blend of academic rigour and the practical element of responding to clients' needs was particularly attractive to me.

My background is teaching English. I was Curriculum Leader of English at Tunbridge Wells Girls' Grammar School.

With two teenagers and a mortgage, I needed an income so I taught English during daylight hours and studied law in the evenings. I didn't do the GDL but took a longer route. I completed the LLM Qualifying Law Degree which is basically the LLB with a few extra more difficult bits at Birkbeck College, University of London. Even though I already had a BA Hons in English Literature (early 90s), I chose to do a full law degree (LLM) rather than the GDL as I hadn't completed any academic study for 20 years and wanted to test my brain. I took the LPC at University of Law, Moorgate.

My CV - stuffed full of teaching but devoid of legal experience - had been in no fit shape to attract sponsorship so I self-funded. Scholarships are available but I fulfilled none of the criteria. Having two postgraduate qualifications meant no help from the Student Loans Company.

Studying at Masters level dispelled any anxiety that my brain may have atrophied and gave me time to be certain that the change from teacher to solicitor was the right one. I reassured myself that the eye-watering financial outlay was a necessary but temporary situation. A training contract would be swiftly secured. How green!

After three years of burning the midnight oil, I handed in my notice and left teaching behind.

I assumed I could ping out a few work experience emails and the response would be: 'Of course! When would be convenient for you?' The deafening silence of my inbox was part of my dawning realisation that law is a whole new, very competitive, world.

Securing a training contract without legal work experience

No chance. Online application forms are designed for bright young things not mature students. In days of yore, degrees weren't modular so I had no results to input; A* grades didn't exist so my UCAS score came out wonky; there was no sensible space to detail two decades of professional experience, surely it was relevant?

Disillusionment and doubt set in. Is 'English teacher' lawyerly code for 'radical lefty poet'? Do I need to be related to a lawyer? Oh god, am I expected to sleep with a lawyer? I had been at the top of my game in teaching, ahead of the field. Never before had I experienced rejection. It was a shock.

Don't give up: keep running up that hill

At this point, dear reader, resilience is required (an adjective that adorns many an application form). If you are a career-changer, your CV may be outstanding in your current profession but now you need to present yourself to a different audience. Fresh eyes are required, lawyerly eyes. The verdict of the first lawyer that clapped eyes on what I thought was a pretty snappy CV? 'Dreadful!'. Ouch, the truth smarted but triggered a vital 'it's not them, it's me' epiphany.

Attending a Law Society event for mature students and career changers was a game-changer. The mysteries of the application process were unlocked. Twenty years scraping away in a classroom teaching Shakespeare to adolescents meant my commercial awareness was, at best, unconvincing. I received fantastic guidance and put it into practice immediately. The sage advice straight from the horses' mouths of the panel of lawyers surpassed any online research. Speed networking enabled me to sharpen my focus, find out where I might 'best fit'. I added firms to my list (and crossed some off), eyed up my competition and practised my patter.

Network, network, network!

I was new to this necessity - teachers don't network. I originate from NHS workers and horticulturalists. Building a legal network was harder than I anticipated.

If not work-experience, how about coffee? I grabbed a valuable half hour with the senior talent manager at a top city firm. Most firms do not offer 'ad hoc' work experience and select trainees exclusively from the pool of candidates that attend their vacation schemes. No vacation scheme for me; they fall in university holidays when I was still teaching. I let the firms know my predicament: could they offer me a day's work shadowing, perhaps? Could I still apply for a training contract without attending a vacation scheme? Awash with applications, they weren't prepared to be flexible.

I targeted smaller firms for work experience instead. Persistence paid off although it meant a grim three hour commute during the Christmas holidays. The lawyerly bones on my CV were beginning to flesh out. I no longer presented as someone embroiled in a self-indulgent flight of fancy having taught 'To Kill a Mockingbird' too often. Once I had some legal experience, doors to more legal experience opened, this time a boutique London firm.

Aced the law degree, bagged the work experience, can mature applicants get training contracts?

I battled through Watson Glazer tests (top tip: best not tackled after a searingly hot, relentless 10 hour day at work while still wearing a cycling helmet, with laptop on dangerously low charge, disturbed by hungry offspring in search of dinner), began to get called to interview, survived presentations, timed essays, assessment centre days. I progressed beyond the first round, second round then - joy! - was offered a training contract at a fantastic firm.

I have banished the hessian bags that used to overflow with marking to the dark recesses of the cupboard under the stairs and have purchased a lawyerly bag worthy of Ally McBeal to clutch as I enter a whole new world as trainee solicitor this September.

Need some help? Explore our Junior Lawyers' resources

Join the Junior Lawyers Division International Weekend welcome drinks hosted by the London Young Lawyers Group on 28 September, London 

Students sign up for the free morning or afternoon session on Wednesday 29 November at the London Law Fair 2017: Promoting access to a diverse legal profession in Chancery Lane

Sign up via email to hear about our next mature age student event on 21 March 2018

Tags: education and training

About the author

Amanda Jardine-Viner is a soon-to-be trainee solicitor with a broad service firm in Tunbridge Wells. Prior to this she taught at Tunbridge Wells Girls' Grammar School. She studied law (LLM QLD) at Birkbeck College, University of London and did the LPC and MSc in Law and Business at University of Law, Moorgate.

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