Legal careers: zoom in on your area of expertise

Whether you are interested in media law or helping the homeless, specialising is the key to success, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

If there's one overriding trend in law circles at the moment, it's specialisation, says Isobel Rowley, spokesperson for the Law Society. "I'm not saying the days of high street solicitors are limited but as a whole, law is becoming much more specialised. The need for solicitors to become an expert in a particular area is therefore growing."

Chris Hammond, 27, an assistant solicitor at the specialist media law firm Wiggin, believes that focusing on one area makes for a much more interesting job. "I'm sure everyone would agree that law has some dull areas, so concentrating on one area that is fascinating to you is inevitably rewarding. For me, I wanted something edgy, and media is dynamic and fast-paced and constantly changes with technology."

Like all solicitors, Hammond had to do the legal practice course (LPC), following his law degree. "It's tough, especially the first semester - with topics ranging from civil litigation to property. There's a large volume of work in a one-year course. But this is no bad thing because that's what it's like in the real world.

The next step is the two-year training contract. While there are over 5,000 available every year, competition is intense, particularly when you consider that in 2005-6 there were 7,445 full-time and 1,726 part-time enrolments for the LPC course. Hammond applied for his training contract when he was finishing his degree. "It pays to do that because if you obtain one before the LPC, you can often get the firm to pay. I even got a maintenance grant."

Training contracts consist of working in four six-month "seats". In Hammond's case, he spent the first one in broadcasting, followed by one in corporate. "The third was a secondment to one of our main clients in the music business. It gave me a brilliant insight into the industry and I even got to help co-ordinate and attend the Brits awards. I spent my final seat in employment, where I'm still working. The kinds of things I'll get involved in are the legal status in terms of employment of actors and production staff on a film."

Also a specialist lawyer, Vaughan Gething, 32, works for Thompsons Solicitors, the UK's largest personal injury law firm. "I've always liked the idea of advocacy, which is why I did a law degree and LPC. But when I was a teenager, I also became very politically active, so I wanted a career that would combine both interests."

Having taken a special interest in labour movement politics, he got to know the trade unions. "I met the Thompsons staff at a trade union event and one summer, they offered me a training contract. I'm now the team leader for the employment team in Cardiff, and have a case load primarily consisting of discrimination cases."

His advice to securing a training contract is to get as much experience as possible - either through work placements or by helping out at a legal advice centre. Even better, get paralegal work experience. From around 2008 or 2009, this kind of experience - provided you get enough of it - will even be accepted by the Law Society as an alternative training route to becoming a solicitor, eradicating the need for a training contract altogether.

Gething says his work is very rewarding. "If you feel you've been unfairly dismissed, that's often a life turning event and providing some sort of remedy is satisfying. The counter balance is having to tell someone who feels devastated that you don't think they'll win, but better to hear it from someone who's on their side than when they've invested a lot in a case."

Like many employers of specialist solicitors, Thompsons looks for a commitment to their particular area of law. "We want people who have a political interest and are very pro-union," says Joanna Stevens, HR partner.

Good news for wannabe lawyers who have not studied a law degree is that employers are increasingly flexible. A quarter of newly admitted solicitors are now non-law graduates. While it means you extend your period of training for an extra year because you have to do a one-year conversion course, the Law Society reports that a lot of law firms are picking up students outside law departments on the milk round. Tony Swift, partner at Barnetts Solicitors, says, "We actually prefer having a diverse set of solicitors."

Diana Jones, a 25-year-old solicitor at Wragge & Co, adds that her employer funded her law training after she'd studied a degree in history, and they also allowed her to go travelling for six months prior to starting work. "In fact, they encouraged it," she says.

Whether specialist or not, lawyers fall into two main categories - commercial and non-commercial. Non-commercial solicitors provide a broad range of legal support and advice to clients, individuals and small businesses. They take instructions and advise on necessary courses of legal action.

Practices vary considerably in the type of work they undertake, depending on their size and the market they serve. Some are referred to as "high street firms" as they tend to deal with the needs of the local community and offer a wide range of services. Services offered may relate to buying and selling property, landlord and tenant agreements, wills and probate, litigation, and matrimony. Non-commercial solicitors may also be involved in legal aid work, although Kathy Pinney, a family lawyer for Boodle Hatfield, cautions, "I loved working in legal aid, but the changes to the system have meant an end to a lot of that work."

Fiona Martin of Martin Searle solicitors insists it is still very rewarding. "We work with some of the most vulnerable people in the community, such as homeless people with drug and alcohol related problems and that's very worthwhile. But you do need to be a certain kind of person for that so we actually do a values match at the interview stage."

A commercial solicitor, on the other hand, acts for businesses of all sizes. Caseloads can range from general company/commercial work (such as advising small start-up businesses) to large complex corporate transactions (such as mergers and acquisitions). They advise on specific areas of law and represent clients where there is a business-related dispute.

Most commercial solicitors work in particular areas of law, such as property, tax, employment, finance, intellectual property or competition law - and generally, they work as part of a team on highly complex cases.

Becoming a commercial solicitor is no mean feat. Beverley Whittaker, partner in charge of trainee recruitment at Stevens & Bolton, advises people to be really sure it's the career path for them. "You do interview people who are very bright, but you get the impression that they would be just as content being an accountant or optician. I am looking for someone who is really hungry. After all, if you're not enthusiastic at 22, you'll have run out of steam by your forties."

For the "magic circle" firms - the most highly rated of all the commercial firms - you definitely need an edge, says Nicola Byam-Cook, recruitment consultant at Law Professionals. "These firms receive tends of thousands of applications for about 60 trainee places a year. You'll need to be confident, willing to work long hours, mature and a nice person to be around - as well as all the usual things that any firm would expect like a high level of intellect and a logical thinker."

Despite this appeal, Philip Sanderson, partner at Travers Smith, says that firms like his that fall into the "silver circle" can be more attractive to people who want a better work/life balance. "If you leave a magic circle firm to work for another, there's always the question of whether you'll be missed. Those firms are so huge."

Lindsay Lewis, 24, a solicitor at Eversheds, believes young people should look for a company whose values match theirs. "One of the main things I liked about the firm is that it's sociable and everyone's really friendly." There's also the option of working as a lawyer for a non-law firm, as Michael Herron, legal counsel at the private banking and asset management company Brown Shipley & Co, explains. "I like having the closeness to the client and the variety of the work."

Indeed, despite the move towards specialisms, Herron values the variety of his case load. "It keeps me more occupied."

'The contact with people that family law involves appealed to me'

Lucie Alhadeff, 32, is a solicitor at the law firm Withers in London.

I don't have a law degree. When I went to a university open day, a law lecturer saw that I was pretty passionate about history and Spanish and he said it would be better for me to get a really good degree in that and then go for a career in law if I was still up for it. It was very good advice.

Like anyone without a law degree, I had to do the one-year conversion course, which was quite intense. Then l had to do the one-year legal practice course, before the most difficult bit of all - finding a training contract. I remember when I went for the interview, the receptionist told me that 900 people had applied. I wanted to go home at that point. But I'd got a lot of experience, so I think I interviewed well.

Law attracted me as a career because the work is so stimulating and varied and I liked the idea of family law because I didn't want to be stuck in a dusty room. The contact with people that family law involves also appealed to me. A day never goes by in this job without speaking to a client.

'There is undoubtedly some kudos to working as a partner in a law firm'

Joel Heap, 31, is the youngest partner at the law firm Cobbetts in Manchester. He was recently awarded Young Lawyer of the Year in the North-west.

There are six partners working in the commercial litigation team - which basically focuses on anything to do with companies falling out with each other. Usually, one company owes the other money or there are claims that something the other company was obliged to do wasn't done properly.

I specialise in corporate litigation - for example, people falling out over share transactions or disputes around company law.

I started out wanting to be a corporate finance lawyer. But in my training contract, I was placed in this team and soon realised it was absolutely me.

There is undoubtedly some kudos attached to working as a partner in a recognised law firm, which is nice to have. It's a label of recognition for the effort and hard work you've put in. Other attractions of the job are that I like winning.

The way I came into law was via a law degree, then law school. I was a paralegal for a while and then I started my training contract here.

Now, I'm responsible for others doing their training contracts as part of my role. I'm what's known as a training supervisor, which means I show them six months of experience in litigation.

There can be long hours when you work in law. But I think the balance is by and large right, and you have to remember that we get paid very well.

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