Since 2012, I have tried to obtain a training placement to qualify as a lawyer. Initially this was with an open mind – barrister or solicitor. Then in 2014, I decided to do the Bar, which, despite having a cancer scare, a tonsillectomy, working ridiculous hours, and initially failing several exams by the narrowest of margins, I passed in 2015 with the highest grade in International Commercial Practice. However, I can still secure neither a pupillage nor a training contract. Instead, despite undertaking an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, a law conversion degree and the infamous Bar; numerous mini-pupillages and other legal work experience that ranges from writing wills to shadowing Lewisham Police terrorist squad, to assisting in an Election Petition; and working across a range of industries from legal software to haulage and hospitality, from an au pair in Spain to a horse riding instructor in America, I spend most of my days photocopying and ordering articles for others to read. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I may be assigned a ‘business development’ task, which sounds interesting but in reality just involves copying and pasting information into a spreadsheet. No thought required.
I suppose that not coming from an entitled background, I should be grateful for the opportunity my current role provides to ‘get a foot in the door’, but being a dogsbody in paralegal clothing is a façade that, along with my patience and self-worth, is wearing quite thin. Having to work throughout my academic career has meant that I have not had the luxury of time to spend carefully sculpting a-grade essays, as I’ve continually had to rush from class to serve coffee, dish up fish and chips, or whatever it may be, to fund my studies. But, several degrees later, I suppose I’ve done all right; I just hope the sacrifice in both time and money will, eventually, pay off.
What my situation has provided is a wealth of opportunities and experiences that I could never have imagined being exposed to; including working as a translator for the Miss World competition in Bali. Whilst studying the Bar, I worked for a hospitality temping agency, where I waitressed at a national rugby awards ceremony, a BBC News launch party, and at many a wedding. Bizarrely, I also worked at the launch of a new model of Lexus at a car garage in Roding Valley (‘Where’s that?’ I hear you ask. I had the response when I was sent there; it’s very East, apparently the least-used station on the entire Underground network and so far along the Central Line that there is not enough time to find out precisely where). The new car was not the only hybrid at this remote launch, which was an odd admixture of a catwalk snaking around the show room, in the middle of which, an impromptu makeup counter for the disinterested wives of key clients, and Will.I.Am’s stunt double hiding in a backroom eating Domino’s pizza.
The agency sent me to a range of other places, from Australia New Zealand Banking Group, to the Royal Institute of British Architects, Fortnum and Mason, and the Ham Yard Hotel, where I worked sometimes as a cloakroom attendant and others as a canapé waitress. I was also frequently scheduled to work at a certain law firm. Sidebar, this law firm used to be one of my clients when I worked for a legal software company, in between completing the GDL and commencing the Bar. During this role as a sales associate, I would primarily, despite the job description, spend most days compiling spreadsheets of law firms’ contact details and cold calling. However, sometimes, when my boss felt generous enough to involve me in client matters, I would attend meetings, including at this particular law firm, with a view to try to sell software.
I left this job and its okay salary to study the Bar and work part-time on minimum wage. Looking back, it was not the best way to live in London, especially having spent my life savings on the course. Finishing a shift at 2 am, having to cycle across town as you’re unable to pay for bills and public transport, and being up for 5 am to do pre-reading for class, attending class, and then going to work again until past midnight, is quite draining.
Anyway, whist studying the BPTC and working for the temp agency, I was sent to this particular law firm, where I helped to replenish meeting rooms, the ones I sometimes sat in, in a suit as a sales associate, with teas and coffees. Whilst wearing a borrowed nylon waistcoat and my own, but equally ill-fitting trousers and shirt, I would push a little trolley around floors 9 to 11, clearing away cups and cutlery, and providing refreshments. In this type of role, you are invisible and worthless to most individuals that you encounter. They do not appreciate eye contact, let alone conversation.
However, one day my sociable nature escaped; liberated itself; unable to be contained within or smothered by the unbreathable, black nylon borrowed waistcoat, and I started a conversation with an individual in one of the meeting rooms. He was an older man, with a friendly smile and a calm disposition that made me feel at ease, but more interesting for me he was standing over a long table laden with piles upon piles, of layers and layers of paper. I ask him what this was for and he obliged to acknowledge me and my question, and we got talking.
It turned out that he was the director of a football team who were in the process of trying to build a new stadium. The BPTC was rapidly drawing to a close; I had secured neither pupillage nor a full-time role to commence post-study, and was in desperate need of some relevant legal work experience to justify the contradictory, confused and costly year I had just spend studying the Bar, an institution of privilege, whilst living like a pauper. I am a keen football player and lover of sport in general, and have wanted for some time to be able to incorporate my passion for sport into my career. So, I seized the opportunity and just asked him, this random, seemingly quite important man, for a job. Why not?
After adding the man in the meeting room, room 10J to be precise, on LinkedIn and following up via email, I negotiated an interview with him and his co-director. Despite getting incredibly lost and arriving 40 minutes late to the interview and thinking that I had completely squandered this one-off opportunity, the interview seemed go quite well. In fact, the directors created a role for me on the stadium project, a scheme that had a gross development value of over £500m. It was a dream come true, working on a meaningful and significant project that interwove my passion for sport with interest and experience in law, in such an unparalleled and unimaginable way. I began working for the Club on a part-time basis until the BPTC finished – generally just attending meetings in central London. But once the course finished, I worked full-time. Literally, my final two essays were handed in on Friday and I was at work first thing Monday morning.
The experience was fantastic, providing exposure to an industry I knew very little about from a commercial perspective and a valuable insight into the logistics of a large infrastructure project with significant social value. But, the pay was not great. Living hand to mouth throughout the BPTC and having no savings, I could not afford to get the train to my new job. So, I cycled there – 13 miles each way. It was great; I got to see areas of London that I’d never properly experienced, as well as, and including, those that I’ll probably never be able to afford. An added bonus was that I could eat biscuits for breakfast everyday; all the sugar with none of the guilt.
Working for the Club, I returned to the law firm, minus the waistcoat – that had been restored to its rightful owner – as a client. It was so strange to go from, within the space of less than a week, clearing up soggy napkins, half-eaten dried figs and browning apple cores, to being a client – a person in one of those meeting rooms. I felt like an imposter of a professional, subtly (although not so inconspicuously) trying to mop up the coffee I repeatedly spilt in awkwardness and haste, whilst eating the fruit fresh from the bowl; rather than scavenging the slopping seconds from deserted meeting rooms.
I assisted the Club to prepare for the public inquiry into the compulsory purchase order of land for its proposed new stadium; in doing so, I attended meetings with architects, CPO specialists, conferences with counsel and the Council. However, the role was quite administrative and I decided to bring it an end after the Inquiry, as I felt it would become even more secretarial and I was in need of better pay and more legal experience. Out of nowhere, with no track record of this happening in my life ever, I got two job offers in one day. One, £17,000 to initially work drafting partnership agreements for medical practitioners, but was then changed to a litigation assistant for the same pay, and the other £32,000 to work as a legal editor on a new corporate intelligence service. The latter seemed as though it would look good on my CV and the prospect of a relatively decent salary sounded even better.
It was crap. I’m dyslexic and struggled so much with the role. I also worked alongside two Oxford first- (probably double-first)-in-law-and-masters-in-law-graduates, who were assumed better than me from the start and got the opportunities to prove their intelligence and reinforce a very conscious industry bias. I got stuck with removing commas and adding in hyperlinks, I would also review legislation scrapped from the internet and cross check every line with other service providers and amending legislation, to ensure that we had the most up-to-date version of the provision. It wasn’t fun, it didn’t allow me to grow or to utilise the skills I had learnt from academia or my wider industry exposure, in fact the experience completely shattered my self-confidence.
In search of new pastures, I somehow secured the job of my dreams. I speak several languages, am passionate about travelling, studied conflict, security and development as a masters, want desperately to qualify as a lawyer and would love the opportunity to be able to save for a house. I was head hunted for a role as a Human Rights Trainer to work with the US State Department for African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance. I would be teaching human rights to peacekeepers across Africa, firstly in Senegal, in French, and would be paid nearly $90,000. It was the dream. Literally.
However, for the second time ever in my life, I was also offered another job at the same time. This second was a paralegal role at the law firm previously mentioned, the one I sold software to, waitressed at and then was a client of. I had put down as a referee, the partner from the firm who I had worked with on the stadium project, and I think that he may have put in a good word for me. He is also incredibly supportive and encouraging, and I didn’t want to burn a bridge / cut this lifeline. When your career into law isn’t direct, easy or assumed, you have to build your own network of support and finding people who have an interest in your best interest are very hard to come by. Plus the HR department for the Senegal job were taking too long to finalise a statement of work and their lack of response made me nervous: would I, a relatively young woman with absolutely no survival or self-defence skills, feel comfortable being unable to contact my employer if alone and in trouble in a war-torn area? Absolutely not. It was this lack of communication that ultimately led me to choose the role at the law firm.
I needed a break from work, mundanely adding commas and hyperlinks had deleted much of my self-esteem. When you don’t fit a company’s house style and your colleagues are being given opportunities to excel in such an obvious and biased way, it is very hard not to take things personally and to doubt your own worth when others attribute no, or very little, value to you.
So, I took a month off. I went with my now ex-boyfriend to Cyprus, a place special to me as my family and I moved there when I was 16. At that time, I was not given the opportunity to continue my education, so had to get a job. I did not speak Greek, so my options for employment were limited and I ended up working 7 days per week, for £10 per day, as a waitress in an Italian Tex-Mex restaurant. Due to my age and inexperience, I was initially employed to just clear tables, but worked my way up the ranks, including ‘desert devil’ and eventually to host, when the owner’s wife went on maternity leave.
I had several other jobs whilst in Cyprus, including assisting at a nail salon and working in a cocktail bar, where I was given shots of sambuca on my first shift to help me settle in and had the choice to accept either cash or cocktails as tips from clients; and I also volunteered at a donkey sanctuary. The experience taught me the value of education and made me realise how little I had appreciated it growing up. So, after nearly a year in Cyprus, I decided to return to the UK to study. In between coming home and commencing A Levels, I backpacked across Australia for three months, staying in hostels along the east coast and volunteering on a farm picking olives. Once back in the UK, I got a job at McDonald’s.
When I returned to Cyprus for a holiday, it was 10 years since I’d left the country. It was so nice to go back and actually experience the country, rather than just exist there temporarily. After Cyprus round 2, I undertook a working holiday in Spain at a horse riding trekking company. This was incredible. Physically exhausting and emotionally replenishing, it enabled me to rebuild my self-confidence through reconnecting with my love of horses.
So, when I started as a paralegal at the law firm, I was refreshed and freshly tanned, ready to take on any challenge and show the firm that I am worthy to be a trainee. Since then, I have: volunteered to build a mud kitchen for disadvantaged children in woodland, joined the gender and diversity committee – attending a conference on women in law and regular meetings to prepare for International Women’s Week, become a member of the company choir and performed in competitions at Southwark Cathedral and St Clement Danes. I also play football for the firm’s team most weeks, and netball with increasing regularity and hockey whenever the opportunity arises. I am also a fire marshal and a member of the something-committee to improve catering and services – my dream, to secure better coffee in the office coffee machines.
I have tried to befriend all, be helpful and hardworking; but I doubt it’s enough and I’m fed up of treading water, justifying the tedious, thankless tasks, the hollow feeling of impotence, the lack of dignity and respect from my peers, (idiotically) living in hope that one day, I will qualify as a lawyer. I chose the profession because I wanted a career, I wanted to improve myself and my situation, to utilise my skills and ambition to be more than just someone who clears unwanted food from tables and refills half-empty condiment bottles. But, instead, this pursuit has just become a relentless hobby of endlessly applications.
As my academics do not shine with particular brightness, I have had to overcompensate for this deficit though collecting trinkets of different legal work experience to attract the shortsighted eyes of recruitment panel to my application. I’m tired of accepting administrative jobs at poor pay in the hope that they will lead to something better. I’m tired of the rejection, the endless endeavour of trying to prove and improve myself and my futile attempts to show that I am worthy, that I have value beyond just doing someone’s printing. Most of all, I tired of waiting for something good to come along. All of the amazing experiences that I have shared above, occurred to me because I made them happened. But in my quest for a career and the knockbacks the pursuit has given me, I have become too defeatist, resigning my fate and future to the whims of others. I have made myself the victim of a situation that was completely my choice to commence and remains my decision to endure.
June, I had already booked somewhere for my ex’s birthday, so I will keep that for myself and go (I gave him the option of having the tickets after we broke up, so I’m not completely heartless – just, 4 months on, still a bit heartbroken). I’m going to see how these few trips go and will book July 2017 to February 2018 later on, as who knows what the next few months may have in store.